Thursday, September 27, 2007

Restaurant Review: Urbano Paninoteca

Urbano Decay

...Or: Why hindsight isn't always 20/20

Urbano Paninoteca
2533 McKinney Avenue

A Note of Explanation:

I fell in love with Urbano Paninoteca back in 2002 when it was a hole-in-the-wall off McKinney Avenue. This was during the panini early years—a time when these grilled sandwiches were still new and fresh, before barely-edible microwaveable facsimiles were available in the frozen food section of the supermarket.

Urbano's grilled tuna panini was a revelation (Fresh tuna! Fresh greens! Praise be to buttery grilled bread!) and the sole ray of light on the gloomy first day of a job that would continue to leech my life-force for another six months. Soon, I was visiting that “new little place across the street”, as we called it, almost every day of the week. A crisp tomato-basil-mozzarella panini, oozing with creamy melted cheese, was often the only thing that got me through the day. Maybe I romanticized it in hindsight, maybe I remember it being so wonderful simply because I looked forward to it so.

I'm beginning to believe that's the case, because a recent move to a larger venue on McKinney prompted me and FoodiePrincess to visit Urbano for the purposes of reviewing it for the blog, and to say that it was not as good as I remembered would be an understatement...

- Classy&Sassy

Who was there?

Our first visit was at lunchtime on a weekday, and Urbano was packed with young professionals. The crowd was lively and well-dressed and many seemed as though they visited the restaurant on a regular basis.

At dinner, only a few tables were occupied for the majority of our visit. We sat indoors and most of them were outside, so we couldn't tell you what the patrons looked or dressed like. With such a gorgeous patio, offering views of McKinney Avenue, trolley and all, we were surprised there weren't more folks out there taking advantage of the beautiful late summer evening.

We later found out why.

How were the drinks?

Drinks at lunch were straight-up fountain fare. Method of service was the sticking point (read on below). A wine menu was presented at dinnertime, but they'd have to be giving away free Moët to make up for our disappointing meal. Great by-the-glass wine pricing or an innovative cocktail menu (not that they had either) would be beside the point in this case.

What were we eating? How did it taste?

At lunch, the Warm Roast Beef Panini was a hit. Our companion enjoyed the melting provolone, grilled onion and roasted red pepper that accented tender shredded roast beef. The meat was fresh, and if not homemade, was of the high-quality deli-counter variety. So what if the bread didn't have the crisp and buttery grilled texture that we remembered from the past? Overall, the sandwich was a success. Fries on the side were thin and crisp. They've been voted Best in Dallas by D Magazine in the past, and while we wouldn't go that far, they were certainly above average.

The Parmesan Crusted Chicken Salad, however, was a lunchtime disappointment. (aside: Why is it so hard to get a decent salad? This is not the first time this issue has come up! I will lay a fat juicy one on the person who points me toward a great place for creative and tasty salads! - C&S) Greens were fresh, but tomatoes lacked flavor and the salad as a whole was overdressed. Chicken was cold and soggy.

On our dinner visit, we began with the Calamari Fritti appetizer. The usual rings arrived – no strips of fillet or tentacles – but the breading was flavorful and crisp. Someone at Urbano is great with a Fryolater. Dipping sauces alongside were ho-hum. A plate of foccacia and dish of olive oil were also placed on the table. Bread had somewhat of a chill and, while flecked with seasonings, did not deliver the usual rosemary and sea salt punch.

The Asparagi alla Griglia salad consisted of steamed asparagus spears and roasted red peppers alongside lemon and basil pesto ciabatta toasts. The veggies were fine, but the toasts had obviously prepped far in advance – they had the settled, lackluster look of leftovers.

Zuppa di Pesce was another disappointment. The dish was tepid, which could have been due to underheating in the first place, or sitting too long before service with only a shallow 1/4” of “zuppa” in the bottom of the bowl. Neither of us understood why this was billed as a soup at all. The broth was a flavorful spoonful and a half of liquid which pooled beneath ample, if overcooked and under seasoned, seafood.

One dish that was tasty, if overpriced at $15, was the Ravioli con Burro e Salvia. While the name makes it sound like “Ravioli with Donkey Spit,” it was actually Ravioli with ricotta cheese, roasted tomatoes and brown butter sage sauce. The sauce lacked as much of a sage kick as we would have liked, but the roasted tomatoes added a welcome sweet/savory flavor component to the dish.

The only dessert sampled was the banana bread pudding with caramel sauce. This was too tempting to pass up for FP, a bread pudding fanatic. Unfortunately it was the biggest disappointment of the evening. The caramel sauce was delicious, but the bread pudding itself was tasteless and dry - pretty much inedible.

How was the service?

Lunchtime means counter-service here: file in up front cafeteria-style and then place your order at the register. Drinks are self-serve, and the cubby hole in which the fountain soda and pitchers of water and tea were located was dingy and small. During a busy lunch rush, it was very uncomfortable for everyone to squeeze in and out holding purses, drinks, order number table tents, straws, etc.

