Review: Urban pL8 

Bacchanalia alum opens breezy café on the Westside

As we're walking out the door after lunch at Urban pL8, the new café on Huff Road in the former Pangea location, the cashier/waiter/food runner yells out, "Hey! Can you guys wait one second?" He's fumbling with something in the semi-open kitchen, located behind the bar in the high-ceilinged, loft-like space.

We stop, wondering what he could want. Did we forget something? Had we done something wrong? He rushes around to the counter, and, leaning over, clutching two brown paper bags in his hands, presents an offering. "Fresh baked cookies!" he explains.

Those cookies, melting and warm and comforting, say a lot about Urban pL8. There's a true spirit of goodwill at the restaurant, an aim-to-please attitude that's both earnest and endearing. The execution of that goodwill isn't always achieved with panache, but it's hard to resist once it gets to you.

Urban pL8 is owned and operated by Betsy Pitts, who's spent time in the kitchens of Bacchanalia and Floataway Café. But don't let her high-falutin' credentials lead you astray. Urban pL8's goal is to be a neighborhood lunch and occasional dinner spot (it's only open for dinner Friday and Saturday nights), not an upscale scene. Pitts' staff is affable, attractive, and often flummoxed. The whole place has a kind of thrown together feel, like a lovable family who set out to start a business and is trying really hard despite not knowing exactly what they're doing.

The food ranges all over the place, from basic sandwiches to New American entrées. Like much at Urban pL8, the menu has some quirky, unexpected strengths: salads and cocktails.

You're more likely to end up here for a salad rather than a cocktail (the daytime hours and space don't exactly scream happy hour). These salads aren't particularly inventive or crazy, they're just done right. Beets with mixed greens, almonds and goat cheese are dressed properly, have the exact right ratio of toothsome beets to creamy cheese to crunchy greens, and come in a big enough serving to constitute a light lunch. Likewise, dates, greens and blue cheese make a great sweet/tart/funky combo.

The cocktails, available during those two low-key dinner services, are of the simplest variety, but high-quality ingredients make for pleasurable sipping: small-batch gin, lemon juice, honey. There's no fancy mixologist here, but it wouldn't suit the place if there was.

At lunchtime, burgers and sandwiches, both of which satisfy without being exceptional, take up the bulk of the menu. Fillings such as grilled chicken with goat cheese, hummus and pesto, or smoked turkey, Swiss cheese and pickles, are wrapped in soft flatbread and come with chips. The banh mi burger is a cute take on the burger-as-Vietnamese-sandwich, but the pickled veggie toppings lacked the crisp zing needed to channel the textural flavor bomb of the real thing.

One of the best dishes for lunch on a cold day is a bowl of tofu in red curry. The jumble of tofu, diced sweet potato, green beans and creamy coconut milk is on the mild and sweet side of curry, but it's luscious and comforting just the same. I had it two ways – once with the tofu in a small dice, and another time with it in large cubes. I preferred the silken mouthfeel of the larger pieces much better.

While burgers and sandwiches are available during dinner, the urge to order entrées is understandable, although they come with less straightforward success than the rest of the menu. The mac and cheese accompanying a BBQ pork tenderloin was deliciously creamy in classic Velveeta style, but the pork was smothered in what tasted like standard bottled barbecue sauce, at once too cloying and lacking in real flavor. The potato hash and green beans alongside the skirt steak were homey and well-salted, but the steak itself was too chewy. Fat scallops sat atop rich sautéed corn – the dish was buttery and balanced, but had a tad too much richness without anything to cut through it.

For some reason, the giddy, slightly off-kilter service is less endearing in the evening than it is during the day. Our waitress was perfectly lovely, but basics such as bringing the courses as they were ordered (nothing too complex, just apps with the apps, entrées after), producing a receipt I could take with me, or bringing an extra drink seemed to totally elude her understanding.

On the other hand, that extra drink, once it arrived, went a long way toward curing my mood. Urban pL8 should go a long way on its personality alone. And when that fails, there's always those salads and cocktails.

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