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The young cook behind the pizza bar at Urbana is struggling with my pie. He’s already rolled out the dough and sprinkled the toppings on what will become my charcuterie pizza, but as he tries to scoop up the gooey, oblong creation, he discovers the underside is stuck to the cutting board. He tries to slide one pizza paddle under it, then another. Still frustrated, he methodically attempts to pull the dough onto the paddles. Nothing doing. The pie is glued fast to that board, the toppings shifting and colliding with each attempt to dislodge it. The scene is painful to watch.
Executive Sous Chef Aaron McCloud eventually rescues the neophyte pizza man, who clearly hasn’t dusted his prep table with flour. McCloud plucks the ingredients from my pending pie, places them on the counter, and starts over again. Nearly 30 minutes after I ordered it, the chastised young cook finally pulls my pie from the glittering wood-burning oven. Why, I think, would Urbana put this rookie behind the pizza bar, where his mistakes play out as public humiliations?
It’s one of those moments that makes you think Urbana isn’t ready for prime time, that the Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group, which bankrolled this luxurious Italian root-cellar concept in the basement of its adjoining Palomar Hotel, opened the restaurant before all the pieces were in place. You won’t find much evidence on the plate, but there are other signs: Team Urbana is still waiting on Italian tile for some interior walls; pastry chef Shaun McCarty, who joined the kitchen staff two weeks after the place opened, is just beginning to replace the interim dessert menu; the “sommelier” is a trainee; and the kitchen still struggles to deliver dishes in a timely fashion.
This is no way to welcome back Richard Brandenburg, the Reston native who worked at Restaurant Nora and Red Sage before honing his chops at Le Bernardin in New York and several spots in San Francisco, including the Fifth Floor. Kimpton lured Brandenburg back home and, after telling the chef that it wanted a menu heavy on northern Italian and southern French cooking, pretty much patted him on the back and said, “Good luck.” At present, Brandenburg’s food is almost single-handedly carrying the place.
Brandenburg deals in seasonal, seemingly simple fare that, by the chef’s own admission, doesn’t attempt to combine more than four flavors at once. Such a standard doesn’t forgive inferior recipes—or inferior ingredients. Case in point is Brandenburg’s fig appetizer, his clever riff on corn dogs. The starter includes two cornmeal-battered figs, sliced in half with gorgonzola cheese pooled into every crevasse of the exposed fruit’s flesh; the bite-size morsels are positioned on the corners of a square plate, with sprigs of pepper cress and crazy lines of fig balsamic in the center. If the fig isn’t ripe enough, the batter dominates, turning the composed bite into a cheesy hush puppy. But if the fig is ripe and fruity, it combines with the cress for the sweetest, creamiest, and most pungent carny food you’ve ever tasted.
Throughout his menu—a mixture of haute and rustic influences, as if class lines never existed in cooking—Brandenburg dresses up superior ingredients just enough to accentuate their natural beauty, rather than dolling them up with a bunch of gaudy creams and butter sauces. His entrecôte of beef, a center loin cut of rib-eye cooked in cast iron, squeezes every last drop of richness out of that red meat. Its accompanying wine-reduction sauce could go play in traffic for all I care. (The dish also comes with a hollowed-out cylinder of potato that’s been stuffed with marrow butter, a display that, frankly, gets overshadowed by the meat.)
Brandenburg shows just as much restraint with his salmon, which he flash-sears (to the point where the sprinkled thyme leaves turn into black silhouettes on the fish’s skin) and slow cooks until it melts in your mouth. His decision to pair the Pacific Northwest fillet with a clam-and-red-pepper jus raises an eyebrow, but the juices prove to be more submissive partner than dominatrix. Likewise, the chef sneaks some candied orange into his osso buco, a Fred Flintstone–sized veal shank for two, which only adds a hint of sweetness to the rich caramelization of the slow-cooked meat.
If you want more creativity from the kitchen, Brandenburg can dish that out, too. His watermelon-and-fava-bean salad, sprinkled with ricotta salata and drizzled with basil vinaigrette, redefines bittersweet, with its welcome accent of earthy legumes. Brandenburg reimagines Italian saltimbocca, substituting chicken for veal, without losing an ounce of flavor or complexity. Even the Brussels sprouts garnish on his Berkshire pork chop with date sauce—think upscale pork chops and apple sauce—may make you reconsider that much-maligned cabbage. Brandenburg picks only the outer leaves of the sprout, blanches them, and sprinkles them with lemon zest.
Does the hometown boy always do good? Nope. Brandenburg’s brandade beignets, fried balls of mashed cod and potato, are a milky mush, while his crispy sardines with caramelized cantaloupe still reek of the stinky fish despite his attempts to tone the odor down. But what about that charcuterie pizza that wouldn’t budge for its trip to the oven? It proves to be a chewy, salty, meaty slice of pie—evidence that, with an expert hand at the helm, most problems eventually correct themselves.
Urbana, 2121 P St. NW, (202) 956-6650.
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