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