Monday, November 05, 2007

Comfort in North Park - Urban Solace

Independent restaurants have been springing up like crazy in North Park lately, and as much as I love many of the ones I have already visited - I predict that they're going to face some stiff competition from this newest entry. Urban Solace Sign
When I first heard about Urban Solace, I sort of struggled with the name. It sounds more like a spa than a restaurant to me - but it makes more sense when you think about their focus on fun but sophisticated comfort foods. Open only a few weeks, they're already serving Sunday brunch, lunch and dinner - which sets them apart from some other neighborhood places - and their prices are eminently reasonable, topping out at around $16.00. Both the owner, Scott Watkins, and Executive Chef Matt Gordon come to the business with seventeen years of experience in the restaurant industry, which also bodes well for their success. Matt's wife, Young Mi, works the front of the house periodically.
Urban Solace
After reading some positive comments from the somewhat tough crowd on Chowhound, I headed over here for lunch when I returned from my recent travels. My friend Susan and I split the pile of of the warm cheese biscuits with orange honey butter ($4.00), an iceberg wedge salad with bleu cheese ($7.00), and the burger ($8.75). The biscuits were light, crisp and airy with a slight savory flavor, and the honey butter complimented them perfectly. Their small size is just right for nibbling with a glass of wine or beer.
Iceberg and Bleu Cheese Wedge at Urban Solace
The iceberg wedge with blue cheese was perfectly fresh and crisp, with a tangy rich dressing, crunchy spiced pecans and pickled onions. It was almost identical to a salad I had at Jacks' Ocean Room several months ago at double the price.
Burger at Urban Solace
The burger is made with Brandt Farms beef and served on a housemade bun with Vermont cheddar cheese. I can't quibble with any of those things, and everything on it - including the meat - was juicy and flavorful - but it comes to the table already stacked and dressed, and I found it a little sweet and rich, with the grilled onions and thousand-island sauce. I prefer my burgers to have a little bite to cut the richness - next time, I might ask to customize it.

One quirk is that they serve sweet potato fries here both as a starter and with their sandwiches. I have only had truly crisp sweet potato fries once in my life, at Taylor's Refresher in Napa Valley, and I suspect they got them that way through some tortured process that infused the fries with at least 50% oil by weight. Urban Solace's version isn't soggy, but they aren't exactly crisp either. They taste good, but at least in the case of the burger, their sweet flavor compounded my feelings about the sandwich itself. It would be nice (not to mention more economical for the restaurant) if they offered a choice of both sweet potato and regular russet fries. I am sure that if they did put out some regular fries they'd be fantastic.
Urban Solace - Peanut Butter Chocolate Creme Brulee
For dessert, Susan and I split the Chocolate Peanut Butter Creme Brulee ($6.00) - which sounded a little over the top, but was really stupendous. The bottom of the ramekin is lined with bittersweet chocolate pot de creme, and a tangy rich peanut butter custard sits on top. It's not insanely sweet, and the perfect crust shattered with a satisfying crack when I tapped with my spoon. The Diedrich's coffee was also fresh and hot - but I'd love to see them using an even more local brand, say Caffe Calabria just down the street.

On a second visit for dinner the other night with James and our friend Lisa, we branched out a little on the menu. I did notice that they offer most of their lunch menu at dinnertime for the same prices as lunch. We ordered the cheese biscuits again (just as good as before if not better) and the Watermelon, Tomato and Cucumber Salad - which also features feta, pine nuts, mint and a pomegranate vinaigrette ($7.25). I couldn't get enough of this - it was crisp, sweet, savory and refreshing all at once - perfect with the cheese biscuits.

For entrees, James chose the Braised Beef Cheeks (around $16.00), I went with the Lobster Pot Pie with Artichokes and a Homemade Fennel infused Pastry Crust served with a Warm Frisee Salad ($15.75), and Lisa ordered the burger (which is the same price at lunch and dinner, $8.75) I also enjoyed a glass of Zaca Mesa Viognier, and James quaffed a Boont Amber Ale from Northern California.
Urban Solace Lobster Pot Pie
I was a little wary of the pot pie, not being a huge fan of artichokes or fennel generally - but my risk (such as it was) was rewarded handsomely. The presentation was exceptional, with the pie taking up half of a small square baking dish, and the salad nestled in the other half. The fennel was a subtle flavor in the crust, which was as flaky as it could possibly be and rich as a Christmas cookie. The tangled frisee and cherry tomatoes nestled in the dish were a welcome counterpoint to all the richness. My only complaint - if I'm allowed one at the price - is that I would have liked to see a couple more of the large lobster knuckle-meat chunks.

James' beef cheeks served with tomato jam and celery root mashed potatoes were braised like short ribs, but the meat seemed to be a bit stringier and less tender. When I tried it I thought it was a little bland, but I was also eating something else and drinking a totally uncomplimentary wine. It's always hard to tell if it's the piece of meat itself or the preparation with something like this - and it is a new dish on their menu, so it's possible they'll fine tune it. (Postscript: I had this at a wine dinner the following week, and it was excellent, better than it had been that night.)

We also shared a side of their highly-touted mac and cheese ($6.00), featuring chunks of pancetta and a crumb crust. When it came to the table, it was as hot as molten lava and extremely liquid, and the noodles were small and fairly soft. I prefer my mac and cheese a little more solid, but I couldn't tell if that was just the portion we had, the fact that it was really hot - or if that's how they make it. It had good cheese flavor though.

We skipped dessert this time, having indulged so thoroughly in the meal, but eyeballed the butterscotch "puddin" and the key lime tart. If they're as good as the peanut butter and chocolate creme brulee they're worth saving room for on a future visit.

Urban Solace
3823 30th Street
San Diego, CA 92104
(619) 295-6464
http://www.urbansolace.net/

Especially recommended dishes: the biscuits, the wedge salad, watermelon, cucumber and tomato salad, Brandt farms burger, lobster pot pie and chocolate peanut butter creme brulee.

9 comments:

  1. Man, I cannot wait to try this place. I'm glad you liked it.

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  2. Thanks Steph! It's not exactly "weight watchers" friendly, but it's good for a splurge!

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  3. Hee! Yeah, I feel bad posting to a food blog through my WW blog, but oh well.

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  4. Oh, the lobster pot pie sounds yummy! I love buttery crusts. Dang, I shouldest BEFORE reading your blog :)

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  5. Hi Alice!

    What a crack up! We just posted our review this of place and then checked around and read yours. Great review. We parted company on the Mac'n'Cheese and the fries, but otherwise on dishes we both had I think we were on the same page as usual.

    The Pot Pie wasn't available for us sadly! We definitely want to try it soon!

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  6. great food but we went on a weekend night and we waited for over an hour and half before having the staff tell us that we would have to wait another 30 minutes to seat our party. Make reservations if possible.

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  7. I also live and eat in North Park. With so many great places to eat Urban Solace should really try harder to earn our business!
    I called to ask if they took reservations, only to be told no. When we showed up at 6:30 PM (early!)we were asked,"did you call and put your name on the list?" Uh, no you said no reservations. We too were told it owuld be 1-1 1/2 hours. the hostess could hardly contain her smirk. We walked around the corner and had a wonderful meal at 1/3 of the price.-

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  8. Anonymous - I don't think that's an unusual experience. Many places don't take reservations, but will allow people to call and get on their waiting list - especially if you live in the neighborhood. They are pretty overwhelmed with dinner business right now - if you go at lunch or for brunch and it probably won't be so bad.

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