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The Devil in the Details

Place

Urban Solace

3823 30th Street, San Diego




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.)

The menu announces: “All meats cooked to the temperature you request.” That is, unless your server is somehow inconvenienced by your request. We asked for our cinnamon-brined pork chop cooked to 135˚F, which would be medium-rare, rosy and moist. Our waiter du moment went away briefly, returned, and told us that the chef cooks it to 145˚F and lets it rest for five minutes to finish cooking internally. That’s how it arrived — well-done, tough, white all the way through. (When I told the chef, he was appalled: Like me, he’s a fan of Bruce Aidells’s meat cookbooks, which specify the lower figure as ideal, as well as quite safe with American commercial pork.) The accompanying cinnamon-shallot gravy was good, the braised chard was nice, and the corn spoon bread was passable. (It, too, needed more moisture, less time in the oven. Spoon bread is a great treat when done right — soft and succulent, almost puddinglike.)

Char-grilled hanger steak was pretty good, rare as ordered. It’s not the pricey Brandt beef the restaurant uses for its cheeks and burgers but comes from a larger, cheaper purveyor (using Brandt would nearly double the price) — and it’s noticeably less flavorful. The more serious disappointment was that the celeriac mashed potatoes served with it had too much potato and not nearly enough of the haunting flavor of celery root, and also not enough dairy (cream, butter, even milk) for the luxurious smoothness I’d hoped for. (Ever since tasting the spectacular version that Brian Sinnott served at Molly’s — he’s now at 1500 Ocean — I’ve craved a repeat.) As for the braised Brandt Farm beef cheeks, James and I both wished for more red wine in the braising liquid to give the sauce greater depth (something more like Pascal Vignau’s beef cheek bourguignonne at Savory). But maybe the service was making us cranky.

For dessert, a butterscotch pudding was airy and subtle, with a velvety texture and gentle taste. A cheesecake garnished with caramelized apple slices was light, too, if a little more substantial.

I returned a few days later for Sunday brunch with the Lynnester, Cheryl, Michelle, and Sue. The phone was partly out of order that day, so we couldn’t do a call-ahead and had a 20-minute wait before being seated. No big deal — but then the real waiting began: for coffee, for drinks, for a chance to order, and finally, endlessly, for food.

Drinks first: The restaurant has a beer and wine license, but apparently the owners expected to get a full liquor license, because the written brunch menu offers rum drinks with numerous fruit flavors. They’ve got the fruit syrups, but — no rum. If you want booze for breakfast, you’ll have to content yourself with wine, beer, a mimosa, or else champagne with a bit of pomegranate, mango, etc. flavoring. No mojitos after all.

As we sipped, blood sugar plummeting, we eyed the beautiful golden Benedict at a neighbor’s table and envied the huge, handsome hamburgers heading for the patio. Eighty minutes after arrival, the Lynnester checked her watch: “It’s after 2:00. I’ve got dinner reservations for 6:15 tonight, hope we’ll be done in time.” Cheryl said, “I hope the food will be worth the wait.” Urban solace? Urban nightmare. Ninety minutes after our arrival, when the waiter refilled our coffee cups for the third time, one of us asked in the weak and failing voice of a starved Dickensian orphan, “Please, sir, will our food be coming soon?” “Two minutes,” he promised. Five minutes later, he returned with loaded plates, a mere 95 minutes after our arrival, 75 minutes after we were seated.

I assumed the delay was because the kitchen was backed up, but it seems to have been another service problem. “Usually, that doesn’t happen, even if the restaurant is full,” chef-owner Matt Gordon told me later, “because the brunches are such fast-dish orders, the kitchen can get them right out. So this implies that something went wrong along the way — the ticket [the order] was lost, or some kind of miscommunication.”

The dish most worth waiting for was the Portobello Benedict. The base is a pair of house-baked biscuits, stacked with spinach, portobello slices, and perfectly poached eggs, topped with smoked-ancho (mild chile) hollandaise. It was flawless and fabulous, eliciting groans of pleasure as each of us tasted it.

Coming close was the butter-pecan French toast, large soft slabs of egg bread topped with buttery browned-sugar syrup and a host of whole pecans. Alongside were a few bites of what the menu describes as “maple/turkey/bacon/sausage.” It’s not a series of choices, but an all-in-one sausage (or Churkendoose) whose full name is “maple turkey chicken bacon yam sausage,” and it’s made by Bruce Aidells.

Lynne and Michelle both liked the Monte Diego well enough — a baked version (rather than deep-fried or grilled) of a Monte Cristo, with fontina as the cheese — but I was a bit disappointed by its austerity. The stuffing had much ham but little cheese (more goo, please!), and the baked French toast surrounding it seemed dry as well. The plate is supposed to include grilled pears and strawberry-currant jelly. The jelly had a fine, dark fruitiness, but — where were the pears? Send in the pears! Was it pear jelly instead? Or did the server finishing the dish forget to add the fruit?

