Restaurant Review: Urbane Cafe makes a dubious Splash
November 11, 2011
By LOUIS BISHOP
So, I’m on my way to change my account from a national bank of ill repute to a local credit union and I’m thinking of stopping at a corporate sandwich shop just to balance things out.
There are many such places to choose from these days in SLO.
Of course, there are the dismal joints that hark from the 50s, like Denny’s, IHOP and until recently Big Boy in Morro Bay.
Then there is a whole new class of upmarket places, a cut above fast food.
They’re pretty easy to recognize. Sometimes called cafes, you order at the counter from a menu board with the calorie counts posted next to the item and they either give you a pager that goes off when it is time to pickup your made-to-order item or they give you a number to display on your table. Though better than fast food, mostly it’s like a culinary voyage to Disney’s EPCOT.
Urbane Cafe pretty well describes the goal on its website, “high quality food, fast friendly service, a comfortable dining atmosphere, and affordability.”
Something of a McDonald’s for the market segment that has been to Europe.
SLO has recently seen a saturation of such places. There’s (Hamburger) Habit, Chipotle’s–if you count burritos, Panera Bread, and now Urbane Cafe.
The French have a saying, “First fresh, than fish.” The same reasoning applies, I think, to sandwiches, first bread, then sandwich.
So it is without total disdain that I consider a chain place like thriving Panera or Urbane Cafe. They are baking every day.
Urban Cafe’s concept is fresh-baked focaccia. First off, you can buy a six-ounce or so loaf for $2 and it’s a welcome enough snack if you need something to tide you over.
If it hasn’t sat in the rack too long it might have some cracker-like outer crunch, yielding to a moderately dense and chewy texture somewhere between Wonder bread and real focaccia, closer to focaccia. It is slightly brushed with a nicely salted, flavored oil finish. Betty Crocker meet Marcello Mastroianni.
Second, you can fill it with just about anything you want, from a lube job of a club sandwich to something like pesto chicken, artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomato or chipotle chicken. I’m tempted by the fresh mozzarella, tomato, fresh basil but the tomatoes don’t look good enough to bother.
Shelf life is a big challenge to corporate operations.
The fillings come heated unless you request otherwise and thus became something of a cheesy, greasy blob. Beware the flavored mayonnaise that drives the taste but make for a pretty slippery slope. Hold the mayo, maybe the cheese, don’t heat it. I want textures.
Lord, where do they send the chi after they remove it?
The side salad that comes along is impressive, if quite small. Very fresh spring mix lettuces with a very light dressing–a few drops of oil–a light dusting of feta and some fresh, not canned, tasting mandarin orange segments, exactly two, I think.
Salads are also offered as mains and I likely go for one of those with a facaccia if I were ordering again. The price point for the sandwiches, indeed for all these express restaurants, is $7.
Compare this to full-service Big Sky Cafe where sandwiches start at $9 including a substantial side–but then there will be a tip of a couple of bucks–and you can see where these express restaurants fit in. But I daresay that you could get about as much food of better quality about as cheaply by splitting a sandwich there and ordering an extra side. Their house salad with shredded raw beets and the walnut ranch dressing is pure, sweet earthy. The place defines SLO as no other space does.
One has to wonder if the advent of express food will one day close Big Sky the way it recently closed Cornerview Restaurant.
The entry at Urbane Cafe is shiny coated concrete. OK, There are a few sidewalk tables and chairs of Home Depot quality within a fenced area. You can see the focaccia baking in the oven. Now I’m interested. But when you enter the aroma is not of bread but of plasticine fruit unable to decompose.
Perhaps it is the aroma of insecticide as there are three flies buzzing around me as I wait for the food. The cashier handles a focaccia with the same gloved hands with which he handles the money. OK, we’re only a couple of weeks into the gig but, jeez, sanitary practices are a matter of respect. I always feel that if they do something like this in front of the customer, what might they do behind the kitchen door?
So what about the locals? Well, I’ll miss recently closed Utopia Bakery on Broad. True European flair.
I’ve always been happy with any sandwich I’ve ever ordered at Natural Cafe at Broad and Higuera. The falafel are grilled rather than deep-fried and the dressing is a sweetish, less-rich dressing than the customary thick tahini. Baked blue corn chips with a nominal ounce or so of salsa adds some welcome contrasting texture to any sandwich.
All their burgers are good, especially the several distinctive veggie offerings. The staff is dedicated and full of, well, personhood.
Natural Cafe is an expanding tri-county chain and it seems to find the right balance between corporate efficiency and food that does not taste like it was made by machinery.
My personal favorite is the very pleasant Splash Cafe, California and Monterey. The baking is solid from breads to scones and danish. You can sample their many daily focaccia and breads before ordering. I think I can safely say that their fresh-grilled tuna on home-baked bun, $6.95, is about the best fish sandwich I’ve ever had. The menu is quite varied and includes good seafood. Quality shows through from the Mahogany Roast coffee on.
I’ve sent visitors to Splash Cafe who have ended up eating every meal for three days straight there.
A small hotel, Le Petit Soleil, with matching architecture complements SLO’s very own, if very tiny, French Quarter.
They also sell Fair Trade chocolates, a laudable alternative to corporate exploitation of African cacao farmers.
Neon Carrot recently shut down the breakfast/lunch operation to concentrate on catering. This, perhaps is a case of too little incorporation. I wish Maegen’s ever-creative vision could extend further. Check for their Friday evening Happy Hour.
Back at the credit union I’m told by the receptionist that it won’t be long. I ask for clarification but get about the same answer. So after 20 minutes I say I’ve waited long enough. She tells me that she can have a manager help but that they are missing a customer service rep today. Now she tells me.
She calls one of the reps to hurry her along. After she fills out some paperwork a coworker engages her in a too-cheerful conversation that goes on too long for my taste. Twenty-five minutes.
I leave thinking of heading for the Panera/Chipotle#2 (burrito-fication coming, says the sign) parking lot restaurant district across the street from the Taco Bell/Applebee’s district on Madonna, where I know that even if the airy bagels reduce to chewy leather on the first bite, alas, at least they serve ‘em up fast.