Sunday, January 15, 2012
TBG Eats: Chicken & Waffles from Urge Gastropub
Current Weight: 171.4 lbs.
If I were to rank the members of the "breakfast entree syrupy trinity", I'd place pancakes first with waffles second and French toast taking third. Over the course of my lifetime, there hasn't been much movement among them. As everyone knows, at the center point of every pancake -- and in strict accordance with the laws of gastronomic geometry -- the soaked-up butter and syrup merge to produce the most perfect bite of pretty much any meal.
But, waffles are finally making some noise within the kitchen at Stately Bootleg Manor.
Sure, they've always had the advantage of those built-in miniature syrup n' butter buckets -- each one's contents remaining undisturbed until its eventual knife-and-fork-fueled evisceration. It's just that, to me, waffles have always been a bit one-dimensional when compared to the pancake. For example, pancakes allow for the kind of porcine opportunities that gave the world pigs-in-a-blanket and bacon pancakes. Waffles, while delicious, are blocky and boring. This assessment applies to both domestic and Belgian -- sorry, I've never understood the allure of fruit and whipped cream toppings at the breakfast table.
Last month, my wife spent a week overseas on business, so I was tasked with all of the parental responsibilities. I'm told these include -- but are NOT limited to -- feeding our son. By the third night of Mrs. Bootleg's European adventure, the Cameron men were settling for "breakfast-as-dinner". In this case, it was the chocolate chip waffles I've been making for Jalen for the past year or so. Since then, he's asked for them again and again -- along with the super-sized side of sausage I give him.
I thought I'd be experiencing a bit of a waffle-reprieve last weekend when my good friend Thai came down from Long Beach to visit San Diego for the day. When he was finally free, we kicked around some eating/drinking options before agreeing on a relatively new local entry in the trendy gastropub population -- Urge.
For those who don't know, I live in a section of San Diego known as Rancho Bernardo. We're about 30-40 minutes north of downtown and well east of the ubiquitous beach scene. "RB" -- as it's known -- skews heavy with retirees and the main drag draws down its shade between 8:00 PM and 8:30 PM. (All blue-haired hell broke loose several years ago when a Hooters opened up less than a half-mile from my job.)
So, it was a bit surprising when the young adult-leaning Urge opened. Ironically, it's a bit hidden and tucked between two of RB's older -- in both structure and clientele -- establishments: a regional chain restaurant called Coco's and a wine bar known as The Barrel Room. I visited Urge for the first time last October and I've been back nearly a half-dozen times. The consistent theme in my Urge experiences is that the beers were terrific, but the food...not so much. Not even close, actually.
Thai and I arrived at Urge last Saturday night just before 5:30 PM. The layout of the place has always fascinated me. As you walk in, the proverbial "bar scene" -- stools, long counter, visible beer taps and flat-screen TVs -- is on the right, while the negligibly less noisy (and TV-free) dining area is on the left. The two sides are mostly divided by a wall that kinda-sorta keeps one group from bleeding into the other. Since we envisioned a more leisurely-paced dinner, we opted for the dining side.
Speaking of leisurely, the initial visit from our server took longer than I thought it should, considering the restaurant was roughly half-empty at this point. (By 6:00 PM, it was packed.) After a few more minutes, however, a Karl Strauss "Off the Rails" Red Trolley was in my hand and its smooth toffee and caramel notes were pleasing my palate.
Since Thai and I are cut from the same gluttonous cloth, we both ordered the chicken and waffles and a bowl of their House Cracker Jack as an appetizer. The description of the Cracker Jack hooked me in:
Freshly popped [popcorn] and topped with sweet and spicy house-made caramel, house-cured maple-pork cracklins and pine nuts.
Unfortunately, our appetizer arrived to our table at the same time as the entrees. The server was apologetic and thoughtful enough to offer up an explanation, but this always drives me crazy. Or, as I wrote in a related non sequitur from a TBG post in September 2010:
I want to enjoy my Southwestern Pizza Fingers or Million Dollar Birthday Fries BEFORE my hobo chicken chili is brought out.
My first few bites of the Cracker Jack -- sweet, but not cloyingly so -- paired well with my beer. I didn't pick up much of the "spicy" from the house-made caramel, but its texture was light and left the glorious saltiness of the bite-sized pork slabs (cracklins) unaffected. After a few handfuls of Cracker Jack, I turned to my entree. Naturally, when I attempted to revisit the appetizer a few minutes later, the caramel had hardened and our bowl of popcorn had become a permanent popcorn ball. What I had was decent, but this really needed more salt so that the popcorn could play off the caramel.
The menu description of the chicken and waffles was equally appetizing:
Buttermilk-fried "Mary's Farm" organic free-range chicken, buttermilk waffles and maple syrup.
And, the end result was equally disappointing. I mean, I've eaten enough soul food-restaurant chicken and waffles to know and appreciate "no frills", but the comically sparse garnish and overall plate presentation left a lot to be desired. The waffles were simple, but acceptable. Good buttermilk flavor with a crisp exterior, although I'd have preferred they were served warmer -- and with butter.
The failure was with the fried chicken. If I Google "buttermilk fried chicken", I get images like this on my screen. Thick and "wrinkly" battered-skin, golden-brown exterior. The very overcooked version I was served at Urge was coated in meal and fried as if it were catfish. The impenetrable breading is necessary for the delicate flesh of a fish. Chicken is too dense to be leather breaded and bound as it was here.
It was also unbelievably devoid of flavor. No salt, no pepper, no cayenne, no paprika...nothing. Thai and I had to ask for bottles of commercial hot sauce just so we could taste something on the chicken. And, even though I've developed a taste for the dark meat of chicken in recent months, I was surprised that my server didn't offer me a choice or -- if only dark meat is available -- that the menu didn't call this out. I didn't ask when I ordered, but knowing how fiercely loyal the fried chicken segregationists can be to their preferred pigmentation, it's something Urge's servers should consider.
I think I've eaten from a large enough sample size at Urge to simply take a pass on their food going forward. In previous visits, I tried -- among other things -- the Mini Corn Dog Lollipops (nice idea, really greasy and unspectacular execution); the Coconut Porter wings (thin flavorless sauce, overcooked); the Short Rib Sliders (tough meat, overpowering mustard and pickles) and the Urge Grilled Cheese (ten parts bread, one part everything else).
Their beer menu, however, comes with my highest recommendation. Urge claims to serve the largest tap list in San Diego's North County region. Updated daily, it includes several highly-regarded brews from local landmarks like Stone, Pizza Port, Karl Strauss and Green Flash. They offer another 50 or so by the bottle. There's an obvious solution to my reservations with the food at Urge.
Make a right turn when you enter through the front door and order a beer.
Grade (House Cracker Jack): 2 (out of 5)
Grade (Waffles) 2.5 (out of 5)
Grade (Chicken) -5 (out of 5)