Another Southern item came off very well: breakfast grits (basically, polenta porridge). Cheryl and I both love them, so we ordered the day’s special of scrambled eggs with bell pepper, fresh chiles, and sausage, with “traditional grits” served on the side in a ramekin. Smoothly lump-free, the grits were the highlight of the plate. Thing about grits is, they’re not gritty at all, but light, soft and soothing, true rural solace. “I’ve never liked grits before,” said Sue, in her faint British accent. “But now I see that they can really be quite delicious.” Lynne said, “I’ve never had grits before. I like ’em!” The scrambled eggs were also silky and light — not so easy to pull off when the kitchen is slamming. Nonetheless, by ordering this dish, we had to sacrifice the chance to try a Brandt beefburger — and with Brandt’s well-raised beef, fearing neither evil nor E. coli, I’d ask for it really rare, the way I like burgers and never get them anymore.
From all I’d heard about Urban Solace, I expected a three-star — and I have a feeling that when everything’s going right, it’s exactly that. I did like the restaurant, which seems to have a lot of heart and a warm, neighborly feeling. And almost every dish came “this close” to being what it could and should be. It’s only that the kitchen and, more direly, the dining room, were beset at both my meals by a nasty little gremlin — that notorious devil in the details.
ABOUT THE CHEF
With 17 years of cooking experience, Urban Solace co-owner and executive chef Matt Gordon has long wanted to open his own restaurant. “I started cooking in high school at local restaurants,” he says, “and was going to college in Arizona for a political science degree and just kept cooking because I needed to make money. I found if I learned more, I could make more. I continued getting better jobs through college, until I had a sous-chef position. I also played in a rock ’n’ roll band, and we were doing fairly well, but our singer graduated and said, ‘I’m moving to San Francisco,’ and the rest of us said, ‘Okay, let’s go for it!’ I stayed in my field, cooking, and after about a year of working there I was an executive chef at a restaurant. It was ’96, the dot-com boom, and I just was in the right place at the right time.”
He started at Gordon Biersch (which was still small) and then worked at Jesse Cool’s renowned Flea Street Café in Menlo Park. But when he met his future wife and started thinking about marriage and kids, he realized “I was making nothing and would be forever and decided I needed to give the corporate thing a shot. I opened the Cheesecake Factory in San Francisco, which is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I certainly learned a lot about business! I did it for about a year, and then I decided, ‘No, no!’ I went on to an executive chef position at Scott’s Seafood for about three years.
“My wife and I were living out near the beach in a really cold, foggy part of town, and in 2001 we were kind of over the jobs that we had, so we just picked up and moved to San Diego on a whim.” Matt went to work for a large corporate catering operation. “I told myself that it was the last job I’d have before I worked for myself.” But when one of his mentor-chefs from Flea Street started opening restaurants in Sonoma County and asked him to run the new Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar in Healdsburg, “I was ready for a change, so we moved back north again. After living up there for about a year and having our first child, my wife and I realized we didn’t want to live there. Serendipitously, my business partner here called me up and said, ‘What are you doing? Because I really want to do something.’ I talked to some of my potential investors at that point, they said okay, and we moved back down and opened Urban Solace.
“We decided to find a location that we liked and could afford as a first restaurant and then decide what would fit there.… When I first moved here in 2001, the Asian-fusion trend was just kicking in, but after being in San Francisco in the ’90s, it felt like ‘been there, done that’ — everywhere I worked, we did that.” Returning from Healdsburg, he found the local restaurant scene vastly improved, “But it seems that the great majority of the hot new places are still that fusion thing, whether Cal-Med-French, or Cal-Asian-Spanish or whatever. I just wanted to do something that was a little different — you know, back-to-the-roots comfort food. We have no truffle oil, no soy sauce, none of that stuff! And it’s kind of hard, because I like playing with those things. But I decided to pigeonhole myself here, and it’s worked out well.
“The Southern influence was not really intended. I was thinking ‘American comfort food’ and the South is where a lot of that food originates from. It wasn’t until we’d been open a couple of weeks and people started asking me, ‘Did you spend time in the South?’ — ‘No-o-o’ — that I thought about it. It was kind of a happy accident. But I don’t want to be a Southern restaurant. I want to do some Pacific Northwest comfort food in spring, when the salmon is running and the berries are good. I really do want us to be an all-American restaurant. Our food’s not really complicated, we just buy good products and do as little to it as possible.”
3823 30th Street (south of University Avenue), North Park, 619-295-6464, fax: 619-29-6465, urbansolace.net.
HOURS: 11:30 a.m.–10:00 p.m.; Friday–Saturday: 11:30 a.m.–11:00 p.m.; Sunday: Brunch 10:00 a.m.–2:45 p.m., dinner 5:00 p.m.–9:00 p.m.