Amberjack over asparagus risotto, the daily special at Urban Kitchen last Saturday.

The amberjack nage described by our diligent young water was my first indication that the new Urban Kitchen in Memorial isn't messing around. "The amberjack is brought in fresh by friends of the owners who own a spearfishing company," our waiter explained. The nage, he went on to elaborate, is made with the fish heads, saffron, and white wine. The amberjack—which is often sold as an alternative to wild tuna, marketed in other areas under names like "Kona kampachi"—is poached in the delicate stock, then served atop a mound of asparagus risotto.

Urban Kitchen
14008 Memorial Dr., Ste. F
281-531-7550
urbankitchenhouston.com

When the fish came out, I was glad to see that some of the nage was served along with it, the coral-hued sauce ringing a snowy white mound of risotto in the bottom of a shallow bowl. The amberjack looked perfect, with a crispy skin atop its hearty white flesh. Green onions accented the vivid hue of the asparagus coins throughout the risotto. But you can't always judge a book by its cover.

Nothing—not the fish, not the risotto, not that beautiful nage—was seasoned. Not a grain of salt was to be found, and there are simply some things you can't salt after cooking. It was my misfortune that three of those things were all combined in one dish in front of me, taunting me with its deceptively beautiful presentation. I attempted to liven it all up with some rigorous salting, but the only effect was to make everything taste, well, salty—not seasoned. I thought of all the lovely depth of flavor that could have been conjured from this dish and despaired.

Despite this, the amberjack, a special that day at Urban Kitchen, won me over with its vivid freshness. It's unusual to see the predatory fish on Houston menus outside of Japanese restaurants that sub it for tuna (as in the excellent amberjack sashimi and foie gras at Kata Robata) or seafood palaces like Reef, where chef Bryan Caswell is known for catching the sport fish himself. Urban Kitchen is clearly committed to obtaining excellent ingredients, whether it's the aggressive amberjack (which fight a fishing line harder than a red snapper) or the mussels I enjoyed for an appetizer.

Those mussels took a long time to reach our table, something for which our waiter apologized profusely. "I'm so sorry," he said. "I didn't realize when you ordered that the truck had just pulled up." He broke into a grin. "When we say the mussels are fresh, we mean they're fresh." Indeed they were, if on the small side. And though the white wine sauce they were served in was good enough, it too could have benefitted from some additional salting—a deficit I noticed in my dining companion's salmon as well. It's as if Urban Kitchen, in some misguided attempt to serve "healthy" cuisine, has banished sodium from its kitchen entirely.

Urban Kitchen also gets points docked for serving store-bought poundcake and a few slivers of strawberry as "strawberry shortcake," but wins a few points back for the terrific whipped cream.

I do hope this changes, as I was so pleased with the restaurant otherwise. This part of Memorial—removed from CityCentre and the glut of restaurants that crowd the mixed-use development—needs an option like Urban Kitchen. It's bright, clean, welcoming, and chic—the polar opposite of the repulsive Ripps Grille that previously occupied its spot in the same strip center at Memorial Dr. and Kirkwood which houses Pizaro's Pizza.

A full bar and clever happy hour menu with cured salmon sliders, "naughty" blue cheese chips, and pork belly sliders brings more urbane offerings to an area dominated by chains and family-friendly restaurants where the most adult thing on the menu is coffee (shout-out to the moms I've seen recently giving their toddlers coffee: you're ruining this country).

For these reasons and more (including excellent service and a promising patio that features a view of a parking lot, yet could be beautiful with the addition of a plant barrier), I want to see Urban Kitchen succeed. And I think it will given time. The menu of burgers, flatbreads, pastas, and lighter dishes is diverse enough that it will appeal to a wide crowd of area residents. Plus, this isn't the owners' first rodeo.

Dinorah Barnes and Barry Barnes also own the popular Ricky's Thick and Juicy Burgers in Crosby, which is known for its excellent burgers and homemade onions rings—items which are expertly seasoned. I know the Barnes have it in them to bring that same touch to their new restaurant, and when they do, expect Urban Kitchen to become a local legend.

 

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