La Urbana is trying. And that's something for a restaurant that's inspired so much hand-wringing about what is happening to the Divisadero corridor. It's upscale, ambitious, high-concept Mexican cuisine, with a sleek urban feel and high prices to match. The whole thing could have felt like a cynical, commercial enterprise; instead, it gives the impression that someone in the kitchen is clearly cooking with heart. There are a lot of dishes that are almost great and a few glimmers of brilliance. With tighter service, a better-edited menu, and a more egalitarian price-to-portion ratio, La Urbana could grow into a good, interesting restaurant, one that deserves a place on Divisadero no matter its slick trappings. As of now, there's only potential.
The remodel is stunning — if I hadn't known, I'd never have guessed that this was the former, dumpy shop Plant It Earth. Its design comes from Mexican architect Juan Garduño, who says he wants to bring the contemporary feel of Mexico City restaurants to San Francisco. To that end, he trucked in a bunch of artifacts from down south, including the distressed furniture above the bar that looks like the most artistic flea market display you've ever seen. There's pretty handmade tile, interesting art by Mexican artists on the slate-gray walls, a communal table around a live tree, and a general, big-city feel (along with a big-city noise level). Outside is a pop image of a woman lit up by LED lights at night, staking the restaurant's claim on the once-grungy corridor. Walking in, you feel like you've arrived somewhere.
La Urbana plays up its mezcal collection, the biggest in S.F. with about 40 different bottles, available by the shot or in a flight, and puts nearby Nopalito's 20-bottle mezcal program to shame. Mezcal also plays a big role in the cocktails, which feature mixologist ingredients like chipotle-mezcal tincture, chimerola oil, violet liqueur, and more. Some of the drinks are quite tasty — I enjoyed the Manhattan Federal, a take on the Manhattan with mole bitters and that chipotle-mezcal tincture, as well as the Mexican Dude, made with horchata, vodka, and mezcal. But be careful — despite the servers' assurance that “none of the drinks are sweet,” some of them tasted like soda, like the violet flower margarita, made with lime and orange blossom water, tequila, and violet flower liqueur, topped with rose cava. But really, what did I expect from a cocktail that looked like a Firecracker Popsicle?
The restaurant's menu is composed mostly of small plates, which only offer a few bites of food for their high prices (it does say something when, after dropping $100 on dinner and drinks for two, I felt compelled to go down the street to El Rancho Grande for a burrito). Then again, they do bring in ingredients and preparations that aren't seen at many taquerias.
The quesadillas “Tijuana” look more like empanadas, and the black corn shells have a tortilla-chip texture. They're filled with a minimal amount of manchego cheese and chopped okra; biting into one felt like eating inside-out nachos. Carnitas came on a light, buttery brioche that contrasted nicely with the meat's earthy cumin flavor. Beautifully seared scallops came chopped with imaginative tomato jelly. Little cigars of fried manchego cheese look almost like egg rolls and had a smoky salsa that sliced through their richness. These dishes worked.
Then there are menu items that are almost there, but might be letting their ambition get the better of them. Case in point: Ceviche, which was delivered in a capped blue mason jar. The server unscrewed the top, and cherry smoke poured out in a surprising bit of culinary showmanship. Though the fish was a bit mushy, and the taste of smoke a little overwhelming, I did appreciate their attempt to innovate — it just felt like it needed a few more iterations. Pozole, another standout, was filled with incredibly succulent pieces of pork in a fiery broth. But even with hunks of hominy inside, I wished it had been served with warm tortillas or similar to sop up the excess liquid.
Some of the most beautiful dishes were the simplest, like a frissee salad with fava bean puree and slices of perfectly ripe avocado, or an entree of sea bass covered with a light foam made with huitlacoche (a kind of fungus popular in Mexico). The fish had a crisped skin but moist and flaky meat, and the plate's cauliflower and greens enhanced the seafood's delicate flavor.
Soon there will be a cheaper taco bar added to the restaurant, to appeal to neighborhood punters like me who complain about the prices — and with the average one-bedroom apartment in the area hovering above $2,500 a month, it seems that taking a shot at the high cost of the meal is, well, a little cheap. I resented La Urbana as a harbinger of Divis gentrification ever since I heard that a 130-seat “mezcaleria” was moving in. After a few visits, I hope it find its rhythm and sticks around. That feels like progress.