Almost from the moment Urbano Cafe opened in 2009, it was adopted by diners who recognized it for the gift it was. A funky, ultracasual joint jammed into a tiny, almost accidental space, it served good, straightforward and quite reasonably priced Italianish food, including panini at lunch and pastas at dinner. An especially friendly feature was its BYOB policy, which meant that you could bring a couple of very nice bottles to dinner without paying restaurant markup. No wonder Urbano quickly become a packed, happy, boisterous scene. The name really said it: Urbano Cafe was the kind of easygoing neighborhood trattoria that’s common enough in more, well, urban places, but all too rare in Dallas.
Flash forward nearly six years, and Urbano has grown up a bit — in some ways for the good, in others less so. It’s no longer quite such a hole in the wall: Owners Mitch and Kristen Kauffman have added a second dining room two doors down. It’s connected to the original restaurant by a passageway that runs behind the space formerly occupied by the late, lamented FM 1410, the shop where the mad produce wizard Tom Spicer peddled his arugula and morel mushrooms. The second room is a little darker and more subdued than the bright yellow original, and it certainly makes Urbano easier to get into than in the days when it had all of nine tables.
It is, however, every bit as loud. There’s not a sound-absorbing surface in either dining room, and once those wine bottles have been out for a while you’ll have to shout across the table. Yes, that BYOB policy is still in place (with a $5-per-bottle corkage fee at dinner, $3 at lunch), and it is an especially happy coincidence that Jimmy’s Food Store, with its excellent collection of Italian wines, is right around the corner.
Another quirkier hallmark of Urbano is gone. Besides its regular menu, the restaurant offered a blackboard of mix ’n’ match ingredients from which diners could choose a protein and a sauce to go with it. This always seemed like rather too much empowerment: Isn’t part of the point to put yourself in the chef’s hands when it comes to what goes best with what?
That odd gimmick is no more. In its place is a still-smallish fixed menu and a list of a half-dozen or so specials that changes as often as twice a week. The appetizers generally live on the regular menu, and several of them are terrific.
The breaded and fried risotto balls with smoked mozzarella and Fresno peppers are crunchy on the outside and unctuous on the inside, enlivened with a drizzle of spicy-sweet Sriracha glaze and freshened with their accompaniment of shredded apple salad. The steamed mussels, such an exhausted trope at so many other Dallas restaurants, rock with flavor here. Sweet and fat, they swim in a heady tomato broth spiked with garlic and chorizo; you’ll use the accompanying grilled bread to sop up every drop. The boneless Korean short ribs glazed with soy and sprinkled with scallions and fried shallots pack a savory punch, too. Not so much the pallid Wagyu meatballs wallowing in puréed parsnip.
Go instead for the cheerful confit of baby beets with shaved Grana Padano, charred frisée and a lemony vinaigrette. Several of Urbano’s salads feature a variety of sprightly, fresh greens; a new addition to the lunch menu, a fine salad with breaded fried shrimp, included some tasty tomatoes even in the dark depths of February. Lunch also continues to feature top-notch panini, like the Urbano Club with smoked turkey, prosciutto and fontina.
A longtime stalwart entree from the regular dinner menu, the veal Bolognese over pappardelle pasta, remains solid and satisfying, though I found the Bolognese too bright, tasting more of lightly cooked tomato than would a more traditional version. But the beautifully charred, perfectly medium-rare beef tenderloin was the hit of our table one evening.
Things get a lot wobblier with the specials. A starter of seared foie gras was a cacophony of discordant ideas — a small flavorless bit of liver sitting on some parsnip purée with some watery peach salsa, accompanied by a pot of truly woeful, runny crème brûlée. Yes, foie gras is often accompanied by a little something sweet, but this really seemed like dessert with some liver on the side.
While offering a flurry of constantly changing specials seems energetic and invigorating, there’s an odd sameness
to many of these dishes: a seared or pan-roasted piece of meat, poultry or fish placed on top of some sort of purée or mash — or sometimes pasta — often joined by too much of a rather heavy sauce.
These get varied up with a blizzard of tricky-sounding garnishes and other accompaniments, but they tend neither to stand out nor to work together to form a coherent dish. So, for example, a reasonably well-executed medium-rare seared duck breast comes over thyme polenta with something called cherry fire pickles, sunchoke chips, Texas grapefruit, sunflower sprouts and date jus. Whew! A piece of braised veal short rib rests in a puddle of fairy-tale squash purée with caramelized nectarines, San Marzano tomatoes, leeks and juniper jus. And a blameless slice of nice swordfish swims in a big pool of Dijon mustard cream sauce with seared cherry tomatoes, roasted bell peppers and sprouts; lost under all of this are a couple of poor squid-ink crab ravioli. There are fine ingredients here, solid technique and plenty of ambition. But a little restraint and clarity would really help.
Even so, it’s hard not to have a great time at Urbano. Plenty of dishes continue to offer straightforward, simple flavor.
The service has improved since the early days, when the staff could be a little high-handed in the first flush of success. The tab is relatively easy to swallow, the wine — your wine — flows freely, and the loose-limbed downtown vibe remains a rarity in our city. You still have to love Urbano Cafe, even if a little of the bloom is off the rose.
Mark Vamos is a professor of journalism at Southern Methodist University.
Urbano Cafe (2 stars)
Price: $$$ (lunch soups, salads and sandwiches $4 to $16, lunch main courses $11 to $16; dinner appetizers and salads $8 to $13, dinner main courses $19 to $29; desserts $8)
Service: Casual and friendly. Servers are enthusiastic about the fare and attentive without being intrusive.
Ambience: Two small dining rooms with relatively well-spaced tables. The main room has an open kitchen in the rear; the one two doors down, which you reach via a rear passageway, has a large brick bar in the middle.
Noise level: When this place is full — as it usually is — and when the BYOB wine is flowing, there can be quite a din.
Location: 1410 N. Fitzhugh Ave., Dallas; 214-823-8550; urbanodallas.com
Hours: Lunch Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner Tuesday-Saturday 5 to 10 p.m.
Credit cards: MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: No alcohol. $5 per bottle corkage fee at dinner, $3 per bottle at lunch.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor