There are two types of restaurants that fall in the home cooking genre: those that promise such fare, and those whose vittles indeed taste like something that might come out of your kitchen - best, obviously, if you're a good cook. The new-and-improved Urban Element has a Sunday brunch that features hearty staples I might have whipped up on my own, and I'm fine with paying $9.95, mimosa included, for that.
Let's start with the scenery of the place, since it's changed hands and vibes recently. The previous owner is out, and Steve Roberts, a family man whose brood can often be seen chowing down during lunch hours, is in. The interior has gotten a slight overhaul to make the urban feel more refined. Thus, new wood floors and glass tables cohabit with high ceilings and a chalkboard wall that gets decorated with all sorts of multicolored illustrations and calls to action.
Urban Element feels much different already, but will keep evolving, I suspect, as the downtown Pennsylvania corridor changes. When Bar Yats opens across the street, more people will likely get reacquainted with this place. Regardless of the bars that crop up around it, UE's own wine and beer list is eclectic, if abbreviated. The craft beer lineup includes Dogfish Head's 90 minute and Farson's lacto milk stout; wines come from all over the world, but the American selections forgo familiar Robert Mondavi for the likes of Sonoma's Alexander Valley Vineyards.
I've already seen more patrons here than ever. A recent trip during Sunday brunch revealed all sorts of brightly dressed twosomes, many of them young, and eagerly awaiting the mimosas that come with the brunch spread of waffles, omelets, Danishes, fresh fruit and potatoes like I make at home (if with a little less salt).
Now, I've never been one for a buffet line unless it's ridiculously expensive and forms at my favorite upscale hotel.
Here I must digress to explain my neurosis. It seems a requirement that food writers' childhoods be tainted with food experiences seemingly contrary to their eventual profession. For Frank Bruni, it was a serious battle with the bulge. Ruth Riechl's parents had, according to her, cheap and tawdry taste in food. My own personal adolescent hell centered on countless faithful trips to Ryan's Steakhouses or Old Country Buffets after church.
So I refused to partake in the brunch line at UE, on principle, and chose the market sampler plate with cheese, fruit and chicken salad ($9). Truthfully, I knew I would taste as much of the all-you-can-eat spread from my boyfriend's plate.
My fork first snaked to his bacony home fried potatoes. They were just a bit tough, as they'd probably been out long enough to start absorbing their own grease. The more I ate, however, the more I stumbled on a few fresher morsels. I feared the biscuits and gravy could suffer a stale or salty fate, but was pleased: Biscuits were smothered in a very flavorful beef-studded gravy that was, surprisingly, not very greasy or unctuous at all.
My own "world famous chicken salad" turned out to be quite a small portion, but the lineup of cheeses included brie, a welcome departure from the "crumbled blue cheese" that's scattered across the menu's descriptions. The chicken salad was good: walnuts and grapes helped perk up the protein that was in need of a little seasoning. This meat clearly didn't come from a can.
The only real problem I had with my meal was the Kraft single that sat, orangish and flaccid, among my cheese lineup. Another hokey detail was the parsley strewn not only across my salad and cheese but also my naked fruit. Urban Element sometimes introduces these quirky anomalies against the otherwise roundly decent food. Another example are the Baked Lay's potato chips that accompany many sandwiches here. A little more refinement would be welcome.
I first encountered those cardboard chips when digging into a grilled eggplant with blue cheese sandwich ($7). The eggplant was fine; I noticed little else about it besides its decent texture, which is as much as you can expect from the plant unless it's battered, fried and smothered with mozzarella cheese and marinara sauce. Here the blue cheese gave it a little more flavor, and if it weren't for so many other menu items or the aforementioned Lay's, I might have this sandwich yet again.
But I won't be doubling anything in my rotation here any time soon, as there are plenty of hearty but healthy home cookin' numbers I still want to try - especially the homemade cakes and pies.