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Pamplona - long

We chowhounds love to walk by a crowded, generic brunch spot in Murray Hill or a hacked-up fish ice cold sushi joint and scoff knowingly in our heads, confident of the fact that we work very hard to not ever be at risk of having a maddeningly terrible dining experience in Manhattan. At the very least, we like to think that, with some degree of diligent preliminary research, we'd know what item on the menu would be least objectionable were we forced to eat at such a place. At least I am. I'm resolute in my conviction that it is nothing short of tragic to waste money and time on a bad meal in one of the greatest food cities on the planet.

I love food and cooking and eating out so much that the most salient emotion during and after a bad meal is frustration over missing a better meal somewhere else. There is simply no reason to dine somewhere where your biggest compliment after sweating through the 6-12 hours following the end of your meal is that you didn't fall ill....

It was with great caution and research that I suggested Pamplona as the location for a much-rescheduled meal with another couple. Alex Urena's food at Urena (the previous iteration of the space that now is Pamplona) was almost uniformly praised even while inept service and an oddly conceived room were widely criticized.

We headed out, eager to taste the unquestionably talented Mr. Urena's take on tapas. However, what was advertised as a "refashioning" of Urena into a more casual space felt to be in reality a last-gasp attempt to save a restaurant doomed from the beginning and a shameless crack at exploiting the success of places like Boqueria, Tia Pol, and Casa Mono. We were excited to see Mr. Urena in the dining room. In fact, he placed some warm (and woefully limpid and greasy) orange popcorn in front of us at the bar while we were waiting for everyone in our party to arrive.

While hounds whose opinions I find similar to my own had written great things about the food at Pamplona, many had warned about scattershot service. Service was fine -- except for one incident, to be mentioned later.

We were warmly welcomed as we arrived early for our reservation and we sat at the clean, open front bar area for a glass of wine. Taking a look around the dining room, it seemed there had been an effort to make the room more sleek and to make a move away from bright pastels towards dark, leathery earth tones. Back at the bar, the bartender, unfortunately, poured wines ordered by the glass without offering tastes beforehand. We started with 6 Blue Point oysters. These were fresh and otherwise unremarkable. Served with a traditional mignonette sauce, they were indistinguishable I'm sure from the bivalves being shucked around the corner at Les Halles.

Once seated, we ordered the following:
Bacalao fritters
Cheese Bunuelos
Cuttlefish salad
Cured Tuna
Truffle Oil Poached Egg with Asparagus
Serrano Ham

The bacalao fritters and the cheese balls arrived at the same time. Emblematic of a trend that would play out throughout the meal, the two dishes were visually indistinguishable: anointed with a tasteless aioli and an aggressive squirting of basil oil.
The fritters and cheese balls were the same golden color and immersed in identical green and orange murk.

The bacalao was shaped like fat little fingers of fish. In this unfortunate shape and with their lukewarm, overly fishy flavor, they invoked the esteemed fishermen of Gorton's rather than the click clack of bulls' hooves on twisty medieval streets. Our dining companion offered an astute observation upon biting into a tepid cheese ball -- he called it "amusement park" caliber. I agreed, as the flavor screamed out "cheese!!!!" over the muffled, plaintive cries of any other ingredients that may have made it through the cooking process.

During our fish stick amuse, the table next to us was brought the poached egg dish instead of the shrimp and rice they had ordered. The runner turned and brought the dish back into the kitchen. Fear not, food conservationists, as he turned right around and brought that dish to our table, placing it on the table to the amusement of our neighbors who had just rejected that very dish.

The egg, poached long before service and with as much white truffle flavor as the phrase "white truffle flavor", was a totally non-integrated dish. None of the elements on the plate worked in concert and the flavor was unidimensional and in desperate need of an acidic counterpoint to the richness of the egg. Moreover, this dish was also orange and green (aioli and basil oil apparently being thrown on every plate leaving the kitchen).

The next orange and green dish to arrive was the cuttlefish salad. After one bite, I held up the plate for a server and sent it back. It was extremely fishy and funky, even for cuttlefish.

In the meantime, the cured tuna with sopresada aioli arrived. This was tasty in the way that every other fresh cured tuna dish across the city is tasty. Had it been a few degrees warmer than ice cold it probably would have been even better. In fact, our serrano ham would also have risen above "acceptable" were it not inexplicably showered with, you guessed it, basil oil. Isn't one of the central ideas behind tapas to allow simple, excellent ingredients to shine without adorning them with too many fussy distractions? Shouldn't cured meat be up there with oysters as an ingredient you want to do as little as possible to and let speak for itself?

