Epicurious Eating: Urbane Café
Oven-fresh focaccia in every bite
Published Thursday, 25-Mar-2010 in issue 1161
Show me a pretty restaurant that serves sophisticated food within the precinct of Napa and Morena streets, and I’ll treat you to lunch for a year at Urbane Café.
Set within a sterile, mixed retail-residential complex near the Morena trolley station, the sandwich-salad eatery stands out from its fellow tenants (Subway, Starbucks and Jamba Juice) mainly because it hasn’t yet encroached beyond the local shadows of USD just up the hill. With only four other locations sprinkled to the north of us throughout Southern California, the San Diego address is small, sporting a contemporary, prefabricated design encompassing about eight indoor tables, an interior brick wall and a glowing hearth used for baking foccacia bread.
For college students and business folk on the go (demonstrated here by the inordinate level of cell phone chatter), Urbane provides fresh nourishment for under $7 in most cases. In terms of quality, think Panera, but with the sandwiches made faster on foccacia bread exclusively and categorized specifically under chicken, beef, turkey and vegetarian.
Colorful condiments such as tomatillo salsa, chipotle mayonnaise, sun-dried tomatoes and aioli appear in various combinations, complimenting with reasonable adeptness the spongy, faintly herbed bread as well as the main sandwich fillings. On the Southwest chicken sandwich, for instance, a corn and black bean salsa joins forces with chipotle mayo, pepper Jack cheese and the Cajun-dusted chicken breast. It’s the spiciest sandwich on the menu, and indeed, a chorus of fireworks ensues in the most pleasing sense.
Overly sharp tomato mustard slathered on Urbane’s hot pastrami sandwich with provolone cheese, however, boils down to a matter of taste. Teamed with the salty, pickling spices of the meat, I found that the flavors collided. Decent pastrami such as this performs much better with just a dab of brown or whole-grain mustard, sans the acidic tinge from tomatoes.
In my most recent visit, the rosemary chicken sandwich proved its popularity. The tender, pre-cooked breast pieces tasted as though they were brined in rosemary water, yet without crossing into pungent territory as the pine-like herb does when used carelessly. Roasted red bell peppers, mushy in a good way, plus provolone and aioli are the bonus fillings. In addition, every sandwich is layered with red and green lettuces – the same fresh leaves used in the inclusive side salads dressed in sweet balsamic vinaigrette.
Other sandwiches of note include “the club” with roasted turkey, bacon, avocado, cheddar and herb mayonnaise; the “pesto and sun-dried tomato” with chicken breast, mozzarella and pesto mayo; and the “gourmet grilled cheese” oozing with gorgonzola, pepper jack, cheddar and tomatillo salsa. Though when trying the “BBQ Tri Tip” some weeks ago, the meat was fibrous in parts and the barbecue sauce tasted one-dimensional.
Six different salads include a hefty cobb and a snappy cilantro-chicken medley, with the most expensive being the caprese and “protein” salads ($7.25). The latter involves garbanzo beans, pecans, mushrooms and shredded mozzarella – a full shot of nutritional sustenance that practically equates to two meals.
Dressings are homemade, born essentially from a corporate kitchen in the Los Angeles area. The balsamic vinaigrette is zestier than the tart Italian; the blue cheese is thicker and creamier than the Caesar; and the Ranch, well, it tastes like plain ole Ranch. Its chipotle counterpart is considerably punchier.
The food is prepared swiftly, although the order takers at the counter possess the same robotic charm as what you’ll come upon at Subway – rushed, phony-friendly and testy at times. The difference is that these sandwiches are made with unprocessed meats, fresher veggies and slightly tastier bread.
If the long lines at lunchtime are any indication of Urbane’s initial grip on San Diegans, I’m willing to bet that another franchise with potential reach is beginning to percolate.