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CLOSED: Dinner at Pamplona, 1/24/08

For all of you Lunch Belle regulars, hearing me mention my favorite website, chow.com, is nothing new. This online foodie community has literally changed my life! One of the best things that have come from chow.com is a new friendship that I've cultivated with a fellow blogger named Dana. As fate would have it, Dana and I found out that her mother and my aunt are best friends! What a small world it is, indeed! After discovering this fact, we decided to meet face to face for dinner on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. Dana picked a restaurant that neither of us had tried, but one that is frequently discussed on the Manhattan board of chow.com. Pamplona is chef Alex Urena's revamped version of his original, Urena. Coincidentally, Pamplona is housed where Urena once was.

So here's a typical problem I run in to when making plans to meet friends out on weeknights: On a normal day, I'm off of work around 5:30 p.m. If dinner isn't until 7:30 or 8 p.m., what am I going to do with myself 'til then? Depending upon the area and the weather, I can: window shop, plop down on a park bench and read, return phone calls and texts, etc. But what if both the neighborhood and weather suck? Then what? This was the predicament that I faced last night. The air was bitter and the wind was fierce and I was surrounded by industrial buildings and corporations. I'm not saying that the Gramercy/Flatiron neighborhood is a dump, but I am saying that there wasn't much to do within a five block radius in every direction from where I was standing. Out of desperation, I grabbed my mobile and phoned home, "Hi mom, will I look like a total loser/alcoholic if I go have a drink or three by myself? I'm not meeting my friend at the restaurant until 7:30 p.m., and it's only 6:15 p.m." After getting my much-needed validation, I marched myself over to Dos Caminos Park and downed two delicious prickly-pear/passion fruit margaritas. Nearly forty-five minutes and $30.00 later, I headed towards Pamplona.
I arrived at Pamplona about fifteen minutes shy of 7:30, and Dana was about ten to fifteen behind me. I was greeted by two friendly hosts and relayed to them that I was the first of my party to arrive. My watch said 7:11 p.m., and my mind said "mojito!" I grabbed a stool at the bar, and was promptly given a drink menu. The first cocktail that struck my fancy was the passion-fruit mojito, and the bartender confirmed that I had in fact made a great choice. While waiting for my beverage, I was able to take in Pamplona's atmosphere and interior design. When Pamplona was formerly called Urena, Frank Bruni, the famous NY Times food critic was quoted as saying, "Ureña fills me with apprehension — and, obviously, decorating tips — because it's the ugliest restaurant with great food that I know, a toad-faced prince..." I wasn't fortunate enough to have eaten at the late Urena, but I think it's safe to say that some interior sprucing-up had to have been done during the Urena to Pamplona transition. The space was long and narrow, similar to a railroad car. However, the atmosphere was warm and intimate and decorated in a very minimalist fashion. The Spanish background music was soft and festive and the lighting was the perfect balance of just enough to clearly view the menu, but dim enough to relax and unwind.

Simultaneously, I received my passion-fruit mojito and a small bowl of bar popcorn dusted with chorizo seasoning. Had I'd been just a bit more coherent, I would have asked the bar tender to explain the chorizo-seasoning to me in more detail, but nonetheless, it was delicious. Imagine your everyday bowl of buttered popcorn...now try to envision the kernels dusted with a generous paprika-colored powder that evoked a smoky, somewhat spicy, and slightly gamey essence. Sounds interesting, right?
Not a couple of sips in to my strong and tart passion-fruit mojito, Dana arrived. We excitedly greeted eachother and were led to our table. Dana and I had so much to talk about and catch up on, not to mention gossip about some of our favorite fellow chow.com bloggers! But, first things first, and after we received our menus, we had to decide on which plates to order. After perusing and going back and forth for a while, we decided on the following dishes: Buneulos de Queso, Montado de Garbanzo y Gindillas, Albondigas, Hamburguesa and the special rabbit preparation.
The Bunuelos and Montado arrived first, followed by the Albondigas. Each plate was creatively presented and very artistically pleasing to the eye. Dana and I took samples from each of the three dishes and added them to our small "tapas" plates. For those of you familiar with Indian cuisine, the Bunuelo looked identical to a piece of gulab jamun (a famous Indian dessert that looks like a golden ping-pong ball). The exterior fried crust was light and slightly crisp, giving way to a pungent liquidy cheese interior. Personally, I thought that the Iberico and Manchego cheese combination was a bit too strong, but overall, the execution was good.
I was excited to try our next dish, the Montado de Garbanzo y Gindillas, because this loosely translated to "chickpea French fries." The plate arrived with three perfectly aligned Montado de Garbanzo's which looked like mini golden rubix cubes. The exterior crust of the fries was similar to that 0f the Bunuelo, however the interior o f this dish was much more subtle, dense and creamy (because chickpeas don't have a very intense flavor) instead of being overpoweringly pungent . Dana and I loved this dish so much, we ordered another!
Next, we tried the Albondigas, which means "meatball" in English. Three golf-ball sized meatballs came swimming in a shallow tomato sauce and were finished with a dollop of cream. These protein-packed morsels were tender and perfectly cooked, but the dish reminded me more of something to be ordered at an Italian restaurant, maybe not at a Spanish one. Perhaps it was the marinara-like tomato sauce and what tasted like ricotta cheese?
Fifteen minutes later, our entrees arrived. Before this evening, I'd never had rabbit in my life, and from what I'd heard, it was an easy meat to mess up if not cooked by someone who knew what they were doing. I was hesitant prior to taking my first bite, but was pleasantly surprised at how rich and tender the meat was. I couldn't tell you all of the ingredients incorporated in the entree, but I do remember shredded rabbit meat with vegetables that almost looked like a chicken salad mold. (Please note that by this point, I was nearly three-sheets-to-the-wind) The dish was served slightly chilled.
Another favorite of this meal was the Hamburguesa (hamburger). The patty was made with three different meats: beef, chorizo and suckling pig. The burger was sandwiched on a dense, buttery brioche bun and served with homemade French fries and mayonnaise. The trinity of the meats created an incredibly tender, rich and spicy flavor combination unlike anything I've ever tasted.
After our dinner plates had been cleared, Dana and I each ordered a coffee and two desserts: churros with hot dipping chocolate and an apple tart. Both sweets were fantastic, but the churros are what really stood out. The long and skinny fried pieces of dough were rolled in cinnamon and sugar and served with an espresso-sized cup filled with warm molten chocolate. Truly, one of the best desserts I've had in New York.
What a special night it was; finally getting to meet my foodie soulmate, Dana, in person and getting to share our love of all things edible over dinner at a wonderful restaurant! Once again, thank you, chow.com!

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