The meal culminated in the paella, priced at $30 and in the "to share" category of the menu. At first glance, it was enough for four. If only it was edible. Lukewarm and oily, and marred with an intensely unappetizing low-tide putrescence, the rice was studded with raw (really raw - translucent and blue) shrimp. We sent it back wordlessly and asked for the check. The solicitous and gracious maitre d' removed it from the check amidst a fanfare of apologies and token offers of dessert and champagne. I did not feel like toasting the meal and we paid and left.

The best thing about our meal at Pamplona? The shack burgers and snickers concretes we enjoyed afterwards. Thankfully, Shake Shack had just run out of basil oil for the night.

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  1. Thanks for your excellent (sadly not excellent!) report. I keep suggesting to my husband that we try it out, but no more.

    1. I must say that I am truly shocked to read this devastatingly negative review of Pamplona because it bears absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to the experience we had. I wrote about it on another thread, so I won't reiterate it entirely here. Suffice it to say the two tapas we had were very tasty (Give me more of those eggplant meatballs!), our mains -- fish and seafood -- were excellent with not a hint of fishy or funky, and our dessert was seriously delicious. (I dream of those churros and chocolate sauce!)

      My description of our meal is on this thread: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/441036

      3 Replies
      1. re: RGR

        RGR - your positive review was actually an inducement to check out Pamplona. Unfortunately, the restaurant was not performing well last night.

        1. re: millefeuille


          Obviously, I only give positive recommendations when that is my experience, so I am awfully sorry yours turned out so dismally. It doesn't appear to be a question of one person liking a style of cuisine vs someone who did not, i.e., the "chacun a son gout" thing. It sounds more like lack of stellar ingredients coupled with very poor execution. Since I believe Alex is a very talented chef who wants to make Pamplona the success Urena was not, I can't in any way account for what happened to you.

          1. re: RGR

            I echo the same sentiments. The paella I ate there was outstanding.

      2. Thank you for your thorough review.

        As curious as I am about this place as I walk by it almost every day on my way home from work, your review, together with other negative comments from officemates who work in the vicinity, has strengthened my will on not to try this place.

        1. I went to Pamplona tonight and was very disappointed. First, service was terrible. Waited at least 15 minutes to get any attention from a waiter even though there were about 8 people walking up and down the tiny dining room. Second, food was very low quality. We had 3 tapas and paella. Tuna was inedible--it was chewy, which I've never experienced. An obviously bad quality piece of fish that should not have been served, let alone raw. Salt cod croquettes tasted like your ordinary freezer fish sticks. Only dates in bacon were OK, although bacon could have been crispier. The paella was also disappointing. The rice was well-cooked, which is the only positive. Chorizo tasted like deli salami, shrimp tasted frozen and fishy, there were no mussels (which were advertised), and my fiance found 2 bones (including a spine vertabra from the rabbit) in his portion. We did not finish. This was one of my worst NYC dining experience, and I will not be back, despite the reasonable prices. I also found the dining room disjointed and tacky--especially that hotel carpet.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Lucia


            Following on the heels of millefeuille's bad experience, your report is truly distressing. We've not been back since our initial visit, but this has me wondering what exactly is going on there. Did you say anything to any of the staff about the bad tuna, the fishy shrimp, and the missing mussels?

            1. re: RGR

              I didn't complain to staff. I didn't want anything to be rectified, I just wanted to leave as soon as possible!
              I did see that Alex Urena was in house--he came to say hi to a table near us. The restaurant wasn't particularly busy, either. So I can't really account for the lack of quality control.

          2. I was part of a group of 4 who visited Pamplona on Saturday night. I've seen stronly positive and strongly negative reviews of this place. We come down somewhere in the middle. In short, we thought it was all fine but few things were really memorable .

            The room was quite nice. The lighting was soft and pleasant and the seating was comfortable. The service was very attentive and pleasant - a major plus.

            On to the food. We had -

            Tapas - chickpea fries, cod croquets, the meatballs, the bacon wrapped dates, and the bocadillo de jamon.

            The bacon wrapped dates were truly good - we should have ordered more of them. The rest were a solid OK but this was all stuff that could have been served anywhere.

            Mains - Paella, the hamburguesa, and the slow cooked chicken.

            Lets start at the top. The burger was very good indeed. The blend of beef and pork lent a great mouth feel to the dish and the barest touch of chorizo gave it an added kick.

            The slow cooked chicken could be circum-speak for sous vide. Certainly I've never had chicken that tasted this way - it was almost silky on the tongue, the texture smoother than any chicken I've ever had. That said, I found the dish more technically interesting than truly satisfying. The accompanying chard was fantastic - forkfuls were passed around the table and it was a unanimous winner.

