Epicurious Eating: Urban Solace
Comfort food brings Solace to North Park
Published Thursday, 08-Nov-2007 in issue 1037
There’s been so much restaurant activity on 30th Street in North Park that I can barely keep pace. In just the last several weeks, the neighborhood has seen the arrivals of The Ritual and Commonwealth Café. Apertivo has expanded its menu and interior. Plus there are banners in place marking a third location for Arrivederci and a move to larger digs for The Linkery.
Sprouting like a pretty tulip in the midst of this culinary surge is Urban Solace, a contemporary-style restaurant with an exterior façade that beckons to New Orleans’ French Quarter; though step through the leaded glass doors beneath windows trimmed in ornate wrought iron and you’re greeted with an elegant Craftsman design inside. Vivid paintings, mahogany wood and buttery yellow walls punctuate the airy interior, which leads also to an inviting side patio where live bluegrass music is presented during Sunday brunch.
The menu tilts ever so slightly toward Southern cooking, which “wasn’t on purpose,” said Chef Matt Gordon, who co-owns the restaurant with business partner Scott Watkins. The guys purchased the space when it was the North Park Deli and ran it for a few months before radically transforming it into a contemporary kitchen that would’ve been ahead of its time in these parts just two years ago.
Warm cheese biscuits with addicting orange-honey butter, plus skillet shrimp served atop a chili grit cake smacked of that inadvertent Southern influence threading through the menu – like dishes you’d expect to find at the famous Flying Biscuit in Atlanta. The large, white-variety shrimp were coated heavily with blended spices using sassafras (a mainstay in gumbo). And the small grit “cake” underneath was spared from blandness, thanks to finely diced serrano chilies and green onions.
We progressed to a novel salad combining watermelon, ruby-red cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, celery and feta cheese dressed in pomegranate vinaigrette. A riot of flavors ensued, as mint and basil also began surfacing. We soon discovered that juicy watermelon partners rather favorably with veggies and herbs.
The grilled yellowtail BLT from the sandwich menu became our pre-entrée, warm-up course – the flaky filet poking out in all directions from crisp jumbo bread slices layered with meaty applewood bacon, fresh lettuce and ripe tomatoes. Lemon-thyme aioli served as the condiment, although it lacked the citrusy zing I was expecting. The sandwich was a palate pleaser nonetheless.
My companion’s entrée was a center-cut pork chop brined in salt, vinegar and cinnamon – an inspiring combination that pays great respect to the homey flavor of pork without overpowering it. Surrounded by an understated shallot sauce, the thick chop was accompanied by some very good braised chard and corn spoon bread snapping with sweetness.
After learning that Gordon uses jidori chicken, referred to as “the Kobe beef of poultry” by Central Valley wholesalers, I ordered the half-bird dinner without spending another minute pondering such other contenders as braised Brandt Farms beef cheeks, chicken and buttermilk dumplings and Maine lobster with artichoke pot pie.
Jidori earns its glamorous reputation because of the short amount of time it takes these birds to travel from the slaughterhouse to your plate. The chickens are raised free-range, although it is their freshness and above-board quality that easily wins the hearts of chefs, as it did ours.
Gordon marinates the birds for about six hours in cider and molasses and then pan sears the skin before oven roasting. The result is angelic – the meat glistening in clear juices and its crispy surfaces sporting sweet-and-tangy overtones. Kudos to the oniony-tasting gratin potatoes on the plate as well. They’re made with Yukon Golds and sliced into thin sheets with touches of cream and Fontina cheese applied between the layers.
From a short list of side dishes we tried the mac-n-cheese, available also as an entrée. And why the heck not? Every modern restaurant offers it, and I’ve stopped trying to figure out why. Although, if you’re a groupie of the dish, Gordon’s version inches toward the mouth-coating, tangy ilk using Wisconsin cheddar, mozzarella and goat cheeses. Thick pieces of bacon are tossed in, along with cherry tomatoes that balance the richness of the curds with their acidity.
The beer and wine list offers a variety of beloved labels. Draft or bottled brews include Blue Moon Belgian Wheat Ale, Ancho Steam, Big Bear Black Stout and Allagash White. We stuck to medium-intensity red wines from Paso Robles (Ancient Peaks syrah and Grayson Cellars zinfandel) that paired fine with our meat entrées.
Desserts are made in-house – not surprising given Gordon’s aim to comfort guests with straightforward, seasonally driven ingredients. “You don’t need a culinary dictionary to figure out what I’m cooking,” he added.
Thus a willing mouth is all it takes to savor his peanut butter and chocolate crème brulée or the “warm & gooey” chocolate cake with basil-mint syrup, both of which delivered us to the finishing line with our fists raised in the air.