By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
Urban Bistro, chef Avner Samuel's newest Mediterranean foray and a casual step downward from his culinary "jewel box" Aurora, features veal scaloppini with braised spinach and caper berries in lemon jus. When asked about the dish, our server promptly urges us to substitute. "You know, technically, if you get it hot enough it's fine," she says. "But I wouldn't want to chance it until they find out where this is all coming from. Kidney failure, or having something else?" Good, stark choice presentation, the work of a pro. And although it weighed heavily in the back of our minds at the onset of the scare, since we eat lots of the bagged stuff, the spinach crisis--what with global warming, global jihad, etc. --slipped our minds.
Still, the choice was presented. We chose zucchini and yellow squash over spinach (actually, it was the only choice over spinach). The scaloppini was delicious, with an expertly slivered section of veal that was juicy, firm and enlivened with citrus acids. Spinach would have worked great here. So would arugula. Still there was one odd thing to the dish: it only had one caper berry. Was there a caper berry crisis too?
Urban Bistro rapidly took shape in the historic restaurant structure on Inwood Road near Lovers Lane, displacing George Brown's ambitious but somehow miscast "George," which displaced the Riviera, a once-great restaurant that simply unraveled under the strain of Dallas' culinary evolution. Avner Samuel and his one-time Aurora chef Roger Cobb aren't really evolving here, though. The bistro is stocked with Samuel staples that once made appearances at his restaurants Bistro A and Cafe Med, dishes such as "a bowl of my mother's salad" with diced tomato, bell pepper and cucumber in lemon juice and olive oil. What's new is old.
Which means Urban Bistro serves liver--calf's liver, to be more precise. Is it good? "You know, I don't like liver here, there or anywhere," our server retorts. The most refreshing thing about Urban Bistro is that the servers are as concerned as they are brutally honest, from the calf's liver to the guest's kidneys. She tells us that the recommended hue for the liver is medium rare. On the few occasions I've ordered liver in restaurants, I've never come across a recommended level of doneness. Is it ever ordered rare?
Yet this is delicious stuff. Cooked medium rare, it's propped on a bed of caramelized red onion rosemary marmalade in a pool of aged balsamic and juices. A sprig of rosemary emanates from a lobe. It's chewy and sinuous, as calf's liver tends to be. Onions leaven the sharp metallic flavor with a bit of sweetness. The outside is well-scorched.
Like they did with this organ, Samuel and company did well with George's harshly antiseptic minimalist design. The blinding light and frosted glass has been replaced by thick stripes of shimmering beige and gold on the walls. That thick downward emphasis is contrasted with a long, narrow horizontal mirror serving as an art piece on the longest wall in the restaurant. Acrylics with color impressions of vegetables floating like dirigibles dress the shorter walls--asparagus with red tips, olives and beets for instance. Paintings? Photographs? Our server didn't know. She went over and stroked the art pieces with her fingers. She returned with her assessment: "They must be etched and then covered because there's no texture to them," she says. She came back several minutes later and explained they're photographs burnished into the glass. This is a strain of minimalist modernity that adds warmth instead of the chill that had stricken George with rigor mortis.
Urban Bistro has wood floors, simple butcher-blockish wood chairs, and Formica tables and blue water glasses. There's a rich buffet chest breaking the vestibule from the dining room with a row of apple bowls lined up across it.
A complimentary plate of olives, tapanade and roasted bell pepper purée is dispensed at the table along with a focused selection of breads and crackers. Very bistro.
What isn't very bistro is the wine list. Only a handful of wines on this heavily California-centric list hail from Mediterranean countries. And precious few of those, especially among the red selections, crash below the $40 barrier, and most hover above $45 (reds primarily) and beyond. Plus, the weight of this list leans forcefully into Chardonnay and Cabernet, not necessarily the best wines to complement Samuel's Middle Eastern/Mediterranean portfolio.