Some reviews are simple to write. I love a place or I don’t, and the words flow out of me quickly and easily. Sometimes a dining experience isn’t so clear cut. I’ve been struggling all week to write about my dinner at Dupont Circle’s Urbana Restaurant and Wine Bar in the Palomar Hotel. It’s finally time to commit my thoughts to the page. Now, if I can only figure out what they are.
I am dining with a group who are in town for the policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The group includes a childhood friend who now lives in Connecticut, plus her spouse and friends. This includes fellow blogger, Liz Reuven from Kosher Like Me. It’s a rare treat to meet a person who shares my passion for food and writing, and has a similar demographic profile. My husband is Kosher like Liz (no shellfish, no meat in restaurants), so we have plenty of common ground to cover.
Urbana features Mediterranean cuisine. I did not choose the restaurant, but I’m more than satisfied, as it has been on my list for some time. I’ve read some good things, and it doesn’t hurt that Chef John Critchley recently won the Eater.com contest for DC’s Hottest Chef. He came in second nationwide when the polls closed just this week.
We are introduced to our meal at Urbana with the delivery of a bread basket and olive oil for dipping, an assortment of olives, and an amuse bouche of homemade cheese with olives and pimento. It is a satisfying start for all.
My starter is carrot soup laced with sumac berry and turmeric, and topped with an “aged” cheese crisp. The soup is creamy and satisfying, if not terribly unique. I do enjoy the cheese crisp. (I wonder how old it really is?)
“Kosher Like Me” and my friend share a salad of baby mixed field greens, bucherone du chevre, aged red wine vinaigrette, and candied walnuts. They both comment that the salad seems like it is made with packaged greens. It’s boring and essentially “there is nothing happening on the plate.”
My husband, on the other hand, is absolutely loving his starter of blackened escolar. He finds the meaty fish filling, and he particularly likes the contrast of warm fish against the cool citrus of the salad.
Another member of our party orders pizza with artichokes, mushrooms, and caramelized onions. She likes it, but my husband thinks it is not quite flavorful enough to be better than good.
On to the main course. My dish is slow braised lamb shank with passilla chili, ras el hanout (blend of Moroccan spices) over risotto milanese, finished with epoisse cheese. The lamb is tender, and the chili gives it just a hint of heat. I wouldn’t mind if it was turned up a notch or two. My favorite part of the dish is the creamy risotto. I leave only a few bites on my plate, and not willingly.
My husband has ricotta filled tortellini with brown butter, sage, preserved lemon, and parmigiano reggiano. He adores the flavor and praises the firm yet delicate pasta.
Blogger Liz and my friend are sharing an entree of grilled swordfish over lentils du puy, parsley, lemon, and peppercorn oil. The server has declined a request to split the dish, so they are on their own to divide the portion. The swordfish is dry and unremarkable, while the lentils have some appeal.
The noise level at Urbana is quite high, so it’s difficult to catch what is going on at the other end of the table. What I learn, however, is that one of the men in our party has spilled wine on his shirt. The server sees this and brings him a clean and dry shirt, remarkably in the correct size. On the one hand we have a server who won’t split a dish in two, but then he gives another diner the shirt off his back (well not exactly, but sort of).
For dessert, my husband and I share caramel apple with spiced sugar cookie, peanut crumble, and dulce de leche. I don’t know what to say about this except it is disappointing at best. The apples seem like they are out of a can, and the whole dish is missing substance.
So why am I having such a hard time writing about Urbana ? Is it that (a) my food is good but not particularly memorable (b) my fellow blogger is completely unimpressed with her meal (c) my husband is raving about his dishes (d) everyone else at the table seems content (e) the server has denied a simple request and then done something uniquely generous (e) all of the above.
Obviously the answer is (e). It is simply just too difficult to define a restaurant when opinions and experiences vary so wildly. Sure, it’s cool to be tasting the food of DC’s hottest chef. But ultimately what I’m really looking for is some consistency, and a dash more sizzle on the plate.
Urbana Restaurant & Wine Bar, 2121 P Street, Washington, DC
This week the Los Angeles Times announced that it will no longer include star ratings with restaurant reviews. According to the Times, Star ratings are increasingly difficult to align with the reality of dining in Southern California — where your dinner choices might include a food truck, a neighborhood ethnic restaurant, a one-time-only pop-up run by a famous chef, and a palace of fine dining. Clearly, you can’t fairly assess all these using the same rating system. Furthermore, the stars have never been popular with critics because they reduce a thoughtful and nuanced critique to a simple score. In its place, we’ll offer a short summary of the review.
My experience at Urbana leads me to agree wholeheartedly with this approach. No more ratings with my reviews.