Restaurant Review: Pamplona
The Spanish eatery isn't quite hitting a bulls-eye, but it's got potential.
It’s a lovely summer evening and 50-some diners fill the patio at Pamplona in Clarendon. Inside, a group of revelers enjoys the waning minutes of happy hour at one of the two bars as my companion and I settle in at a table in the restaurant’s dark interior. Soon we are sharing sips of a refreshing sangria accented with hints of peach and strawberry, and a glass of crisp Bovale rosé—which tastes all the better because the bottle is half-price, a Tuesday special.
As we wait for the server to return for our order, I peruse Pamplona’s 130-seat, 3,600-square-foot dining room. Named after a town known for its famous running of the bulls, the space follows suit with bold Spanish accents, courtesy of interior designer David Anthony Chenault. Some of the gold-fringed, tufted banquettes are upholstered in a poppy-print fabric, others in royal-blue velvet. Riveted metal tabletops are matched by wrought-iron bistro chairs with distressed wooden seats, and of course there are the requisite bull heads mounted on the wall. Add to that eye-catching paisley pendant globes, Spanish tiles, teal walls and pressed-tin ceiling panels, and the sum total is distinctly chic.
But closer inspection raises flags the color of a flamenco dancer’s dress. A vase of cloudy water on our table holds dead flowers. We can’t help noting a food runner who is frantically darting to and from the kitchen, while a cook, armed with plates of food, leaves the open kitchen to do double duty as a server.
It’s clear the place is understaffed. Efforts to flag down our server to place our order fail over the course of 30 minutes. Rather than get upset, I yearn to help. With 25 years of experience in the restaurant business, I’m empathetic. Finally, our server returns.
“Has any of the food you ordered arrived?” he asks.
“We haven’t ordered yet.”
Bless his heart.
When Social Restaurant Group opened Pamplona in January with chef James Martin at the helm, its future looked bright. The owners had already found success with Provision No.14 and the Prospect in D.C., and Martin’s personal résumé included stints at Restaurant Nora, Vidalia and Bourbon Steak. Though the chef’s Basque-centric fare garnered immediate and favorable buzz, he was out in less than three months—following an altercation with a cook—and was never replaced. SRG co-principal Mike Bramson (whose group also owns the adjacent Bar Bao and the forthcoming Clarendon beer garden known as the Lot) confirms that one of the sous chefs, Joseph Conigliaro, has since taken over under the direction of the company’s culinary team.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that the food is hit or miss. The menu is pretentiously divided into sections entitled Salted, Smoked, Forged & Farmed, Land & Sea and Paellas. Marcona almonds with a hefty dusting of Spanish paprika fall under the heading of Salted, but ironically arrive at the table undersalted. The gambas ajillos, four perfectly cooked head-on shrimp, zing and sing from a smoky chili-oil glaze, but they in no way resemble the traditional dish of that name, in which the shellfish are sautéed in garlic-heavy oil.
A big square of chunky, tender potatoes and sweet onions, cooked with egg into a creamy, custardy portion of Spanish tortilla, is so delectable it leaves me wanting more. This is sadly not true of another spuds dish, the fried potato tapas classic known as patatas bravas. The potatoes are soggy and drab and can’t be saved by the dimensionless tomato and pepper sauces that accompany them.
An unlikely burger combines a thin patty of garlicky chorizo sausage with Manchego cheese, slaw, piquillo-pepper aioli and—weirdly but wonderfully—fried calamari. It sounds like a big, delicious mess, and it is. But the lemony albondigas (beef and Serrano ham meatballs) with tomato sauce are merely serviceable.
Moving to entrées, a New York strip steak cooked to order (medium rare) and topped with a fried egg is deftly joined by a sweet-potato-apple-eggplant hash and a bold chimichurri sauce. Altogether a solid and satisfying dish.
In lieu of the menu’s promised branzino, the kitchen subs an excellent chunk of perfectly seared and piping-hot grouper. It’s smartly paired with a salsa verde of parsley, anchovy, red chili flakes, lemon zest, lemon juice, capers, garlic and olive oil.
The duck paella, which takes 35 minutes to prepare and serves two heartily, is lackluster. The roasted duck slices are arranged on top, along with a confited duck leg, but have seemingly no flavor connection to the rice underneath, which is soupy and strangely bland despite the visible presence of mushrooms, caper berries, white lima beans and red bell peppers. Worse, the rice on the bottom of the pan isn’t crusty and crunchy. Called the socarrat, this is considered the most desirable part of a paella.
Dessert is a nice surprise. Cinnamon sugar-coated churros are usually a disappointment in restaurants, but Pamplona’s are hot, crispy and fluffy, ideal for sopping up the accompanying chocolate sauce. An almond cake with a decorative dusting of powdered sugar is dense and nicely chewy on the outside, with just the right touch of richness, thanks to a dollop of whipped cream vaguely flavored with bay leaf.
In the end, the staff recovered admirably on the night they were understaffed. Once they pulled themselves out of the weeds, they bused tables, made sure everyone had what they needed and apologized for any mishaps. That shows that they have the wherewithal and desire to excel.
Once the owners get the kitchen straightened out, Pamplona could have a good run. And that’s no bull.
What to Drink
Bar manager Ana Barrera collaborated with Chad Spangler and Glendon Hartley of the Menehune Group, a D.C.-based beverage consulting company, to offer a nice selection of well-balanced cocktails. “I like to come up with what I know Clarendon likes—nonexpensive things that taste good,” says Barrera. “Like the Valenciana, made with muddled strawberries, cucumber, citrus vodka and Bovale rosé, shaken, strained and topped off with Sprite.” Other winners include the Spanish Old-Fashioned, which features bourbon, Avernra amaro, saffron, honey and orange zest. Also good: the best-selling Bourbon Maracuya, which is enhanced with passion fruit, lemon juice and Angostura bitters.
Pamplona has rightly become known for its sangrias, too. There are several winners, including a rosé variation with vodka, strawberry, peach and lemon juice; and a white wine version spiked with Captain Morgan, Cointreau and chamomile tea. The frozen white and rosé sangrias should be against the law because they’re way too easy to drink and irresistible—a dubious combination. Nonfrozen sangria pitchers are half-price ($19) on Sunday and Wednesday nights.
Wines under $75 are half-price on Tuesday nights (a great deal), and there are many excellent Spanish bottles to choose from, such as the Vega Escal Garnacha, Priorat 2011 ($50); and the Bodegas Muga Rioja Blanca ($48). There are also a dozen beers on tap and 10 bottle selections.
3100 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington | 703-685-9950 | www.pamplonava.com
Sunday-Wednesday: 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Thursday-Saturday: 4 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday brunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Appetizers: $5-$16 | Entrées: $25-$28 | Paella (for 2): $35-$48 | Desserts: $8-$9