Soon after closing his short-lived Bushwick bakery, the Awkward Scone, in June this year, chef Eric See set off on a weeks-long road trip through New Mexico, where he grew up. After more than a decade spent working as a pastry chef in New York for industry veterans like former Locanda Verde star Karen DeMasco, running pop-ups, and opening up his own establishment, See wondered if he had it in him to continue in the city after the COVID-19 pandemic decimated his business, like countless others across the city.
While driving through New Mexico, however, See soon realized that the situation there wasn’t much different either. Despite the odds, restaurants were trying to survive however best they could. Upon his return to New York, See was transfixed by a new-found enthusiasm he could see on the streets of Brooklyn, particularly with the start of outdoor dining bringing more activity on to the streets after months of closure.
“I realized that leaving New York wasn’t going to fix anything for me,” says See. “There was just this energy I could see when I came back and it made me realize that New Yorkers always find a way to push through.”
And move forward he did with Ursula, See’s new counter-service New Mexican restaurant which opens in Crowns Heights, at 724 Sterling Place, at the corner of Bedford Avenue, today with an initial focus on takeout and delivery service.
Here, See has really leaned into the New Mexican food that made his Bushwick cafe one of the go-to spots in the city for the cuisine. With the shuttering of West Village’s the Banty Rooster in August, representation of New Mexican food in the city had all but disappeared.
But things are looking up with Ursula. “I feel like this is a much more personal exposition for my life story,” says See, who named the restaurant after his grandmother. “New Mexican food is highly underrepresented in New York, and we are kind of like the bastion for it now.”
With that adage in mind, See is bringing back the breakfast burritos ($10) that were a big hit at the Awkward Scone. Diners have the option of choosing between bacon, chorizo, and pinto beans, but all of the other ingredients — scrambled eggs, hash browns, cheddar cheese, and New Mexican red and green chiles — remain the same inside the burrito. “The burritos were really keeping the lights on at the Awkward Scone, so I used that opportunity to pivot into a different direction,” he says.
But the burritos are just a small portion of the exciting New Mexican menu See has created for Ursula. There are stuffed sopapillas ($12), a type of fried savory dough that See describes as “a cross between a pita and a beignet.” At Ursula, the sopapillas are stuffed with braised pork, red chile, refried pinto beans, and cheddar cheese (there’s also a vegan and a beef version).
To balance some of the more heavier options on the menu, like the burritos and the sopapillas, See has created a chile relleno ($14), which he says isn’t really New Mexican food, but at Ursula it comes filled with quinoa, cauliflower rice, a tomato-ancho chile puree, and roasted corn, among other ingredients.
See’s pastry chef training already comes through in dishes like the sopapillas — his first job in a kitchen was making sopapillas at a counter service restaurant in Albuquerque — but there are a lot more baked goods on the menu, including the puff-pastry dish pastelitos, which resembles an apple pie at Ursula, but with the addition of New Mexican green chiles, cheddar cheese, and rosemary. On the sweeter side, there are brioche doughnuts and the cinnamon and anise-flavored shortbread cookies called biscochitos. Tea lattes popular at the Awkward Scone, like the horchata variety and one with matcha, cherry blossom, and vanilla called Sakura, are also making a comeback.
See initially debuted part of his menu during a weekly pop-up at nearby Crown Heights cafe Hunky Dory. He says he was buoyed by the response there, and after initially considering limiting himself to a pop-up, he decided to open a physical location with the help of Hunky Dory’s owner Claire Sprouse. Ursula’s new home was initially set to be a new wine bar from Sprouse, but the pandemic derailed those plans, and Sprouse let See take over the space.
For now, See says he’s committed to staying at the Sterling Place location and seeing how the business performs over the next year. He specifically designed the restaurant in a way to give more space to the kitchen — where he’s brought back most of the staff from the Awkward Scone — and isn’t planning to do indoor dining anytime soon. He’s focused on takeout, delivery, and limited outdoor seating, in the hopes that another pandemic-related setback won’t push him to close shop.
“When the first full shutdown happened, we actually realized that there’s a really good market for delivery and takeout,” says See. “If anything happens, we’re ready for it this time.”
See is already looking forward to potentially opening a second location of Ursula next year if this one takes off, and feels like he’s finally come into his own with this new restaurant.
“I came to New York to do pastry, but I never imagined I would end up serving New Mexican food,” says See. “But because this food is so personal to me, because I’m doing what I know, I feel confident about the future.”
Ursula will be open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Fridays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.