The "3 Pig Truffled Mac & Cheese" at Urban Eats is one of the best versions of the dish in Houston. The secret is a complex cheese sauce that includes Fontina, Gouda, Cheddar, Velveeta and cream cheese. Three kinds of pork join the show and turn it into a hands-down hit: bacon, pancetta (cured bacon that's not also smoked) and honey-glazed ham. There's only a small amount of white truffle oil, which thankfully allows the cheese sauce to shine. That's important, because the radiatori pasta (little ridged hunks of pasta reminiscent of radiators) is the perfect shape for capturing it.
Like a cover song, it's a good remake of a familiar tune. At Urban Eats, updated spins on the familiar are the stock-in-trade.
Urban Eats is an all-in-one bakery, espresso bar, deli (downstairs) and a bar and full-fledged restaurant (upstairs). It's one of many multipurpose eateries that have sprung up around Houston, including Tout Suite, Weights + Measures and Woodbar.
The selection of pâtés, Italian deli meats and cheeses on the first floor practically begs to be taken to a park for a picnic in the springtime air. Besides the gourmet goodies, there's a coffee and espresso bar, a bakery, and grab-and-go salads and sandwiches. A few booths upholstered in red hide in a cozy nook in the back and counter seating hugs the walls, perfect for diners seeking brief respite from the outside world.
There are fun ingredients for playing with at home, too, like multicolored pastas and truffles in red pesto. It's hard to tear yourself away from the gourmet eye candy. Allow for a bit of time after a meal for some indulgent grocery shopping.
The more formal restaurant is worth the trudge upstairs, though. The centerpiece is a big square bar that would be perfectly at home in an English pub. More booth seating lines the back wall, and there are tables in the aisles (which are a tad too close together). Double doors open up to the balcony patio outside, a boon during Houston's brief temperate seasons.
(In order to see the second floor, visitors do indeed have to be able to walk up the stairs. There is no elevator, and Urban Eats isn't required to have one since it makes its full menu available downstairs.)
Urban Eats's strength is also its weakness. It puts new spins on familiar dishes, but like a Top 40 station with a limited catalog, it uses the same play-list over and over again. That makes you wonder if the conversations during menu development went something like this: "If bacon is good, let's use it in ten dishes!" "People like sliders. What if we do nine different kinds?" "Everyone loves french fries, so let's have eight different toppings to put on them!"
Wait, isn't the "fries with stuff on them" trend over? That reached new levels of popularity at the peak of the gourmet-food-truck craze. It was a dish the trucks were able to execute in a limited kitchen environment, and the results, ranging from kimchi fries to fries with foie gras, sold pretty well. Then they started showing up on restaurant menus. Surely there's something else that can be done with potatoes.
The extensive list of "Bistro Pommes Frites," considered aloud, sounds like the line about shrimp from Forrest Gump: "We got plain fries, fries with bacon and cheese, fries with sausage, fries with brisket, fries with feta, and blue cheese fries with truffle oil."
We ordered the bacon and cheddar fries. The fries alone are pretty good -- shoestring-style potatoes that range from crispy to soft -- but neither the loose topping of cheddar and bacon nor the dish of sweetish bourbon barbecue sauce alongside added anything exciting.
On the sliders list, though, the hits just keep coming. The fried green tomato BLT strikes all the right notes. The soft pretzel buns, a thick slab of tomato and thick, crispy, smoky bacon make for pure harmony. The fried green tomato adds the right amount of moisture, and a spread of peach-pepper jam on the bottom bun lends a candied quality to the bacon.
Salads, on the other hand, just don't seem to be Urban Eats's forte. The "crisp breast tenders" on the fried chicken and pickled veggie salad were dry planks not worth eating. The pickled beets, carrots and cucumber started out as an interesting addition but were so ubiquitous that the sourness became tiresome. Flat, overly oily greens didn't help matters. The Brussels Toss was better but nothing to write home about -- a tossed salad of romaine and arugula with roasted Brussels sprouts thrown in to join the party. In truth, the simple little mixed-green salad with balsamic dressing that accompanies the sliders puts these entrée salads to shame -- at no extra charge.
There's a good lineup of creative vegetable dishes. Just don't confuse "vegetable" with "vegetarian." The flash-fried and blistered green bean creole is still a meat-fest, with a helping of "crisp smoked pork belly" (there's that bacon again) and a hefty dose of grated Parmesan. Thick tomato ragout, though, adds a welcome creative spin. It's rich, spicy and just a touch sweet and brings a whole lot of depth to the dish.
The monkey bread has potential. The bottoms of the yeasty buns -- the part that stays in the pan during baking -- were golden, buttery, moist and garlicky. The tops were tragically dry, though, and not even butter and fragrant snippets of rosemary across the stop could save them. It's otherwise really enjoyable, especially the deluxe version, called Monkey & Friends, which comes with slices of Pecorino Romano, Castelvetrano olives and dense rounds of salami.
Desserts here are quite good, especially the homemade chocolate nutter butter. It's a big sandwich cookie with a thick slab of peanut butter ganache in the center that somehow manages to taste exactly like its namesake. The only complaint is that it should come with shots of milk on the side to combat the resulting sticky peanut-butter mouth-feel. The chocolate pecan tart is chock-full of roasted pecans, and the crust is incredibly delicate and crispy.
Service is friendly and can be relied on to fix things that have gone awry. Our request to upgrade our side of fries to the "Duck Lyon" rendition with duck pâté, sage, pine nuts and demi-glace got lost somewhere in the kitchen. We were still billed the extra three bucks, but it was quickly taken off the bill after the oversight was pointed out.
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SHOW ME HOW
On the second visit -- after a long wait for a cocktail order -- a different server sheepishly admitted that there was a bartender in training making the drink. It showed up after about 15 minutes. Our patience was rewarded, and the drink, a mulled mai tai with rum, orgeat, orange juice and just a touch of mulling spices (which include allspice and cinnamon), arrived with its flavors perfectly in balance.
In the evenings, there's a valet who works for tips. That's probably a good thing because when the place gets buzzing, the dozen or so parking spaces fill up quickly. Our valet was a conscientious guy who thoughtfully put up our car windows without being asked when it started to drizzle. It was a relief when we realized the weather had changed and raced outside to find we wouldn't have to ride home with damp backsides.
Urban Eats isn't a particularly eye-opening or challenging culinary experience, but there are new spins on the classics that really work. It's more like someone recorded a remake of one of your favorite songs and you realize that it's actually better than the original.
Monkey bread $6 Monkey & Friends $10 B&C pommes frites $8 Flash fried and blistered green bean creole $9 3 pig truffled mac 'n' cheese $10 Brussels Toss $11 Fried chicken & pickled veggie salad $14 House charcuterie $20 Mulled mai tai $10 Chocolate pecan tarte $5 Homemade chocolate nutter butter $6