Warm cheddar and chive biscuits with “Southern country gravy” is the menu description of the dish I most wanted to try, even if it’s the unhealthiest thing you could ever eat (pig fat! flour! cream! A bad-carb-cholesterol nuke!). But it proved not quite Southern after all. The biscuits are on the larger, softer side (more Midwest than Deep South), and although there’s some loose bulk sausage in the gravy, along with those sliced Aidells links, it’s not the typical sage-laden breakfast sausage my mouth was set for when I saw the word “Southern.” (The chef seasons the bulk sausage with various chile powders instead.) As the plate circulated, the gravy did cool and congeal into authentic Deep South wallpaper paste — but sorry, I still wanted a hint of sage in my glue.

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.”

Urban Solace

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.

PRICES: Appetizers and salads, $4–$11; entrées, $11–$16; sandwiches, $9–$11; lunch entrées, $7–$14; brunch entrées, $6.50–$10.50.

CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: American comfort food with Southern touches. Mainly California wine list, affordable and venturesome, lots by the glass; serious beer list.

PICK HITS: Sweet potato fries; albacore chop-chop; hanger steak; cheesecake. Brunch: Portobello Benedict; French toast; grits. Good bets: marinated Jidori chicken, hamburger.

NEED TO KNOW: No reservations, call ahead to go to top of waiting list. Heated outdoor patio. Sound level lively but not painful. Live music (folkish) during dinner and Sunday brunch. Plenty for lacto-vegetarians; four entrées adaptable for vegans — specify vegan when ordering. Service can be disorganized.

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Place

Urban Solace

3823 30th Street, San Diego




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.)

The menu announces: “All meats cooked to the temperature you request.” That is, unless your server is somehow inconvenienced by your request. We asked for our cinnamon-brined pork chop cooked to 135˚F, which would be medium-rare, rosy and moist. Our waiter du moment went away briefly, returned, and told us that the chef cooks it to 145˚F and lets it rest for five minutes to finish cooking internally. That’s how it arrived — well-done, tough, white all the way through. (When I told the chef, he was appalled: Like me, he’s a fan of Bruce Aidells’s meat cookbooks, which specify the lower figure as ideal, as well as quite safe with American commercial pork.) The accompanying cinnamon-shallot gravy was good, the braised chard was nice, and the corn spoon bread was passable. (It, too, needed more moisture, less time in the oven. Spoon bread is a great treat when done right — soft and succulent, almost puddinglike.)

Char-grilled hanger steak was pretty good, rare as ordered. It’s not the pricey Brandt beef the restaurant uses for its cheeks and burgers but comes from a larger, cheaper purveyor (using Brandt would nearly double the price) — and it’s noticeably less flavorful. The more serious disappointment was that the celeriac mashed potatoes served with it had too much potato and not nearly enough of the haunting flavor of celery root, and also not enough dairy (cream, butter, even milk) for the luxurious smoothness I’d hoped for. (Ever since tasting the spectacular version that Brian Sinnott served at Molly’s — he’s now at 1500 Ocean — I’ve craved a repeat.) As for the braised Brandt Farm beef cheeks, James and I both wished for more red wine in the braising liquid to give the sauce greater depth (something more like Pascal Vignau’s beef cheek bourguignonne at Savory). But maybe the service was making us cranky.

For dessert, a butterscotch pudding was airy and subtle, with a velvety texture and gentle taste. A cheesecake garnished with caramelized apple slices was light, too, if a little more substantial.

I returned a few days later for Sunday brunch with the Lynnester, Cheryl, Michelle, and Sue. The phone was partly out of order that day, so we couldn’t do a call-ahead and had a 20-minute wait before being seated. No big deal — but then the real waiting began: for coffee, for drinks, for a chance to order, and finally, endlessly, for food.

Drinks first: The restaurant has a beer and wine license, but apparently the owners expected to get a full liquor license, because the written brunch menu offers rum drinks with numerous fruit flavors. They’ve got the fruit syrups, but — no rum. If you want booze for breakfast, you’ll have to content yourself with wine, beer, a mimosa, or else champagne with a bit of pomegranate, mango, etc. flavoring. No mojitos after all.

As we sipped, blood sugar plummeting, we eyed the beautiful golden Benedict at a neighbor’s table and envied the huge, handsome hamburgers heading for the patio. Eighty minutes after arrival, the Lynnester checked her watch: “It’s after 2:00. I’ve got dinner reservations for 6:15 tonight, hope we’ll be done in time.” Cheryl said, “I hope the food will be worth the wait.” Urban solace? Urban nightmare. Ninety minutes after our arrival, when the waiter refilled our coffee cups for the third time, one of us asked in the weak and failing voice of a starved Dickensian orphan, “Please, sir, will our food be coming soon?” “Two minutes,” he promised. Five minutes later, he returned with loaded plates, a mere 95 minutes after our arrival, 75 minutes after we were seated.

