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The M Word: Modern or Mexican?

Josh Sens | November 14, 2013 | Story Restaurants

"This is a little gift from the kitchen!” a waiter all but shouts, delivering a corn crisp splashed with salsa verde. Welcome to San Francisco’s new high-minded echo chamber, where a bullhorn is required to announce the arrival of an amuse-bouche. Its name is La Urbana, it’s in NoPa, and it wraps its haute intentions in a festive package. It’s fun but flawed, by turns satisfying and flabbergasting. It is, in short, not unlike much of its young, well-heeled target market: eager to act grown-up, but not always sure how to carry it off.

A good deal of what you’ll find here is familiar, starting with the acoustics, which are all hard surfaces. As for the location—a once-scruffy neighborhood, now indulging in the guilty pleasures of gentrification—you’re forgiven a sense of déjà vu. What’s less common is the genre: “Modern Mexican” cuisine is the description preferred by La Urbana’s owners, World Wrapps founder Eduardo Rallo and his business partners, Alessandra Bonisoli and architect Juan Garduño.
Toss that term around in these parts, and people envision an upscale taqueria with high-end tequilas and tortillas filled with free-range meat. They might even picture one of Rallo’s other projects, including Colibrí Mexican Bistro in the theater district and Hot Tamales on Santana Row, both of which venture beyond the enchilada combo platter. But La Urbana is a distant sibling, and one with grander ambitions. It aims to push the flavors further, make the scene more of the moment. On more than one front, it succeeds.

Take the restaurant’s fashionable bearing. Gone is the earthy mien of the former tenant, Plant It Earth, a shop that sold hydroponics. Instead, you’re greeted with an LED-lit image of a Mexican starlet, built into an outside wall beside the high-glamour glass-andmetal entrance doors. Inside, the space has been fleshed out with repurposed furnishings from Mexico, including a communal bar built around a tree. Behind the bar, shelves painted in a south-of-the-border prism have been puzzled together like old cupboards.

Under executive chef Benjamin Klein and chef de cuisine Julio Aguilera (Leopold’s, Saison), the kitchen shows a deft touch with haute dishes, like a perfectly seared snapper al huitlacoche garnished with both corn fungus and citrus-corn foam. But it also has a handle on the humble and the hearty. Pozole de pollo, a beautiful rendition of the hominy and chicken stew, is overlaid with a translucent dried cabbage leaf and built around a complex oxtail broth.

The repertoire is not vast, but it is varied. There are fleeting farm-to-table dishes, like a beet, carrot, and chayote salad with a shower of wild popped rice, as well as plates that appeal to the year-round needs of barflies. The huarache de carnitas—strips of sandal shaped masa topped with braised pork, mayocoba beans, and queso fresco—is miles better than the manchego and okra–filled quesadillas, fried and flavorless puffs that offer little more than belly lining for cocktail hour (which, at La Urbana, runs all night).

Of all the restaurant’s modern traits, its most up-to-date might be its embrace of a single spirit. The bar pours 40-plus mescals and celebrates them in its lively cocktails. Mezcal adds the rough edge to the Mexican Dude, a drink rounded out by homemade horchata, and it replaces tequila in the house margarita, imparting its complex, smoky kick.

A similar smokiness infuses a good deal of the food. You taste it in the gentle fires of the smoked salsa, dolloped on the side of the queso a la plancha—little snackable cigars of pea shoots wrapped in grilled manchego— and in the árbol chili accents of the carne asada, flanked by fingerling potatoes and garlic crema. It’s also present in the ceviche—sweet hunks of halibut tossed with chilies and agave nectar, served with shreds of orange and avocado in a sealed Mason jar. When the server twists off the lid, traces of mesquite smoke rise from the glass like white plumes.

On the night that I had the ceviche, it vanished quickly, prompting my companion to complain of stingy portions. I could see her point, sort of—I wanted more ceviche, too. But I also got the sense that she was judging La Urbana by burrito joint standards. If you want cheap, heaping helpings, go somewhere else.
More irksome to me was the restaurant’s sluggish rhythm—long, awkward interludes between courses in a setting too cacophonous for easy conversation. Throw in the fact that the desserts, like chocolate crémeux with cinnamon crisps, tend toward the fussy and the ultrasweet, and it’s that much harder to justify the wait.

Maybe these are the strains that show when a restaurant tries to cover both ends of the spectrum, serving at once as a raucous hangout and a redoubt for refined cuisine. The problems may resolve when the owners finish building out their concept, which calls for a mercado and a taqueria in a next-door annex. Perhaps then La Urbana’s pent-up energy will spill into its overflow space, freeing the dining room of distractions and diffusing the noise— so that even if you can’t hear the waiter, at least you’ll be able to hear yourself think.

The Ticket
A recommended dinner for two people (before tax and tip) at La Urbana.
Queso a la plancha ...................... $6
Aguachile ceviche .......................$12
Huarache de carnitas .................. $9
Pozole de pollo ........................... $10
Ensalada verde ...........................$12
Carne asada .............................. $26
Pescado al huitlacoche ............... $24
Dos leches con fresa ................... $9
Two margaritas .......................... $18
total ......................................... $126

La Urbana
661 Divisadero St. (at Grove St.)

Two Stars

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of San Francisco

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