- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Urbana is sleek, dark and oh-so-contemporary. Pretty young trendies decorate nearly every table. The energy is electric. The noise is ear-shattering. The food at this new restaurant and wine bar adjoining the Palomar Hotel on P Street near Dupont Circle is quite good, too.

The wines, primarily Italian, are excellent (the Web site boasts of 30 wines by the glass, but only about half that number are on the actual menu) and the waiters are attentive and enthusiastic.

Urbana’s space was formerly occupied by Gabriel’s, remembered in Washington for its unusual and sumptuous brunch buffet (and before that the space for Herb White’s hangout for artists and writers). The entrance to Urbana is either through the elegant, high-style hotel lobby, or down steep steps from P Street. The restaurant is divided into several dining spaces, a large bar area and a pizza bar. The pizza bar isn’t limited to the rectangular pizzas served on wooden boards; the full menu is available.

Influenced by French and Italian cuisine, the thrust of Urbana is more akin to modern American. The menu, created by Executive Chef Richard Brandenburg, offers a wide range of dishes, almost all of them a combination of elements. Some work, some don’t.

Chef Brandenburg is a Washington native who has cooked at prestigious restaurants in New York City, San Francisco and London.

At a recent dinner, diners were greeted with a “gift from the chef,” a demitasse of superb lobster coconut bisque. Slightly sweet, rich and delicious, the soup set the tone for the evening. A basket of several varieties of good bread including matchstick-thin, crunchy, house-made breadsticks and a small bowl of bean puree followed the soupcon of soup. What followed was uneven.

A silky gazpacho, drizzled with a little olive oil and decorated with bits of tuna tartar and slices of black olives is a slightly spicy tomato bisque. At lunch, in lieu of tuna, the soup contains diced celery and bits of creamy feta cheese. In either version, it’s a delight.

Roasted red beets combined with tiny squares of candied apple and walnuts in just a touch of vinaigrette are a perfect combination of sweet-sour, a refreshing and lovely summer salad. Vitello tonnato is a classic Italian first course: thin slices of cold leg of veal covered with a tangy sauce of pureed tuna, capers, anchovies, olive oil and lemon juice.

Urbana’s version has nothing to do with the Italian dish; it should be called “vitello con tonno” for it consists of a slice of warm rolled veal roast topped with a small square of seared tuna and served in a meat broth. The veal was almost without flavor and the tuna very bland. The two failed to complement one another and the broth added nothing. Without the tang of capers, anchovies and lemon, the dish held nothing of interest. Back to the drawing board.

An excellent starter to share is one of the pizzas. They are prepared and baked in the gas oven in full view of diners at the pizza bar. The crust is thin yet satisfyingly chewy. A topping of four cheeses and diced tomatoes (quatro formaggi) topped with chopped basil is terrific; fresh figs, prosciutto and Gorgonzola are a less successful combination. The figs are too sweet and the cheese too pungent. Chicken pesto with pancetta and pizza charcuterie, which combines mortadella, pepperoni, sausage and speck are the other two choices.

Figs and Gorgonzola reappear as a first course: the figs are corn-battered, filled with the cheese and dressed with balsamic syrup. An interesting appetizer are brandade (a mix of cod and mashed potatoes) beignets served with a garlicky aioli.

Pastas come in small or large portions. We tried the English pea agnolotti with chorizo and lobster. Mr. Brandenburg’s agnolotti are not the classic rounds of pasta, but small twisted pasta somewhat in the shape of trumpet mushrooms. Unfortunately, they were not cooked long enough to become even al dente.

The butter sauce with plenty of small pieces of sweet lobster, bright green peas and thin slices of sausage is a winner, though the dish would be even better were the sausage slightly less sharp.

Two other pastas are offered: potato gnocchi with braised rabbit ragu, and a wild mushroom risotto.

The half-dozen main courses are ambitious. An olive oil-poached cod was deliciously sweet and flaky. The fish was served with very good large white beans and topped with paper-thin slices of raw zucchini and a salad of celery and celery root, which could have used a dressing.

A large pork chop — actually a pork T-bone — is well prepared. The meat is tender and flavorful, its date sauce adding the barest touch of sweetness. The pork is topped with leaves of brussels sprouts, some tender and others bitter. Smooth white polenta accompanies the pork.

Other meat choices are roast chicken with artichoke puree; a beef entrecote with a sauce bordelaise and roasted Vidalia onions; and osso buco for two. Salmon and a vegetarian dish of summer vegetables round out the main course menu.

Desserts, like many of the menu selections, tend to combine too many disparate ingredients. A special on a recent evening combined banana mousse on a bed of cake with a covering of chocolate, caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream. Other desserts include creme brulee, tiramisu and profiteroles.

The lunch menu is similar to dinner’s with some additions and some subtractions. Several sandwiches are added, including a witty “missed breakfast” combination of Gruyere cheese, a soft-fried egg, prosciutto and roasted baby potatoes.

Main luncheon courses include a soft-shell crab bread salad nicoise, a Mediterranean chicken salad and a beef flatiron steak with duck-fat fries.

Mr. Brandenburg is talented and imaginative, but he might remember that less is often more. The restaurant is still feeling its way and the menu will change. If you can bear the noise, there’s lots of good food to try and the 200-bottle wine list is impressive.

RESTAURANT: Urbana Restaurant & Wine Bar, 2121 P St. NW; 202/936-6650.

HOURS: Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; breakfast served daily

PRICES: Starters $6 to $9 (lunch), $6 to $13 (dinner); pizzas and sandwiches $10 to $16; main courses $15 to $17 (lunch), $17 to $31 (dinner); desserts $8

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING:Metered street parking; $8 valet parking for dinner Tuesday to Saturday

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible through the hotel

METRO: Dupont Circle (Red Line)

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