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:
Truffle Oil Poached Egg with Asparagus
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.