The sleek interior of Ureña is decked out in black patent leather booths, a matching black lacquered ceiling, and thin, bulbous lamps that dangle down like a chic update on the bare lightbulbs of a bachelor pad. Soothing house music plays, one song blending seamlessly into the next, and conversations are held in low, relaxed tones. The overall effect is meticulously casual, the sort of place where you don’t know whether to wear heels or sneakers, a blazer or a hoodie.
Much like its atmosphere, Ureña’s cuisine is chic, but never over the top. Chef Sébastien Fouillade, longtime Argentine resident who is originally from Bordeaux, France, crafted the new menu, which debuted several weeks ago. Rather than adhering to the latest passing trends in porteño fare, the menu focuses on understated riffs on Mediterranean classics like risotto, bearnaise sauce, and tapas.
While no single dish reinvents the wheel, the subtlety of flavors and array of high quality ingredients hit just the right spot between trendy and time-honored. “To offer a menu that’s different from the status quo, we try to consistently find the highest quality ingredients,” Fouillade, who designed the new menu, said. “We also work with seasonal ingredients, allowing us to change the menu frequently in order to offer interesting tastes of the season to our guests.”
This blend of classicism with a few innovative touches — think of Ureña as a modern wink at French and Mediterranean standards — is obvious from the very start of the meal, i.e. cocktails. The cocktail menu is unique, with a particularly impressive variety of gin-based drinks that’s hard to match in Buenos Aires. The house cocktail, the Ureña, is nearly perfect if you’re a diehard gin and tonic fan looking to try something new: with a smooth, light gin base, the overall effect is refreshingly citrusy without the saccharine sweetness that often accompanies fruity flavors. Another standout is the Desgustación Negroni, i.e. the Negroni tasting. Arriving in a row of three mini negronis ranging in color from pale melon to deep red to garnet, this sampler is as Instagram-worthy as it is delicious. Ureña’s wine menu is also extensive, and unshockingly relies heavily on Argentine wines. We recommend the Diverso Syrah for a dark, organic Valle de Uco wine with hints of blackberry that goes well with many of the menu’s flavors.
It’s clear that Fouillade was given plenty of latitude on the new menu, allowing him to whip up whatever unconventional interpretations of typical Mediterranean cuisine he could think of. The chef said as much himself, explaining, “I feel that a sense of freedom was one of my principal motivations [in creating the new menu]. The owners allowed me to create a strong menu in the Mediterranean style with a French touch, and this liberty was what interested me in the project…I hope that the guests recognize just how much the new menu has changed.”
Ureña’s greatest strength may be its delicate balancing act between rich, meaty flavors (think plenty of meat, cream and cheese in the best vein of the French cooking tradition) and fresh, acidic additions that cut through this heaviness and keep it from overwhelming your palate. Because the entrees skew towards luscious meat dishes and pastas, we’d suggest you order an appetizer or two on the light side to balance things out even further. While the Brie appetizer may sound almost excessively rich on paper, the buttery cheese is actually presented as a salad, with a relatively small amount of Brie accompanied by avocado, mango, and caramelized pepper — yes, that’s right, caramelized pepper — that adds just the right bitterness to the dish.
As for entrees, while there were no losers, there is one true winner: the Duck Magret. The well-roasted duck is perfectly proportioned with pears and roti mango, an inventive take on the traditional pairing of duck with fruit flavors like cherry or plum. This contrast of flavors is enhanced further by the competing textures of the tender duck and smooth cauliflower puree, which adds a mild counterpoint to the acidity of the dish. If duck’s gaminess doesn’t appeal to you, the fresh fish filet, with plenty of caramelized onions and a delicious chickpea fritter, is an excellent alternative.
If you’re not full by now (and you probably will be), several desserts are worth a taste. Ureña’s sweets are a hit or miss affair — as with their main dishes, the best plates are those that give their own variation on a classic Mediterranean treat. The mango tatin delves too far into syrupy tropical flavors, and should be avoided. The white chocolate parfait, while it may sound cloying, is actually a light and refreshing mousse, while the passion fruit sabayon is a delightful palate-cleansing sorbet. If you have a true sweet tooth, the creme brulee tasting, like the negroni sampler, comes with three photogenic mini custards — the nutella version is to die for.
At first glance, Fouillade’s creativity — from “caramelized pepper” to “yogurt foam” — is what hits you about Ureña. But by the end of the night, it might be the restaurant’s respect and real appreciation for the Mediterranean tradition that stays with you long after the meal is over. “French, Spanish, and Italian cuisine will always be highly regarded in Buenos Aires, as they are in many parts of the world — it’s not just a passing trend,” Fouillade said. “These cuisines always remind us of our grandparents’ kitchen, or memories of a trip.”
As innovative as the new menu can be, the dishes are always solidly based in these traditions. Somehow this works wonderfully — it’s as if no matter how unusual the flavors or presentation is, however cutting edge it appears at first glance, in the end there is something comforting and familiar, some classic ingredient or time-tested technique that pulls everything together. Ureña may have what so few contemporary restaurants can master: instead of focusing on avant garde presentation or shock value flavor combinations, Fouillade has ensured that each dish draws on the conventional strengths of Mediterranean cooking, with just enough of a twist to keep you guessing.