Should you happen upon Ultreia during a rare moment of quiet, you’ll find an elegance befitting its home in historic Union Station. Beyond the gin-stacked bar lies a patio that’s like a scene from a Spanish plaza, with tables tucked around a fountain and flowers. Ornate wrought-iron stairs lead to the mezzanine, with tables perched like box seats at the opera. Inside, walls boast a mural of cows and peasants basking in soft, tree-filtered light, adapted from a seventeenth-century work in London’s National Gallery. Never mind that the artist was Dutch, not Spanish or Portuguese like the food on offer here. The effect is what counts, the complete and utter feeling of being whisked away. “When guests make decisions on where to spend money,” says co-founder/owner Jennifer Jasinski, “they want an experience.”
And what an experience it is. Ultreia, which bills itself as a “gastroteka,” vies for rowdiest of the five Crafted Concepts restaurants, and is nothing like the refined Rioja that Jasinski and partner Beth Gruitch opened almost fourteen years ago in Larimer Square. Here, tables on the wisp of a ground floor are often pushed together, making room for large groups that seem one gin tonic away from choruses of drinking songs. One night, a boisterous gathering began waterfalling drinks like they were at a bachelor party. Another group was tamer, but the combined energy (and the loud Gipsy Kings soundtrack) turned the dining room into an extension of the bar. The servers’ gift from the house — a glass of sherry in gorgeous cut-glass shot glasses — encourages such antics.
So does the menu, a mostly casual assortment of tapas and pintxos. Even if you’ve never been to Spain, never sat at a tapas bar pointing to something on the counter that you hope you’ll like, you know that finger foods are meant for fun and laughter and sharing, and you gladly play along. You happily pluck chorizo picante from wood cones and nibble it with Manchego. You crunch into ham croquettes and savor pork ribs that fall apart on contact for delightful bites of juicy meat and cumin-seasoned bark.
Then you wait a few minutes, sipping the gin tonic that’s a bar specialty, or maybe some red sangria, before the next course arrives — a pan-fried griddle cake (tortilla de camarones) that beckons like the sea, loaded with shrimp, squirted with lime wedges and dabbed in aioli. You’re beginning to realize that you over-ordered, but you can’t give up now, not with pan con tomate before you (ideally accompanied by famed, acorn-fed jamón ibérico), with its garlic-rubbed ciabatta and shiny pot of puréed tomato that you slather on the bread until the juices seep ever so slightly into the crumb. The dish is a testament to what happens when ingredients are allowed to be themselves, and it will only get better as tomatoes come in season and taste even more like fruit.
You might anticipate executive chef Adam Branz’s team putting out more of the nuanced fare that matches both Jasinski’s reputation and Ultreia’s stately decor, but that’s not what this kitchen, tucked into a nook under the stairs, is all about. Still, you get a glimpse of the restaurant’s pedigree in fantastic curls of cold, cured trout with refreshing orange-olive salad and chips dusted with tomato powder. In the frisée salad, expertly dressed and tousled next to cana de cabra cheese and zigzags of honey. And in the berenjenas, thin slices of roasted eggplant threaded on skewers with candy-like quince paste crusted in sesame seeds.
The entrees should give you a better chance to appreciate the tastes, textures and plating that this restaurant group is known for: jamón-topped trout with charred vegetables; a skewer of cumin-paprika steak; estofado (stew) with octopus, pork ribs, beans and chorizo in an orange-accented broth. But Branz says that many tables never get to what’s listed as “raciones,” instead choosing to party-hop around the upper part of the menu, where tapas reside.
After my visits, I learned that the raciones would soon be changing to be more “shareable.” But maybe there’s another reason for their lack of momentum: The big plates I’d ordered didn’t live up to expectations the way that the small ones did. Estofado came in a smallish bowl for $25.50, with not enough of the dynamite broth. (The non-rounded-off prices reflect a 2 percent surcharge on all dishes, distributed among non-tipped staff.) Steak skewers were overcooked. And the trout, listed as “crispy” and “whole,” was served without conviction, minus the fins and head that would’ve made it a restaurant-worthy spectacle. Half the skin was gone, too, and what remained was on the bottom, soggy on arrival. Isn’t crispy skin — the way it flakes into the flesh like briny chips — why you order a whole fish in the first place?
Jasinski went to Portugal once prior to the restaurant’s opening, but she and Gruitch have been going to Spain for years and years. Chef Branz prepped for Ultreia by staging in four Spanish kitchens in New York. As a result, Ultreia channels Spain more dynamically than it does Portugal, which will come as a letdown to all the recently returned gallivanters still under Lisbon’s spell. Salt cod, Portugal’s national dish, and sardines, its close second, weren’t on the menu during my visits, nor was the refreshing white port and tonic that makes afternoons so lovely in Porto. (The ingredients are on hand, though; ask and the bar will gladly oblige.) Caldo verde was available, but it was a high-end reinterpretation that could’ve used more soul, with kale chips added at the end and occasional potato slices. I missed the patient harmony, the velvety thickness of falling-apart potatoes in versions from humbler Portuguese kitchens. I also missed authentic pastel de nata, a custard tart made famous by a 180-year-old bakery in Lisbon. Ultreia’s take on the pastry resembled what you’d find around baked Brie, not the dark golden sheets that should’ve crackled like autumn leaves, and it had been upsized, throwing off the crispy-creamy ratio.
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Ice creams and sorbets, mixed as you please, make for a sweeter ending. Embrace more adventurous flavors — the bracing saffron and gentle olive oil, even the rosewater sorbet, whose distinctive fragrance is best known as the flavoring for the squishy insides of Turkish Delight. Rosewater is far more evocative of Turkey or India, but it’s just as welcome here as the Dutch mural that sets such a lovely scene, and for the same reason: It whisks you — and your group of besties — to a place far away, one that’s definitely worth a visit.
1701 Wynkoop Street, Suite 125
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Select menu items
Croquetas de jamón $6.12
Pan con tomate $5.10
Tortilla de camarones $8.16
Caldo verde $9.18
Pintxo moruno $18.36
Estofado de polvo $25.50