Boon to the Boulevard

It usually bodes well when a restaurant's owner is visible on the premises. The first time I walked into Urbana, the person greeting and seating customers was none other than John Puente, whose hip, hot eatery opened earlier this fall. On a recent Saturday evening, when the ultra-cool dining room was throbbing with customers, Puente was in the thick of things again.

Stopping at one packed table after another would seem to be an ideal platform for glad-handing, but that's not what Puente was doing. He was transporting enormous trays of orders from the kitchen to a fleet of waiters in constant motion. That down-to-earth activity speaks volumes. Urbana's atmosphere is more comfortable and unpretentious than you might expect, given the drop-dead sophistication that permeates both the design scheme and the menu. The public areas combine deep-toned wood and chunky, abstract mosaics with touches that hearken back almost 40 years. Icy blues, greens and yellows are everywhere except the kitchen fixtures, which supply an expanse of muted silver. The seasonal decoration -- enormous, shiny, solid-colored balls hanging at the center of the dining room -- heightened the simulation of 1961-vintage chic.

The menu's time coordinates, though, are clearly and firmly in the late 1990s. As is true of Puente's previous enterprises (most recently, the Woodway Grill), the kitchen here doesn't wear the mantle of any one national cuisine, except perhaps the eclectic mix lately known as American bistro. Under executive chef Kip Cox, Urbana takes influences from wide-ranging sources -- chiles and basic dishes from the Southwest, pastas from Italy, ginger from the Orient, even beignets from New Orleans -- and arranges them in thoughtful combinations that do not strain credulity. And the restaurant serves its innovations with a generosity that can be eye-popping. "Oooo, talk about security," one companion marveled as an edible mountain was placed before him. If you, too, glow at the sight of a lot of food on a plate, most of Urbana's dishes ought to make you very happy. I have yet to walk out without half my entree coming along in a to-go container. Just about everything I've tasted here was something everyone at the table wanted to revisit.

At the top of the list is a hulking bowl of penne pasta and smoked salmon ($8.50), which is a brunch entree and a dinner appetizer. What makes it sing is an uncommon balance of elements that have the individual potential to overpower. The salmon asserts itself without overwhelming. Ginger, the key to the cream sauce, appears in the form of tiny slivers, which permeate with a gentle tingle rather than an occasional burst of fire. The sauce itself is definitely buttery, but not at the cost of tasting heavy. Everything blends in a way that's exotic and compelling.

Urbana works the same result with a relatively simple salad ($5). The main feature is a variety of tiny, tender field greens, graced with little more than a refreshing ginger-lime vinaigrette. The only additions are a handful of strips of fried won ton wrappers (much like fried tortillas) and a smattering of toasted sesame seeds. The vinaigrette gives off a sweet zing. The won tons and seeds add crunch. Nothing more is needed; the combination is complete.

Somebody in the kitchen certainly knows when to leave well enough alone. A cut of rib eye ($17) comes with only asparagus and potatoes, but they're fitting complements, even if not always in the advertised form. The menu says the potatoes are supposed to be mashed with roasted garlic, but what arrived on my plate were barely seasoned, cooked-and-skinned halves. The unexplained substitution didn't matter; the hearty spuds worked wonderfully with the steak. It didn't hurt, either, that the meat was melt-in-your-mouth beef, cooked exactly to order.

Quesadillas ($6.50) also benefit from a light touch. This faddish dish all too often turns out to be a clump of indistinguishable (sometimes ill-conceived) ingredients fused between pan-fried tortillas dripping with butter, or worse. Not Urbana's. Conceptually, these quesadillas are freewheeling, pairing wild mushrooms with creme fraiche; in the execution, the kitchen displays exemplary restraint. The ingredients are meted out sparingly, in almost miserly fashion, but they meld satisfyingly, with the creme fraiche warming into a pleasant, adhesive consistency like mild farmer's cheese. Another plus is the state of the tortillas: absolute drip- and grease-free, as if they've been heated in something other than a skillet. (Mine also gave signs of having been twice under the heat, and not evenly; parts of them were room temperature, while others were as hot as the serving plate.)

Where Urbana achieves the height of simplicity -- not to mention perfection -- is with scrambled eggs. True, the dish is modest and pedestrian, not normally the stuff of careful, much less gourmet, treatment. But it's not because the eggs don't have the capacity to respond. Food poet M.F.K. Fisher contended that the proper way to scramble eggs was to stir them gently over low heat for 30 minutes. This kitchen proves otherwise. In about half that time, I received flawless scrambled eggs, barely on the edge of runny. They actually overshadowed the pork medallions ($10.95) they were supposed to augment. The situation might have been different if the pork had been either thick or juicy, but it was extremely thin, almost dry and hesitantly seasoned.

It's worth your while to spare some room for desserts. (They're another reason for the persistence of doggy bags in my Urbana experiences.) The selection on the well-stocked tray varies a little. One recurring item is a lemon tart, which has a soft, not-too-sweet meringue counterbalancing a soft, not-too-sour base. A white-and-dark-chocolate torte holds back admirably in sweetness, too. Even so, I would be content with only the cappuccino's sidekick, chocolate biscotti that approach crunchy fudge brownies.

What's not to like? The answer takes some hair-splitting. Ungracious as it is to look a gift horse in the mouth, I'd have to say a complimentary order of brunch beignets was not quite right; they'd soaked up enough grease to suggest the oil was under-temperature. Still, their less-than-French Quarter character didn't stop my party from devouring the lot. Too, the angel biscuits, highly touted by the waiter (and highly priced, at $2.75 a pair), didn't fulfill their buildup; their primary attribute is an impressive size, but otherwise they're not particularly distinguished, bad or good.

The only real flaw is outside Urbana's control, and outside the door. Couple a minuscule parking lot with uncommonly narrow striping, and the result is bound to be exasperation and dinged doors. Put aside any prejudice against valet parking; in this lot, a valet offers a real service.

And there will be competition for those precious spaces. In just a few months of operation, the demand for tables on weekend nights has already reached the point that reservations are advisable. (I was given an estimate of a 30-minute wait before 7 p.m. on a Saturday.) The alternative to idling in the corridor-sized bar -- where a pager in the shape of a drink coaster will flash gaudy red lights when the table's ready -- is eating on a patio facing Montrose. The option has merits. Two walls and an overhang buffer wind and chill, and the ongoing parade that is life in Montrose provides the occasional unexpected thrill, such as a pristine Thunderbird convertible zooming past. I even saw people walking down the sidewalk along Montrose Boulevard. How utterly urban. And urbane.

Urbana, 3407 Montrose, 521-1086.

Penne pasta and smoked salmon, $8.50;
salad, $5;
rib eye with asparagus and potatoes, $17;
quesadillas, $6.50;
pork medallions with scrambled eggs, $10.95;
angel biscuits, $2.75.


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