Great Expectations
[from October 2006 issue]

When P Street’s Gabriel closed down, an era ended, for its big Sunday brunch consisted of so much food that some of us lost count somewhere after the carving station with its lamb, beef, and pork roasts and all those baked goodies. What would come next? More of the same? A different spin?

What came is Urbana, with its shiny forest green and white tiles and chrome trim, walls turned into fancy wine racks, and a bar/lounge area that’s dark and mysterious even in broad daylight. Was that that flamboyant DC tattle-tale Joe Wilson hunched over in the corner? No, as it turns out. Just a guy in dark glasses, longish hair, and a brunette, not a blonde, at his side.

It’s still early days yet both for the Hotel Palomar -- an empty lobby -- and the Urbana dining room with its almost empty tables. Obviously, many Washingtonians don’t realize that Gabriel’s replacement is open for business and that it’s offering a whole different menu. Press describes it as Mediterranean, French, and Italian . . . well, with influences from each of these countries. But frankly, even the least savvy foodie would be hard-pressed to find much that is European about the lunch menu.

Sure, the kitchen churns out both pastas and pizzas -- I think there’s even a wood-burning oven out back -- but such main dish offerings as grilled Berkshire pork chops, flatiron steaks with duck fat fries, and beef short ribs ravioli sound more like American ingenuity at work than anything springing from a European kitchen. And the Salade Niçoise, another main course dish, has become such an American summertime staple that it’s hard to describe it as French cooking at its best, especially when the salad comes with a soft shell crab. So Chesapeake Bay.

Whatever its origins, the menu certainly takes some gustatory chances, and not all rate applause. Take the Urbana burger, a macho mound of meat perched atop its hamburger bun and coated with a slick of melted fontana cheese. That’s a good pairing -- well, actually, Fontana enhances anything that’s served with it. But the heap of fries alongside, drenched in melted herbed butter, sent me home to a hot scrub. How does anyone eat buttery fries without coming away slightly stained?

The starters are all about salads, four of them, and one chilled soup, a gazpacho, more suited to later summer when tomatoes are at their peak than early fall, when they are not. Among the salads, the warm calamari one with heirloom tomatoes and a chickpea purée sounded the most inventive. A great expectation: crispy calamari perched atop thin slices of flavor-packed heirlooms garnished with a dollop of the purée.

Nope. What this dish actually contains is a very generous portion of delicately sautéed squid circles, including the tiny heads (yuck, sorry!) and an almost nonexistent dollop of chickpea purée. Actually, it may have been nonexistent. As for the tomatoes, several tiny cubes come tossed with the squid -- and what were the herbs? Mint? Basil? Yes, tender squid is a rarity, so A-Plus for deft sautéing, but this dish needs rethinking.

I read through the dinner menu while waiting for lunch, and afterwards, decided that it offers more of the European flair people ascribe to the food. And frankly, the offerings sound much more appealing: roasted sablefish with celery root and Savoy cabbage; brick-oven roasted chicken saltimbocca with artichoke purée; an entrecote of beef with roasted Vidalia onions and potato “marrow bones.” And to start: crostini with flageolet bean purée, wild mushrooms, and heirloom tomatoes. But really, does pea agnolotte pasta with chorizo and lobster sound Italian?

Desserts: minimalist at best, and basically confined to profiterole (very 1960), crème brûlée, and tiramisu. Hmmmm. Run across town to Dolcezza and enjoy some Argentinean gelato.

Urbana Restaurant Wine Bar ~ 2121 P St.; 956-6650. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. Entrée prices at dinner: $20-$31; $52 for the osso bucco for two. Major credit cards accepted.

Copyright (c) 2006 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Alexandra Greeley. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited, except as provided by 17 U.S.C. §107.

Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.


Note About Thai X-ing

Editor’s Note: Following last month’s publication of our review in this space about this small, eclectic establishment at 515 Florida Avenue, NW (“Lofty Curries from a Basement Kitchen,” September 2006, page 21), we learned that it had first been discovered and enthusiastically reviewed by then City Paper restaurant writer Todd Kliman in his July 1, 2005 “Young & Hungry” column, titled “Basement Conversion.”


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