Urban Element shines bright light on downtown neighborhood
Outside of its bustling entertainment districts, the peripheries of our city’s downtown are still fairly uncharted territory, restaurant-wise. A few institutions still hang on to neighborhood corners: favorite bars, dives and coffeehouses where you can grab a decent bite to eat. Only occasionally do new restaurants crop up around the mile square, and too often their tables sit empty.
Five-nut chocolate cake
Urban Element has recently opened across from Central Library on Pennsylvania. With the library undergoing a lengthy renovation, this quadrant seems a bit like a war zone where cranes dangle steel beams and signs warn admittance only by construction crews. Opening a new restaurant here is quite the renegade endeavor, especially since the former occupant, Big Daddy’s Luncheonette, didn’t survive even when the library was still open. Despite the elegant interior — a shimmering pressed-metal ceiling and deep earthy green walls — the place emanates a decidedly casual feel. One whole wall is painted to be a chalkboard, and a basket of oversized sidewalk chalk begs graffiti. Lunch service is at the counter only, with more chalkboards doubling as menus. Then the staff delivers food to your table. But beyond merely offering a homey spot to get a quick meal, owners Maurice Smith and Shae Rouselle, along with Rouselle’s brother and business partner Marcus, seem determined to make the space a sort of cultural center and social haunt for neighborhood locals. In the few weeks they’ve been open, the restaurant has sponsored everything from spoken word nights every Wednesday at 8 to live music by such bands as Emory Salem and openings by local artists Jacob Bryan and the simply named Aloysius, who unveiled an exhibit of paintings “new and retro” last Thursday night. They’ve planned a festive day for their official grand opening Nov. 20. Given this cheery atmosphere, how does the food measure up? While portions are generous and most items competently prepared, things still seem to be working themselves out in the kitchen. On two separate occasions, only a few dishes stood out. Too many items seemed unimaginative, timidly spiced or just plain bland. What’s good? The desserts are good, especially the five-nut chocolate cake ($2.68), a sort of coffeecake with chocolate chips and five crunchy nuts on top. A variety of gooey cookies also go well with a full offering of coffee drinks and teas. Sandwiches, too, are tasty, though they beg for something to make them different from the ones you could whip up on the counter at home. The burger ($6.34) is a whopping patty on a grilled kaiser bun, with condiments and toppings as traditional as they come. But the crunchy steak fries on the side are some of the best in town. Other innovative sides include creamed spinach and a seasonal roasted acorn squash. What could use a little fine tuning? Among appetizers, the spinach dip with artichoke hearts ($5.42) was merely adequate. This ubiquitous hors d’oeuvre has shown up on potluck tables for a couple of decades now, so it has to be great to stand out. Here, it’s a little watery from the spinach and gains no spark from additional seasoning or the promised Reggiano cheese. An avocado salad ($6.34) was also a little lackluster, with slices of avocado that didn’t really jive with the baby greens, walnuts and mustard vinaigrette. The Hawaiian pork chop at lunch ($8.95) was too tough for the butter knife I was offered, and the tropical “glaze” ran off the chop rather than making a gooey coating. I had to pick up the chop and let my teeth do the work. Potato cheese soup got its flavor mainly from a preponderance of imitation bacon and a whole lot of processed cheese. At dinner, the grilled grouper ($13.86) was a huge portion of two moist filets. But the lack of a sauce or even a garnish left it wanting. A side of red potatoes came cut too small, and the spuds swam in butter. One big positive at Urban Elements is value. No entree crosses the $15 mark, and most hover closer to the $13 range. Sandwiches are even bigger bargains, most with idiosyncratic prices like $5.73 and $6.58. Fries and a drink add a mere $1.50. The service is also some of the friendliest around, and while staff sometimes have to run back to ask questions — hey, they only just opened — they were swift to get answers and offer suggestions. When the kitchen was out of apple cobbler, Smith quickly substituted cookies on the house, along with coupons for cobbler on our next visit. The margins of the city center need places like Urban Element. Happily, they’re not alone. Massachusetts Avenue coffeehouse standard The Abbey, exiled from its home by another condo project, already re-opened in the old Ruthellen’s space, a few doors down. Could this be a trend? Any neighborhood that hopes to rejuvenate itself needs a few trailblazers. Here’s hoping Urban Element will be the catalyst for some urban renewal.