Team Crave seems to have hit upon a winning formula for a fabled but problematic piece of Minneapolis real estate.
I have to admit: It was a new line, even for a jaded diner like yours truly.
"Are you enjoying the moment?" asked our eager-to-please server as he approached our table, mere moments after our first course arrived. Hey, it was preferable to the nauseating "And how are our first tastes?"
That's when it hit me: Subverting clichés is the order of the day at Urban Eatery. Its slick corporate feel is no accident. The gastropub/restaurant is the work of the powers behind turbo-powered Crave, and the menu springs from the creative mind of Crave culinary director Jim Kyndberg. If that name rings a bell, it's because Kyndberg was longtime chef/owner of the former Bayport Cookery, and he has spent the past year applying his considerable skills to Crave's wider demographic.
Kyndberg isn't exactly shifting the tectonic plates of gastropub geology, although he's clearly nudging diners in a different direction. Urban Eatery aims to be a contemporary reinterpretation of the Applebee's/T.G.I. Friday's/Bennigan's trifecta, minus the jalapeño poppers and potato skins. Here's the nice part: When it works, it can be awfully satisfying.
The Urban Eatery kitchen crew is clearly having a great time. Their sense of fun is summed up in a single dish called "Pork n' Beans," but no Van Camp's cans were opened in this production. Instead, three thick-cut squares of deliriously fatty, maple-glazed pork belly are cleverly paired with crunchy, bright-green edamame, and the marriage really works.
I could easily make a habit of the Reuben, which subs in that naughty pork belly for the standard corned beef, transforming it into your basic heart attack waiting to happen. I don't know how it sells with the building's health clubbers, but I'm all over it. Even the kitchen's spin on the slider (and, believe me, it pains me to even type that word, that's how very over the whole slider phenom has become) manages to be a contender, borrowing steamed buns, bao-style, and filling them with brightly seasoned ground pork, crunchy carrots and spicy, sriracha-laced mayonnaise.
The bored-with-burgers crowd will get a charge out of a patty composed of ground bratwurst, topped with zesty sauerkraut and a generous swipe of grainy mustard, all stuffed into a pretzel-inspired bun. It would make a fortune at the State Fair. There's a terrific, obviously fresh guacamole, but even better is the cool, snappy shrimp version.
Because the words "gastropub" and "Scotch egg" seem to follow in the manner of "Kim Kardashian" and "fame junkie," there's one on the menu, and it's a doozy, the egg perfectly cooked, the plate garnished with a handful of thoughtfully prepared accoutrements, included pickled turnips and fennel. More of the kitchen's way with pickles finds its way into a grilled chicken version of the humble banh mi. Another definite highlight: a bathtub-size bowl of steaming miso broth, filled with delicate ramen noodles, shiitake mushrooms and flashes of zesty kimchi. It just might top the list of I Was So Not Expecting to Encounter This at a Minneapolis Gastropub.
The menu, which sprawls to more than 40 items, isn't just about bar grub. There's a section devoted to comfort-food fare that -- surprise! -- has been done up beyond the same-old, same-old. Pot roast calls upon bison rather than beef, and it's textbook tender and delicious. A theatrical puff pastry crown that rises higher than Snooki's hairdo is the most attention-getting trait of the chicken pot pies, but beneath all the hoopla is a more-than-decent example of the genre.
A full-bodied Bolognese dresses a heaping plate of baked mostaccioli. Plus-sized, garlicky shrimp are served over decadently cheesy grits, and they also play a starring role in a pair of tacos garnished with delicately spicy radish sprouts and an avalanche of avocado, pico de gallo and cilantro. Baby peas, flecked with mint and topped with a pat of herbed, lazily melting butter, add a splash of color to crisp-on-the-outside, succulent-on-the-inside fried Alaskan cod.
Grilled pizzas are respectable but not a major draw. Ditto the array of salads, notable for their obvious freshness and abundant portions vs. any particular innovation. There are also plenty of basics, starting with a nothing-wrong-with-this burger.
Most notable are the moderate prices. With the exception of those comfort-food entrees, which hover in the upper teens, most dishes fall in the $11-and-under category. Happy hour is similarly chock full of deals, and the house throws in free evening valet and ramp parking.
Consistency seems to be a minor kitchen issue. Salmon spread, which turns out to be a good-looking riff on smoked salmon with all the fixings, was irresistible on one visit and inedibly salty on the next. The feisty lamb burger would improve if it didn't spend so much time on the grill. Another dish to admire is a seaweed salad topped with bite-sized cubes of crispy fried tofu. Unfortunately, the pert, stringy greens were overdressed, or the tofu was brutally overfried, or both.
As for dessert, the most constructive information I can offer is to skip it. Wait. The Sonny's ice creams and sorbets are, naturally, first-rate. And while the beer selection is clearly a league beyond its corporate chain competitors, I can't help but feel disappointed, given the explosion of craft breweries both here in the Midwest and beyond.
The setting incorporates many yup-to-the-minute dining design trends, including walls lined in rough-sawn horizontal wood planks, 1970s-style glass-globe light fixtures (created from vintage wine vessels) and enormous expanses of chalkboard. Given their ubiquity, I sometimes wonder if there's a danger in these elements devolving into the 2011 version of hanging ferns and Tiffany-style lamps.
But right now, it's all on trend. (Well, maybe not the food-related quotes that are splashed across the walls. Doesn't something so snarky as "I found there was only way to look thin. Hang out with fat people" feel inappropriate, or, at the very least, unwelcoming?)
Vibe-wise, what Urban Eatery most reminds me of is Figlio, which fed a generation of Uptowners before its rocky transformation into Il Gatto. Like Figlio, the main event at Urban Eatery is its rollicking bar (except this one sports Lake Calhoun views, although your eyes have to leap across eight lanes of traffic to see it), with the adjacent dining room playing second fiddle. The former feels like the place where the action is, the latter more like the spot where the kids are seated during a big family get-together.
Then again, the odd T-shaped floorplan has always been the challenge of this tough-to-define piece of real estate, which has played host to View Restaurant, Dixie's and a whole host of other tenants whose names have tumbled down the drain of my memory. With Urban Eatery, the Calhoun Beach Club may have finally met its ideal first-floor tenant.