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Med Head

Urban Bistro brings warmth to a spot that once had a chilly design.
Tom Jenkins

As of this writing, the spinach tragedy seems to be abating. Despite The Wall Street Journal's headline "Spinach's pain is arugula's gain," a New York Times dispatch revealed several East Coast grocery stores began restocking the iron-rich foliage as federal officials continued to reassure the public that the stuff was safe to eat as long as it was grown outside of Salinas Valley, California (the restocked spinach was grown in Colorado and Canada). Austin-based Whole Foods will start selling bunched--but not bagged--spinach this week at a few of its 187 stores. This after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 183 people in 26 states were afflicted with virulent E. coli bacteria after eating contaminated spinach.

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.

The gnocchi, an elegant dish with elfin ear potato dumplings, soft creamy swellings of goat cheese, Niçoise olives and slow-toasted heirloom tomatoes in a buttery sauce, features light gnocchi that are nearly perfect in texture: firm and slightly gummy. Though Chardonnay could pair well here if it had a bristling acid layer lurking beneath the lumber and butter gobs, a Sauvignon Blanc or even a sturdy floral and honeyed Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley might work better. More Mediterranean too. Not sure what all of those Cabernets would match with save for the cumin-rubbed lamb chops and the "grilled dinner steak."

The Urban Bistro menu is studded with imaginative vignettes, such as a boat of escargot, squid and octopus in a pool of thin pea-soupy basil pesto. Snails are clean and earthy; calamari rings are tender and sweet; octopus is mostly tentacles, though they're scarce. Chickpeas and plum tomatoes frame these sea creatures. The pesto, unencumbered by the typical heavy Parmesan and olive oil, rises out of that green pool with vivacious breath, huffing a little flirtatiousness into that seafood.

Deep red tuna in fig glaze is tethered to an avocado tomato parfait. Oval tuna sheets are crusted with an aromatic Middle Eastern spice medley Urban calls za'atar. The effect is alluring, but somehow the tuna sheets didn't seem fresh and posessed slightly off flavors.

Big fish for two is a whole snapper with visible dental work; it's fried and soaks in a lemony broth with tomato chunks and herbs and slices of lemon wilted from heat. The 2-pound fish, its tail curving upward, relinquishes its meat easily from the array of bones, but despite the broth, the meat is dry and spongy. Plus, it's riddled with strong off flavors, perhaps from retiring tomatoes. Pan-seared diver scallops with roasted Israeli couscous and saffron broth is delicious, though, and the baba au rum with bay leaf roasted pineapple and rum-soaked sponge cake was far better than it sounds.

Urban Bistro is a spot where the calf's liver shines, and the spinach would but for the bad press.

7709 Inwood Road, 214-358-1100. Open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $$$

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