I assumed the delay was because the kitchen was backed up, but it seems to have been another service problem. “Usually, that doesn’t happen, even if the restaurant is full,” chef-owner Matt Gordon told me later, “because the brunches are such fast-dish orders, the kitchen can get them right out. So this implies that something went wrong along the way — the ticket [the order] was lost, or some kind of miscommunication.”

The dish most worth waiting for was the Portobello Benedict. The base is a pair of house-baked biscuits, stacked with spinach, portobello slices, and perfectly poached eggs, topped with smoked-ancho (mild chile) hollandaise. It was flawless and fabulous, eliciting groans of pleasure as each of us tasted it.

Coming close was the butter-pecan French toast, large soft slabs of egg bread topped with buttery browned-sugar syrup and a host of whole pecans. Alongside were a few bites of what the menu describes as “maple/turkey/bacon/sausage.” It’s not a series of choices, but an all-in-one sausage (or Churkendoose) whose full name is “maple turkey chicken bacon yam sausage,” and it’s made by Bruce Aidells.

Lynne and Michelle both liked the Monte Diego well enough — a baked version (rather than deep-fried or grilled) of a Monte Cristo, with fontina as the cheese — but I was a bit disappointed by its austerity. The stuffing had much ham but little cheese (more goo, please!), and the baked French toast surrounding it seemed dry as well. The plate is supposed to include grilled pears and strawberry-currant jelly. The jelly had a fine, dark fruitiness, but — where were the pears? Send in the pears! Was it pear jelly instead? Or did the server finishing the dish forget to add the fruit?

Warm cheddar and chive biscuits with “Southern country gravy” is the menu description of the dish I most wanted to try, even if it’s the unhealthiest thing you could ever eat (pig fat! flour! cream! A bad-carb-cholesterol nuke!). But it proved not quite Southern after all. The biscuits are on the larger, softer side (more Midwest than Deep South), and although there’s some loose bulk sausage in the gravy, along with those sliced Aidells links, it’s not the typical sage-laden breakfast sausage my mouth was set for when I saw the word “Southern.” (The chef seasons the bulk sausage with various chile powders instead.) As the plate circulated, the gravy did cool and congeal into authentic Deep South wallpaper paste — but sorry, I still wanted a hint of sage in my glue.

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.”

Urban Solace

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.

PRICES: Appetizers and salads, $4–$11; entrées, $11–$16; sandwiches, $9–$11; lunch entrées, $7–$14; brunch entrées, $6.50–$10.50.

CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: American comfort food with Southern touches. Mainly California wine list, affordable and venturesome, lots by the glass; serious beer list.

PICK HITS: Sweet potato fries; albacore chop-chop; hanger steak; cheesecake. Brunch: Portobello Benedict; French toast; grits. Good bets: marinated Jidori chicken, hamburger.

NEED TO KNOW: No reservations, call ahead to go to top of waiting list. Heated outdoor patio. Sound level lively but not painful. Live music (folkish) during dinner and Sunday brunch. Plenty for lacto-vegetarians; four entrées adaptable for vegans — specify vegan when ordering. Service can be disorganized.

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Comments
2

I recently had lunch at Urban Solace (my first visit) and I realize lunch is often a different experience than dinner. It was a fairly busy Monday afternoon, but I found the waiter was attentive and obliging. I had a pulled chicken sandwich. The chicken was clearly fresh roasted and very tasty. The sweet potato fries were, indeed very good. I'm not a gourmet eater so I can't really comment on the food other than to say I felt happily satisfied at the end of my lunch. I just wanted to mention that the service I received was certainly above average and I had no complaints. Sometimes two women eating at a table are given poor service because they aren't considered likely to leave as good a tip as a group with men in it (that is the conclusion I draw after having been ignored at a number of restaurants) but I would not make this complaint about Urban Solace on the day I ate there. The waiter was polite, respectful, and extremely prompt at responding to my requests. Perhaps I was lucky enough to go after Naomi Wise made her complaints. I'll never know, but I would go back again...in fact, I am planning to.

Feb. 21, 2008

I had the rotating Waiters too! Except mine kept trying to turn the top over and we wanted to get drunk! I wasn't too impressed when I visited US for dinner. The vibe is definitely right but the service is less than impressive and to be honest, the food really wasn't on par to command a drive over to that part of town. Don't get me wrong, the prices are good for the "trendy" place it is and the buscuits are pretty darn delicious, enjoy them during your long wait before booze refills come back around though.

IMO if they're going to go simple American then their ingredients need to be of higher quality to give a better taste explosion that I think they're after. This to me is a good belly up to the bar, grab some cocktails and a little food after work type spot. Maybe a place where the girls can get together for drinks on Thursday but not a date resturant or a place to take someone if you really want to impress them.

May 27, 2008

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