3823 30th Street, North Park
Among the many new restaurants opening along the formerly starved 30th Street corridor, the one that’s generated the most buzz is Urban Solace, a giant hit with all the local food blogs. When it had been open long enough to presumably have its act together, I set forth with my posse (Samurai Jim, ex-chef James, witty Fred) for some hoped-for solace, or at least dinner.
Neighbor to a new upscale shoe store and a high-class dive bar, the restaurant’s exterior looks transported from the French Quarter, with a lacy iron balcony overhanging the entrance and an iron-fenced outdoor dining patio to one side. Indoors, you step into a bar-lounge with comfortable couches separated by a glass wall from the long, narrow dining room. Even with its hard flooring and unclothed tables, the dining room’s sound level maintains that elusive balance point between lively and loud that so many restaurants strive for but cruelly exceed: a bright party sound that still permits conversation. On a midweek night, a singer-guitarist seated by the front window roamed from flamenco-pop to Latin-pop to Leon Redbone-ish old-timey bluesy pop. (At the weekend brunch, there was a good little bluegrass band.)
Every restaurant has an off night sooner or later, and it’s sort of tragic when the “off” happens just when a restaurant critic is in. I hit not just one but two off nights (although one was during the day). Given the blog raves, the high praise in smaller papers, and the crowd of evident regulars that the chef greeted by name, I’m sure the restaurant’s performance at these meals wasn’t typical. (It couldn’t have been!) In any event, the chef-owner knows my quibbles, sounded sincerely aghast at the worst mishaps, and will be (as they say) taking steps. Still, I have to write about the restaurant I ate at, not the restaurant I wanted to eat at.
Service was highly problematic at both meals, with many glitches. At the first dinner, we bought glasses of wine at the bar and brought them to our table when seated. That was fortunate, because for unknown reasons (prohibitionism? oenophobic panic? irritable bowel syndrome?) our original waiter couldn’t take our wine orders but flapped off to enlist another server to handle that task. Then both waiters vanished, never to be seen again (not at our table). After a reminder, a third server, who more or less stuck with us thereafter, finally brought our white (a tasty Marsanne blend from Cline), after a reminder, just as we finished our bar quaffs — about halfway through the appetizer course.
Here, ya gets no bread with one meatball, or even with no meatball. You can order biscuits with honey-butter as an inexpensive side dish, but (as at the Laurel group) the chef really doesn’t want you to stuff yourself on starch before you’ve even ordered. We began instead with Seared Albacore Chop Chop — raw tuna, avocado, lime juice, cilantro, and pine nuts assembled into a mellow So-Cal-Mex version of ahi poke, with thin russet-colored house-baked crackers (made of pizza dough) for crispness. There’s no soy sauce or any other Asian substance in the mix because the chef emphatically doesn’t want to do fusion; he wants to do pure, simple American. The result is pleasing, if not riveting.
Pan-roasted mussels were fresh and tender in a smoked tomato butter — a thick but light tomato sauce, which lacked any detectable butteriness. “Butter — or more butter, anyway — is precisely what this needs,” said ex-chef James, “to pull it all together and give it the luxurious mouth-feel it needs.”
Sweet potato fries were perfect — long, skinny, moist strips of red Garnet yams, with a Maytag blue cheese–buttermilk dip. Lightly fried, the yams maintained their sweet, lush character. “Ah, that breaks da mouth,” said James, in the argot he learned when heading the kitchen at a Fijian resort.
Crispy Skillet Shrimp and Chile Grit Cakes looked and sounded better than they tasted. Prettily presented in their shells, the shrimp were crisped but a tad overcooked, and not especially flavorful in themselves, despite a festoon of multicolored bell pepper strips, a rub of gumbo filé (sassafras), and a bed of solid grits studded with serrano chile bits. The dish circulated, garnering mere nibbles, like Duncan Hunter’s run for president.
A soi-disant “creamy” tomato-fennel soup was acidic, made with canned tomatoes since fresh ones are rarely ripe in winter. “But they’re obviously not Muir Glen’s roasted tomatoes — those are sweeter and mellower than this soup,” I speculated. (They were, in fact, Italian Romas.) “This maybe needs a swirl of actual cream to smooth it out,” I added. James said, “I’d put in some sugar, too, to cut the tartness,” at which point Fred chimed in, “I love eating with you foodies. Mentally remaking the soup — your imaginary version tastes better than the real one.”
When our appetizers arrived, we put in orders for entrées and a red wine with the latest of our waiters. Entrées arrived, but no wine. We inquired. Our waitron vanished temporarily, and another approached to say that our wine choice was sold out. We chose a substitute (Banging Red, a Bordeaux-style blend gone wild, with Zin added to Cab and Merlot). It arrived soon — but as a powerful young whippersnapper, it would have been better if brought and opened half an hour earlier, when we originally ordered a red. (In fact, none of the ever-changing cast who served us in passing seemed particularly personable, professional, or knowledgeable about the foods or wines. Yes, it’s a relatively inexpensive restaurant, but — where did they get these people? And is anybody in charge of directing traffic?)
The fennel-infused buttery crust on a Maine lobster and artichoke pot pie was delicious, and so were the artichoke hearts, but the lobster meat (not frozen, as I’d originally guessed, but actually from fresh live “culls”) was so upstaged by the supporting players that we could barely taste it. Maybe artichokes just don’t play well with others. (“Imagine this with braised fennel and leeks instead of artichokes,” I murmured, mentally defending the lobster against the veggie bully.)