Tom Sietsema wrote about Urbana for his First Bite column on Nov. 19, 2008.
The mob at the bar at Urbana on a recent Friday night suggests there is still plenty of credit to burn through out there, but the dining room in the Hotel Palomar paints a different picture. It's empty at 6:30 save for four people: friends and me, eager to taste the work of a new chef, Alexander Bollinger.
Maybe that's why our server is smothering us with attention. While we applaud his ability to take our orders without writing anything down, getting every request right, we also wonder why he has to announce his every move, frequently interrupting our conversation. ("And now," he says at one point, "I'll remove the lady's wineglass.")
I'm tempted to ask him for a flashlight to read Bollinger's fall menu; Urbana is a dim restaurant. But the underground space is also cozy, decorated as it is in soft brown and hunter green. The broad tables are nice, too.
Bollinger, 26, comes to Urbana from Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill, where he served as executive sous-chef under Bryan Voltaggio, now at Volt in Frederick. The difference between the protege's old and new gigs? Being the boss, Bollinger says, "is a lot more fun" but also "a lot more stress."
He should relax a little. Much of his food, which tilts to Mediterranean, is very good. Nothing remains in a bowl of hearty kale soup ignited by chorizo meatballs after four spoons have their way with the appetizer, nor is there any sign on another "small plate" that sweet scallops once rested there on a lusty ragout of oxtail and lentils. A meaty pork chop is simply flattered by soft charred fruit (apples most recently), while house-made pappardelle is strewn with shredded braised rabbit, red from its herby romesco sauce. Hard and compact, the mushroom arancini resemble marbles, but the roasted duck breast is tender and as succulent as one could wish.
Desserts are light and luscious. Passion fruit panna cotta with raspberry cream is the perfect finish to the robust flavors that preceded it.
As I leave, I catch sight of an "aperitif hour" menu (4 to 7 p.m. daily) in the bar. It lists Italian beer for $4, wines for $5 a glass and pizza for $8.
No wonder the lounge was standing room only. Of course I'll be back to take a bite out of the deal.