Urbano Café Travels the Globe
In a boisterous dining room on a Thursday night at Urbano Café, a sea of crystal marks a large table of diners working their way through a variety of wines, while across the room a woman celebrates her 40th with the girls. The celebrants have even more wine, and every sip seems to turn up the volume a little bit more. Two Doors Down, the auxiliary dining room added to this neighborhood café two years ago, is all brick walls and cement floors. Every cackle and laugh, every clanking plate and broken glass, ricochets around the room like a million bees in a Ball jar. It's absolutely deafening. And it's fun.
Urbano Café opened four years ago on Fitzhugh Avenue, just down from Jimmy's Food Store, moving from McKinney Avenue in Uptown. The new dining room was a real postage stamp — just a handful of tables enclosed in bright yellow walls. The extra space at Two Doors Down effectively doubled the real estate, but not without some quirks. The two rooms share the same landlord but not a single wall. Order the mussels at Two Doors Down and your server has to dash out the door and back to the original restaurant where the main kitchen for both rooms is located. Inclement weather only complicates the trip. "I never thought it rained in Texas, until I took a job here," a waitress said while working the lunch shift.
Somehow, the odd setup suits the two-face space, and the dining rooms offer more than the sum of their disparate parts. Two Doors Down is dimly lit and energetic with a small bar and a failing piano; Urbano Café is the place to bring Mom.
While it may be easy to decide which dining room suits you, getting a bead on the menu is more difficult. Urbano Café could be an Italian restaurant, as evidenced by a Bolognese sauce generously draped over pappardelle pasta. The sauce is considerably more tomato-heavy than its traditional counterparts, which rely more on veal, celery, carrots and other aromatics, but it is no less delicious. Garnished with freshly grated cheese and some finely minced parsley, the plate looks as good as it tastes
A riff on a caprese salad tucked between two pieces of bread mimics a mini grilled cheese sandwich dressed in parsley pesto. But while a tomato jam played a decent enough supporting roll, it wasn't enough to save an insipid tomato slice. Later this summer when tomatoes wake up, it will become apparent why this item has been on the menu since Urbano Café first opened.
Sichuan peppercorns add electricity and pop to a risotto dish with beef tenderloin, sweet cipollini onions and scallions. Ginger and ponzu make appearances too. Suddenly you may find yourself wondering just what kind of restaurant you've stumbled into. It's as if a single mustard seed from the surrounding community gardens blew in on a breeze and sprouted the charismatic flavors of Vietnam and Cambodia.
The quiet nod to the neighborhood, which historically was home to Southeast Asian immigrants, is sometimes obvious, as is the case with pickled mustard greens placed beneath crispy pork belly served on a bed of rice and crowned with a fried egg. Vietnamese honey balances the tartness of the greens but was very sweet. I wish a vinegary dipping sauce with spicy chiles was available to round things out.
Other times it is much more subtle, as in the quiet aromatics tucked into tender and juicy meatballs resting on a bed of parsnip puree with sautéed onions and veal reduction. Sunchokes add texture and visual interest to what is one of the best appetizers on the menu.
"American, with an Italian backbone and Asian influences," another waitress told me when I asked her to try and classify the menu. In that case, why does the menu describe the salad of diced raw salmon and avocado as "ceviche," a dish that typically cooks raw fish in citrus juice? The salad is actually a take on a dish called Hawaiian poke, but whatever it's named here, it's delicious and a welcomed respite from clichéd pan-seared versions of the ubiquitous fish.
All the salads shine here with greens that are fresh and substantial, as if they were plucked from the ground seconds before they were dressed and brought to your table. In some cases they are. Tom Spicer's FM 1410 is sandwiched between Urbano's two dining rooms, and the kitchen takes full advantage of its hyper-local access to fresh greens and supplements them with other bright vegetables. The 1410 Salad dressed in a sunny vinaigrette with candied walnuts and sun-dried tomatoes as sweet as raisins is a good one, and a warm farro and crab salad will ruin veggie burgers for you forever. I'm not sure why grains and nuts pressed into dry crumbly disks and packaged as veggie burgers are so popular, but this simple salad will remind you why they should not be. The light dish of perfectly cooked farro is dressed in lemon and supplemented with crabmeat and tiny marzano tomatoes that pop with flavor.
Duck on an acorn squash puree seems standard, but a hearts of palm slaw cut into long thin strands instead of the coins you're used to keeps the dish fresh. The duck breast arrives in perfectly cooked, ruby-red medallions eclipsed by a crescent moon of white fat. No wonder everyone in both of these dining rooms is wearing a smile.
Urbano Café is BYOB, and if you like to splurge on nice bottles of wine, this is a good place to be. The all-encompassing menu might make pairing a little difficult, but is worth the effort. Despite this restaurant's being open for some time, the dining room is still often mobbed. Weekend diners should make reservations.
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