            The paella was supposed to contain rabbit, chorizo, mussels, and shrimp. A smattering of shrimp put in an appearance but the rest were MIA.

            FWIW, the crowd was a mix of ages ranging from the mid 20s through the mid 60s. We arrived at 7:30 and left about 2 hours later. Only 1 table was unfilled while we were there. People now seem to have figured out how to find the restaurant.

            An additional point. In an earlier review (here or in print - I can't remember which one) they mentioned that the wine prices started in the $20s. On Saturday I noticed that the lowest priced bottle of red was $40. Our bottle was $44 or $48 which all would have been well and good but the wine wasn't particularly distinctive. My girlfriend and I both thought that we'd had plenty of bottles priced $10 - $15 less that we liked better. They need to take a walk over to Otto and look at an example of a well chosen wine list that pleases at all price levels.

            The consensus around the table was that we'd return if we needed a restaurant in the neighborhood but the ratio of hits to also-rans would keep us from making it a destination.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Bob Martinez

              People who I know and trust have told me that there are indeed some sub $40 bottles at Pamplona. I'll have to peek at the menu the next time I'm in the neighborhood and report back.

              1. re: Bob Martinez

                My wife and I were with Bob M. Here's the problem as I see it. You have a friendly place with a good price point and a very good chef in the kitchen. But nothing says "come back often... make this a regular rotation place". It's all fine but I wont be telling folks to run there. Too uneven and strange.

                Case in point: the paella is a mystery to me. It's listed in the "to be shared" section and is $30. The dish isnt overly large, but it is filling. The shrimp made a very fresh tasty appearence but, as Bob M. said, the rabbit was a rumor. Maybe more like "a rabbit passed this way when I was cooking". Two mussels apiece (shelled), no chorizo (but clear chorizo taste in the dish). No visual presence, it comes off as a shared rice dish... but, at $30, you better appreciate the bomba rice and the cooking skill. Of course, others I know and respect (like Wilfrid) have had the opposite experience with it. So I wonder.

                The tapas were, indeed, underpriced and they will go under if they dont do something about this. No need to do apps. if you're splitting tapas and 5 tapas dishes set us back only $30 (4 people). The dates should be 4 pieces instead of 3 and they should go at $8 or so, not $5. As I said, the paella was listed as "to share" so the 3 entrees the 4 of us ordered averaged only $15-17pp. No way to keep this place afloat on that.

                The drinking was funny (strange funny, not haha funny) too. Ginny and I were at the bar before we met up with Bob and Deb. I had a $10 blood orange marg. that was very good and she had a large pour of $8 old vine red (cant remember details) which was also quite good. Served with chorizo popcorn, this was way underpriced by even Brooklyn standards. At Tempo or Applewood, I'd be paying $25, not $18. Then, at the table, a bottle of (different) old vine wine was in the $40s, wasnt anywhere near as good as her glass and was served chilled. These bottles were overpriced. Are they just asking for people to order by the glass and lose $$ or what?

                Get them a person knowledgable in the business to consult and they'll do fine. Stay like this and it's already on my death watch list. Which is too bad.

              2. I really have to disagree with those putting down Pamplona. I went the other day and while somewhat hesitant based on some reviews I found the odds in Pamplona's favor. Great chef, a nice menu, smallish/intimate space, and not overpriced. I ordered strictly off the Tapas menu and found myself full after sharing around 6-7 dishes and a dessert. I found some dishes better than others; for instance the dates wrapped in bacon were addictive, but the meatballs could have used something in terms of seasoning. However, I never had anything blatantly bland. Of the 7-8 total dishes I ordered I would have changed 1-2 of my decisions and was happy with everything else. The cheese fritters, the shrimp and chorizo skewers, dates wrapped in bacon, braised rabbit and churros were all good to excellent. The only subpar dishes were the cured tuna and the meatballs, but it was nothing to ruin my meal.

                This may not have been the most authentic tapas meal, now was it the cheapest, but in no way did it not represent tapas in some form that brought me back to my days in barcelona and it most definitely did not break the bank. When stacking it up against some of my other favorite tapas joints: Tia Pol, Beast in Brooklyn, Oliva and others around the country I thought it fell somewhere in the upper-middle range.

                For those who have had a poor experience I've noticed many have come at the hands of main courses and I would strongly suggest focusing on the small plates for perhaps a better experience. The servers were not on point all night, but they were helpful and when we asked if we could order in waves to avoid overcrowding of the table there was no hesitation on their part.

                It's not excellent, but it is certainly not terrible nor should you leave hungry (in my opinion that is your own fault in some cases)