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Urbana Renewal

The chef has changed, but the party rolls on

Rarely have I had so much fun at a restaurant officially designated as a "scene." Unlike its sometimes tragically hip cousins downtown, Urbana is a rollicking, often raucous feasting place for the Montrose tribes. Concrete floors, submarine-blue glass mosaics and stainless-steel trim contribute to the din, and the frisky soundtrack from the triple-TV'd bar bounces from the Zombies to Donna Summer to Pat Benatar. On weekends especially, this is not a place for quiet couples unless they're voyeurs; this is a performance space for well-heeled troupes of friends and lovers, and gaggles of admiring strangers.

I saw a misplaced couple marooned here one Saturday night: he, straining earnestly forward over the table to impart some sweet nothing; she, leaning back with a slight distracted smile, apparently eavesdropping on an outrageous story told at the next table. Just over her shoulder, a dozen friends celebrated a birthday under a cluster of bright balloons; one rose to render the special day's song in a heartbreakingly clear tenor. The chattering crowd hushed for a moment, waiters paused midmotion to listen, then, with cheers and applause, the party rolled on.

So much the better, then, is the fact that the food and the service are both so very good. Food kudos go to former sous chef David Alvarado, who after Kip Cox's departure this summer picked up without missing a beat. For the fast-moving but truly attentive service, I credit Urbana's vigilant yet genial owner John Puente, who is deftly everywhere at once, not just glad-handing but trucking trays and shuttling drinks through the fray like everyone else on staff.

With Cox gone, Alvarado and Puente decided the time was ripe for a menu overhaul. By the time the restaurant celebrated its first anniversary this October, Urbana was sporting new entrees and updated old favorites, along with a few more reasonable price tags. "Our tabs ran to the pricey side, I admit," says Puente. "And all the guides listed us as three dollar signs. I wanted to try to get away from that."

It is indeed possible to make a fine meal at Urbana for under $25. To do this, focus on the appetizers and small salads, which run from $5 to $7.50, or essentially combine the two in a gargantuan one's-a-meal entree salad ranging from $9.75 to $13.50. These entree salads have graduated from the lunch menu to dinnertime, and each bears a generous portion of meat -- pecan-grilled salmon, blackened chicken breast or sesame-seeded yellowfin tuna -- topped with gratings of an unusually mild-mannered and moist Manchego cheese.

Among the appetizers, I really like the black-peppered sea scallop and grilled shrimp, served over a creamy polenta and drizzled with sweet cilantro pesto ($7.50). Puente is quick to point out that while he didn't lower the dish's price, he did increase the size of the scallop. Meaty, thick and perfectly cooked, it's as big as the palm of my hand.

My old favorite is still there, too: the floppy grilled slices of portobello mushroom doused with balsamic vinegar and a fruity olive oil ($7.50). The mushroom slices resemble medallions of seared meat and are accompanied by pumpkin seed-encrusted goat cheese to be spread on crunchy toast.

Perhaps the best appetizer deal is the newly revised edition of the wild mushroom quesadillas ($7), punched up with roasted poblanos and jalapenos, sweetened with caramelized onions and finished with a sweet-spicy red sauce blending more jalapenos with mangoes. ("People complained that they were bland before," notes Puente. Certainly that's no longer a problem.) The quesadillas come with their own small tossed salad; by the time you've tucked away the seemingly bottomless contents of the breadbasket, you'll be quite satisfied.

Even the pasta selections are reasonably priced, with the addition of lighter topping choices such as sauteed fresh vegetables in a well-seasoned, garlicky broth ($9), or the spinach, tomato and garlic concoction ($8.50) to which you can add grilled chicken ($9.50) or shrimp ($10.50). My favorite, though, is the Italian sausage version with its incredibly rich garlic cream sauce ($10). It's a huge bowl of rigatoni and firm, unapologetically mild sausage, with sweet roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions and toasted pine nuts. Perfect it with a generous heaping of fresh grated Parmesan, then finish it if you can.

Once you wander down to the entree end of the menu, though, you'll stumble into some serious upscale pricing, ramping up to the rosemary-roasted rack of lamb at $24. Urbana's entrees fall into two categories: highly stylish productions versus friendly little comfort numbers. Puente realizes that when the weekend's parties are over, his customers want a little soothing. "On Sunday night, you don't want to face some towering elaborate thing," he says. "You want meatloaf. Or roast chicken." Following that intuition, he's added several comfort food options to the dinner menu, but with -- may I say it? -- an urbane twist: a chili-rubbed and roasted half chicken with mashed potatoes ($9.75) and, yes, a meatloaf, but this one of grilled buffalo with cascabel chili ketchup ($11).

But even on Friday and Saturday nights, the hyperactive crowd homes in on Urbana's elaborate variations on meat and potatoes. The irresistibly winy marinated rib eye with garlic mashed potatoes ($17.50) is a favorite, as is the grilled beef tenderloin with brandied peppercorn demi-glaze and a dense, crusty garlic bread pudding ($23), or the grilled barbecue shrimp with their showy haystacks of shoestring sweet potatoes ($16.50).

Personally, I like any of the entrees from Urbana's grill, infused but not overwhelmed by the subtle flavor of pecan smoke. The mixed grill ($19) is meat-eater's heaven: a split length of firm, smoky venison sausage, a beautifully moist little marinated quail and a hulking cooked-to-order lamb chop. I simply ignore the pork medallion, which invariably seems to arrive dry, tough and overcooked, and rescue my lamb chop from the puddle of too-sweet ancho chili barbecue sauce beneath it. The sauce works well enough with the venison sausage, but it's too much for the poor lamb. I am intrigued by the texture of the accompanying jalapeno cheese grits; instead of folding the cheese into the grits, Urbana's kitchen puts it and the peppers on top.

The dessert tray is also worth examining. The dense chunk of chocolate bread pudding earns high marks, but rather than topping it with more chocolate, the kitchen would do well to concoct a good hard sauce for contrast. "Go for the pecan tart," prompted Puente on a recent visit. I did, and I was happy. It's a solid mass of chopped pecans and brown sugar encased in flaky pastry crust and topped with bittersweet chocolate. Amazingly, it wasn't too sweet -- but it was too much. I took half home in a doggie bag.

The good news is that in Montrose, making the scene and enjoying the food are not contradictory propositions. Those who were concerned when Kip Cox left so suddenly needn't have worried; the refined menu promises continuing success on the boulevard. "We haven't reinvented the wheel," says Puente. They've just in-lined it.

Urbana, 3407 Montrose, 521-1086.

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