At dinner, Urbano breaks out the white tablecloths for a surprisingly effective transformation from casual sandwich shop to chic bistro, if only in décor. Dinner service didn't match up to the smart costume change, however. Waiter was friendly, but ultimately distracted and forgetful.

How much did it cost?

Paninis range from $6.50 - $8.95 and are reasonable at that price, considering the quality of the ingredients and the finished product. All other menu items, especially those on the dinner menu, we felt to be far too expensive when evaluated on any combination of criteria – serving size, ingredients, presentation, atmosphere, etc.

Would you go there again?

This may be a first for us, but we both agree that we won't be back. Given the plethora of paninis in the city these days, there is really no reason to risk another hit-or-miss experience with Urbano.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Brief Literary Interlude

Let's take a moment to enrich our minds, while celebrating one of our favorite things: cocktail hour. Below find Baudelaire's 1869 treatise on indulgence...not only is it food (drink?) for thought, but it's a damned good reason to pour yourself a tall one today at 5.

Be You Drunken!

One must always be drunk. That's all there is to it; that's

the only solution. In order not to feel the horrible burden of

Time breaking your shoulders and bowing your head to the

ground, you must be drunken without respite.

But; with what? With wine, poetry or virtue, as you will.

Be you drunken.

And if sometimes you awake, on the steps of a palace, in

the green herbage of a ditch or in the dreary solitude of your

room, then ask the wind, the waves, the stars, the birds, the

clocks, ask everything that runs, that moans, that moves

on wheels, everything that sings and speaks – ask them what

is the time of day; and the wind, the waves, the stars, the

birds and the clocks will answer you: It is time to get

drunk. In order not to be the martyred slave of Time, be you

drunken; be you drunken ceaselessly! With wine, poetry or

virtue, as you will!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

FoodiePrincess' Pretty Dang Good Salsa

I've been making my own salsa for years, and the more experiementing I've done, the more I've realized that there really is no "world's best salsa." My husband thinks the salsa at Tin Star is the best. I like the warm salsa at Cantina Laredo. Some people swear by the salsa at Matt's Rancho Martinez. But while this is true, I do have a recipe I like best.

I made this Pretty Dang Good Salsa last weekend, and it was a big hit with our guests (Classy&Sassy and her husband among them). The bottom line is: if it involves tomatoes, onions, jalepenos, cilantro and lime juice it's all good. The rest is just gravy, or in the case of my recipe, the rest is just ancho chilis, cumin and corriander.

2 Tbs. olive oil
12 Roma tomatoes, halved
2 Yellow onions, cut into eighths
2 Jalapeños, seeded and quartered
1 Poblano pepper, seeded and cut into strips
4 Garlic cloves
2 Tsp. oregano
2 Tsp. + 1 tsp salt
2 Tsp. fresh ground black pepper
3 Canned ancho chilis in adobo, chopped
¼ Cup of lime juice (or the juice of two limes)
½ Cup chopped cilantro
½ Tsp. sugar
1 Tbs. cumin
1/2 Tsp. Corriander

Preheat broiler in oven to 500°.

In a glass baking dish, combine olive oil, tomatoes, onions, jalepenos, poblano pepper, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper. Mix with your hands until all the veggies are covered in olive oil and spices. Place the dish under the broiler for approximately 30-40 minutes, checking every 10 minutes to stir veggies. The onions will begin to burn a little at the edges, but this is okay—it will just be more flavor in the salsa. You do want to make sure that the tomatoes have started to get a little blackened as well.

Pull the veggies out of the oven and let them cool a little bit. In a food processor or a blender, add the cooked veggies, 1 tsp. salt, the ancho chilis, lime juice, cilantro, cumin, coriander and sugar. Blend until your desired consistency. I like mine pretty smooth. You can serve warm or cool. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Classy&Sassy's Top Five Neighborhood Restaurants

...and Bottom Five Neighborhood Dives

Now it's my turn! Here are my Top 5 Neighborhood Pics (in no particular order) and Bottom 5 Neighborhood Pans. I determined my “neighborhood” to be Oak Lawn, Uptown and Knox St., and I used the same criteria set forth by FP: these are casual, drop-in spots – not fine dining. Enjoy!

p.s. I know I'm going to poke a few eyeballs with my pans, but feel free to leave me a comment and let me know how wrong I am!

C&S's Top 5 Neighborhood Favorites

Tio's Tortas (4015 Lemmon Avenue) These monsters are big on taste and, well, big-ness. Everyone I've introduced to Tio's has promptly developed their own jones. $5 to anyone who tries Nardo's Nightmare and gives their own review in 'Comments'.

Mia's (4322 Lemmon Avenue) Mia's is straight-forward excellent Tex-Mex. No frills, no faux-kitch on the walls, no Facebook-aged waiters sporting pieces of flare. It's a family operation and I'd guess they use family recipes – they sure do taste like it.

