Restaurant kitchens are famously hidebound, authoritarian institutions, which function, even in this egalitarian era, like medieval guilds. Within this strict hierarchical framework, there are masters and there are apprentices, and an apprentice’s work can go on forever. Witness the impressive résumé of Alex Ureña, who took his first job in restaurants washing dishes at the River Café at the age of 16. After working his way up through a series of menial and ever-more-demanding jobs, he caught the eye of David Bouley. He spent nearly a decade at the famous chef’s eponymous restaurant, eventually running the kitchen. He did the same at Blue Hill, which, along with Dan Barber, he helped open. For a brief time, Ureña was the executive chef at Marseille, in midtown, and, more recently, he spent several months dabbling in the experimental cooking techniques developed by the mad-scientist Spanish chef Ferran Adrià at his famous restaurant El Bulli. Ureña has done it all, in other words, with the exception of one thing. Until now, he has never had a restaurant to call his own.
But in the unforgiving world of upscale dining, the leap from mastering kitchen technique to running a first-rate restaurant is more difficult than it may appear. This is apparent almost as soon as you walk into Ureña, which opened more than a month ago on a bleak stretch of 28th Street between Park and Madison. You enter through an archway of seemingly random, unadorned glass into a long room (it last housed a pizza parlor) that looks as if it had been decorated on the fly by contestants in some modestly budgeted restaurant-start-up reality show. The lighting is too bright and tinges the room and everything in it with a flat, fluorescent whiteness. The color scheme (yellowy stucco walls, coffee-colored banquettes, a khaki carpet with swirling crescents) borders on the dreary. The bar area is too close to the entrance, which results in a kind of rugby scrum as people peel off their winter coats, and the bar itself is flanked with a kind of faux-baronial high-backed bar stools one of my guests swore he’d seen on sale recently at Costco.
Ureña is billed as a Spanish restaurant (the chef is Dominican), but except for the elaborately Spanish names of the dishes and a few rogue ingredients like chorizo and serrano ham, there’s nothing particularly Spanish about it. Not that this matters very much. Despite his numerous overseas sabbaticals, Ureña is an accomplished New York chef cooking for a New York audience, and if you manage to keep your attention focused firmly on the plate, his food is, in the words of my discerning wife, “really yummy.” It’s yummy in a familiar way, however. Like his mentor David Bouley, Ureña has a fondness for softly poached entrées matched with rich purées (parsnips with scallops, artichokes with chicken, a delicious cashew-nut purée with lamb), and inventive, preciously creamy sauces. If you close your eyes, in fact, most of the food at Ureña tastes like Bouley circa 1998. And random streaks of foam appear here and there, à la Adrià. Clearly, Ureña has learned his lessons well; whether he has moved on to create his own unique culinary style is another question.
The first dish we sampled was a nice row of oysters, marinated in the escabèche style and served with a brunoise of minutely diced vegetables and an elegantly gourmet gelée made from oyster juice. Another starter of smoked tuna and shrimp was also pretty good (it’s speckled with capers and spritzed with lemon juice), and if you like foie gras, it’s presented here with a crunchy bite of praline, candied kumquats, and a dainty thimbleful of foie gras–flavored yogurt spiced with yellow currants. Among the appetizers, my personal favorite was the very un-Spanish rabbit confit, soaked in chicken stock and mixed with shiitake mushrooms. If you can’t abide rabbit, there are strips of poached skate sitting in a slightly wan bubble-bath emulsion of Meyer lemons, a pair of scallops (topped with caviar, with parsnip purée), and segments of indistinct, slightly mealy apple wrapped in serrano ham and dripped with a cold, spicy sauce made with chorizo.
The entrées at Ureña are less scattershot and much more assured, albeit, again, in an intricately gourmet, Bouley kind of way. The lobster isn’t served spiky in its shell, or grilled in the traditional Spanish manner, but delicately steamed, and is garnished with pickled rhubarb and a sweet vanilla purée. My order of mahi mahi was also poached (and covered with a luxurious crème fraîche sauce dotted with bits of caviar), and the excellent halibut is blanketed with bread crumbs mingling in a pleasing way with a smooth mixture of sweet onions, zucchini, and saffron broth. The excellent pork belly is spoon-soft, crispy on top, and painted with a Granny Smith apple purée, and the duck breast is seared, cut in pink medallions, and flavored with apricots. A superior version of squab appears occasionally on the menu as a special (it was cut in crisp slices and piled over salsify and corn the evening I tried it), and Ureña’s chicken (“Pollo en dos Texturas” on the menu) is carefully de-boned, stacked over bits of smoked chorizo, and wreathed in a foam spiked with more foie gras.
The restaurant’s haphazard ambience doesn’t obliterate the pleasures of this generally well-cooked food, but when you’re someone like Mr. Ureña, who aspires to gourmet greatness, it certainly doesn’t help. The best restaurants convey a sense of excellence in every detail, and if one element is off (the lighting, say, or the bar stools, or the brittle, weirdly shiny menu paper), everything else can feel off, too.
Not that there’s much wrong with Caryn Stabinsky’s desserts, however. A veteran of the inventive downtown establishment WD-50, Stabinsky serves up inventive ice creams flavored with almond or fennel, sugary doughnuts streaked with cappuccino foam, and oddly tasty wheels of purple panna cotta infused with beets. If you’re wondering how such spare, even cutting-edge, dishes cohere with the chef’s more lush, traditionalist style, the answer is that they don’t really. But then, Ureña is a work in progress, and as even the most accomplished master’s apprentice knows, it takes time to get everything right.
Address: 37 E. 28th St., nr. Park Ave. S.; 212-213-2328
Hours: Dinner, Monday to Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $10 to $15; entrées, $22 to $28. Seven-course tasting menu, $75.
Ideal Meal: Rabbit confit, halibut or pork belly, doughnuts.
Note: The restaurant bakes its own very good bread with an excellent piquillo mojo sauce for dipping.
Scratchpad: The décor is off key, and the menu could be more distinctive. But the cooking is gourmet-quality, and it’s refreshing, in this day of menu inflation, not to have to pay $30 for any of the entrées.