"Where do you want to sit?" the waitress asks as I step inside Urban Crust. It hardly matters, so I shrug in response.
The waitress—her name was Lauren, according to my receipt—looks over the space, a long, narrow room cluttered with tables and booths, bounded by rough brick walls, with a stairway near the entrance and wood-burning oven toward the back. Up one flight is a small area dedicated to cushy lounge seats and a row of stools on a balcony overlooking the dining hall. The third floor features an ice blue bar and rooftop patio, which has a separate name, 32 Degrees. "I'll put you next to my mom," Lauren finally says.
Great—in one of the most intriguing and urbane establishments in Plano, I'm sitting next to someone's mother, who is picking with little interest on a salad and glancing repeatedly toward the stairs.
"I wonder how many drunks fall down those," the mom says after a few pleasantries.
It's a good question. How much of your drink sloshes onto the steps as the waiter or waitress hustles it down two flights from the bar is another one—although when I ask about it, Lauren points to an elevator near the kitchen.
So the restaurant is well-constructed, accommodating a taste for casual fare and upscale drinking. Perched at the bar after dinner on my second trip, my guest tried unsuccessfully to build a snowman from a thick layer of frost along the counter, stretching past taps for Grey Goose and Patron. Yes, it's one of those places upstairs, with a glow that softens lines on a cougar's face and makes a food writer's TJ Maxx wardrobe look Stanley Korshak-ish. Urban Crust is like Uptown, but without the posing and without the prices. For one thing, parking is free. There's a lot to one side and slots along the street. Surrounding Urban Crust is a bar and other restaurants—the vestiges of what every Dallas development wants, which is big-city walkability—plus a bit of swank.
Yet it's also a pizza joint—an upscale pizza joint, mind you, serving creations such as the "black and blue," stacked with pesto, sirloin, portobello and blue cheese; the "east side," which features roasted chicken, smoked mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes; and the "urban amore," a combination of Italian ingredients that in its conception seems complementary: prosciutto, figs, goat cheese and balsamic mimicking antipasto flavors. In practice, however, the arrangement is somewhat stilted, a pile of good ingredients that refuses to act in concert. Surprisingly, this is hardly a major flaw. While the flavors don't match up as you'd expect, they still feel warm and comfortable on that charred, smoky crust. A "pizza of the month" offering we tried on the same evening—pear and gorgonzola, drizzled with balsamic—sounded fatefully trendy but came together so naturally from the first bite it tasted like some weathered, old-world recipe. Sweet and salty, tart and spicy at the same time, each flavor vying for control, the edge swaying this way and that with none able to claim dominance. It was a beautifully balanced pie, complex yet simple.
This is what locals Nathan and Bonnie Shea set out to accomplish when they teamed with Salvatore Gisellu (of Daddy Jack's fame) to open Urban Crust this summer. The key to good pizza of any style is the crust, and Gisellu trained his team to bring the dough to a point where crisp and chewy seem as one, helped by a combination of wood and gas flame that keeps a constant temperature while imbuing the dough with the distinct taste of burnt lumber.
Unfortunately, the kitchen's non-pizza offerings don't show that same self-assured touch. Carpaccio is silken, but the flavors are rigid, sticking to the pungent-tart side—which is pushed along by capers and Grana Padano. For the calamari, they settled on a semolina crust that turns into a scientifically impossible sodden, dusty texture. They list rib eyes and baked pastas, but if the "F Chicken" (have no idea what the F stands for) is any indication, I'd ignore this part of the menu—although it does come with a side of grilled polenta that plays like a cross between some of the better cornbread you've ever tasted and good old-fashioned Southern spoon bread.
In fact, it may be one of the more compelling versions of polenta served in the Dallas area. And, it must be said, an additional side of vegetables rolled in olive oil and set over heat couldn't be more right—still crunchy, with just a fleck or two of salt to perk things up.
The F Chicken—"my favorite," said the waitress, a sentiment not echoed by her mom—is a lump of surprisingly juicy white meat stuffed with an acidic, soapy mass of sun-dried tomato (chalky and tart), spinach (normally bitter, but in this case tart) and goat cheese (tart and somewhat chalky) doused in an oppressive sauce that resembled Thousand Island spiked with something tart and chalky. Then there's the hearts of Plano, which may have been the same salad the waitress' mom picked at with such disinterest, a decent though hardly impressive toss of romaine, artichoke, bacon, blue cheese and hearts of palm.
If you stick to pizzas and drinks, however, Urban Crust is well worth whatever effort it takes to get there. The vibe is—as promised in the name—very urban, with workaday effects from the 19th century structure presiding over hip modern touches.
These include large flat screens placed strategically around the room, as well as little 6-inch jobs in every booth. During my second visit, the new animated spin-off The Cleveland Show seemed live in the small screen at our table. As we sat down, one of the characters began spewing green vomit all over his cartoon porch.
"Great way to start dinner," my friend said.
I never asked how to change channels. There was a football game on one of the bigger screens, so it's easy to ignore anything on TV—unless you and your guest aren't speaking.
Whatever you do—whether you F up and order the chicken or stick with one of their good pizzas—make certain to walk upstairs to the bar: 32 Degrees is both cool and cold, with frost collecting along the bar area, icy lighting and a Ghostbar aura. Then you step outside onto the roof and things change.
Simply put, Urban Crust is a place worth checking out for pizza or drinks—with or without someone's mom.Urban Crust 1006 E. 15th St., Plano, 972-509-1400. Open daily 11 a.m.-2 a.m. $$-$$$