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TALK ABOUT YOUR FIFTEEN minutes of fame. Dallas chef and restaurateur Avner Samuel has certainly had his: Avner’s on McKinney, Yellow, Okeanos, Bistro A, Bistro K, not to mention stints at the Mansion on Turtle Creek and the Pyramid Room, back when those behemoths were forces to be reckoned with. Four years ago, however, Samuel gained major traction with Aurora, a dazzler where he does French-inflected New American cuisine in high style. With his reputation at its peak, you’d think he would relax a little. But no. Now that he has that baby walking, he’s back in entrepreneurial mode with Urban Bistro, a central Dallas outpost that is as approachable as Aurora is aristocratic.
Here I am, sitting on one of the chocolate-brown banquettes in the pale buff room, surrounded by images of giant vegetables on acrylic panels and big bowls overflowing with apples, and I’m asking myself in all seriousness, “Am I tired of veal scallopini or gnocchi or apple tarte Tatin?” And in all seriousness, I find myself answering, “No, not yet.” And that is a very good thing at Urban Bistro, because the menu is dedicated to proving once again that Mediterranean cuisine is this decade’s most unsinkable culinary concept.
Take executive chef Roger Cob’s gnocchi, for instance: The little dumplings are light (not feathery but close) and surrounded by niçoise olives and dabs of soft, creamy goat cheese, plus a ragoût of roasted tart-sweet yellow heirloom tomatoes. What’s not to like? Or consider the aforementioned veal, sliced thin and offered in the classic lemony jus. About the only thing that departs from the familiar here is the use of caperberries instead of capers—the plant’s fruit as opposed to its bud—as a garnish. The two taste pretty much alike, so no big deal. Tarte Tatin? It’s as French, or as American, as apple pie. In fact, the vast majority of the menu sounds familiar (and good).
If you crave something a little different, you could try the crispy Moroccan beef “cigars.” I did, because they sounded potentially exotic, but then the tall, skinny cylinders arrived and guess what: They’re North African flautas in a thin rice-paper shell. Even the nicely tangy dill-cucumber yogurt that comes alongside is recognizable to anyone who’s ever eaten a gyro. Persisting, I upped my experimental quotient with the lunchtime Moroccan chicken tagine (previous page), but once again, I was foiled. Chicken stew could not have been more soothing. Granted, it’s got some slightly unusual herbs—saffron and turmeric—but then there’s cumin, an everyday spice for anyone who eats Mexican food. As for the use of spaghetti squash in lieu of couscous, that’s a change anybody could get behind.
Going for broke, I tried the rare ahi tuna crusted with the aromatic Middle Eastern spice blend called za’atar and swiped with a lovely, dusky fig glaze. If you’ve ever had anything blackened, za’atar (here made with sesame seeds, wild oregano, and cumin) won’t push you over the edge. Like the restaurant itself, it sounds a little edgy, but it would never kick in the doors of your comfort zone. Samuel has made Aurora his playground for high-concept, special-occasion food. And now he has Urban Bistro, where the menu is easy to like and easy on the pocketbook. Good combination, that.