La Duni (Two Locations, both in my neighborhood: 4264 Oak Lawn Ave & 4620 McKinney Ave) Up until a few months ago, I would say, “I've heard that place is really good...” when La Duni would come up in conversation. Then, I ate there. I'm now a convert; the greatness of La Duni inspires evangelical devotion to spreading the word about their incredible Latin cuisine and pastries that will cause you to swear off that stale Starbucks case for good. The reward for a lifetime of preaching this gospel? When I die, I'll be baked into a Quatro Leches from La Duni.

Green Papaya Vietnamese Bistro (3211 Oak Lawn Avenue, suite B) Great vietnamese food. The spring rolls and pho are some of the best I've ever tasted. FP loves the Canh Chu (Vietnamese Hot and Sour Soup). There is little atmosphere to speak of, but I did see Don Henley picking up some take-out on a Sunday night.

Toy's Cafe (4422 Lemmon Avenue) All right, it's a dive and it sits in a questionable shopping center alongside a couple of shady businesses (see photo left; no, I can't vouch for "Donuts" or "Jessica Hair Salon"). Don't go there with someone you want to impress. Do go there if you want to sample their amazing corn cakes.

*Didn't add to list 'cause you should darn well

already know about them: Buli, Breadwinner's & Eatzi's

Sassy's Bottom 5 – Totally Overrated!

Primo's: What the ef is up with this glorified OTB? You wouldn't go there for the food, and you wouldn't go for the great service. You certainly wouldn't go if you actually wanted to sit on the patio. So why go at all? I have no clue...maybe you just picked up a new ironic screen-printed “vintage” t-shirt at Urban Outfitters and you just can't wait to show it off?

Hook, Line and Sinker: Used to be good, not so good anymore. What changed? I'm not sure, but it doesn't seem to be changing back anytime soon.

The Bronx: People love The Bronx, and I've had some nice meals here. More often than not, however, the food is lukewarm and bears little resemblance to menu descriptions. Dining rooms are often empty and eerily silent as well. The only redeeming quality is that the service is always excellent.

Cafe Brazil, Cedar Springs location: I'm disappointed in this outpost of Dallas' favorite indie coffee shop every time I decide to give it another try. Tables are cramped, food isn't good, coffee is weak (and I mean see-through!), and there are strange odors in several corners of the restaurant.

Chuy's: Once again, this is a favorite of many and I expect flack for panning it (feel free to comment), but I have to be honest. Not only has service been sub-par and “cold” wine and beer served lukewarm on my past few visits, but there were also some stomach-turning food faux-pas on display. Sticky, foamy white film floating atop bowl of salsa, anyone?

Monday, September 3, 2007

Cornbread Chronicles

Part I: Cornbread, Contraband and Keeping Good Culinary Company

As many of you already know, I'm in the midst of a writing assignment that involves cornbread. Lots and lots of cornbread. Let's just say that for the last four days out of five, I've had cornbread for breakfast. Twice for lunch.

I'm preparing a review of a new cookbook by one of my culinary heroes, Crescent Dragonwagon. Answer to obligatory question: No, that isn't her given name, but the story of how it came about is entertaining. Dragonwagon penned “Passionate Vegetarian”, a doorstop of a tome filled with recipes, stories, tips and menus. The darned thing is just about as big as my beagle, but I've nonetheless been through it several times, leaving a trail of sauce-splashed pages and margin notes in my wake. It's the “Joy of Cooking” for vegetarians. Answer to next obligatory question: No, I'm not a vegetarian...but I live to cook, and anything that presents the very essence of a cuisine, be it vegetarian, Moroccan or Coastal South Carolinian, is of great interest to people like me who love playing with their food.

So, cornbread. Not something I would have considered myself knowledgeable or curious about in the least – until I picked up the book. It set a place for me at the communal table shared by Native Americans, African slaves, Portuguese fishermen and a dozen or more other cultures who have embraced this humble foodstuff through the ages. Now I'm hooked.

As I mention this to friends, acquaintances and passers-by, it's a treat to witness their impassioned reactions. No one is neutral on cornbread. Everyone has something to share – family recipes, new twists and recent kitchen experiments. A checker at Whole Foods, eyes wide with interest, leaned in close when I mentioned the project. It was as though I had produced the proper handshake and could now be let in on the secret: “Amaranth,” he whispered, barely audible in the bustling market on a Sunday afternoon. “Amaranth is the key...”

I raced home, grocery bags swinging to and fro, to ask my husband if he knew of this mystery ingredient. “Amaranth? I think that's illegal here in the States.” Actually, it's a nutrient-dense grain (or herb, depending on who you ask) that was a favorite of the Mayans and Incas. I believe Jeremy was thinking of “Absinthe”; those of you who know him will not be surprised.

Now, I ask all of you (we have lots of readers now! Yay!), do you have cornbread tales to tell? Did your mom use something special – jack cheese? sweet cream? - that made hers the best? Leave a comment or shoot me an email. I'd love to hear all about it!