We’ve just been seated at Notte Urbana, an Italian restaurant that opened last summer in downtown Raleigh, when owner/chef Vaughn Williams comes out of the kitchen bearing a large foil-covered pan. He smiles at customers as he passes, but doesn’t stop to chat as he heads out the front door. A few minutes later, the chef returns empty-handed and heads straight for the kitchen. Such is the frenetically multitasking life of a caterer-turned-restaurateur.
It’s a double-edged sword for the restaurant’s patrons, too. On the one hand, you know there’s an experienced chef in the kitchen. As the owner of Urbana Catering Concepts, Williams has been accumulating testimonials from satisfied clients since he started the business in 2003.
On the other hand, there’s the risk that adding a restaurant to his portfolio will spread the chef’s talents too thin. Commendably, Williams makes it a point to be in the kitchen as much as possible when Notte Urbana is open. But when push comes to shove, it isn’t hard to imagine which will get the primary focus of attention – the established catering business, or the fledgling restaurant.
At any rate, that’s my best-guess explanation for the roller-coaster ride of a meal we’re taken on that night. Tuscan chicken skewers – big, juicy and spangled with herbs – get things off to a promising start. Grilled romaine, topped with cherry tomatoes, bacon, chopped hard-boiled egg and a creamy gorgonzola dressing, keeps the mood upbeat.
Then, without warning, the entree course sends me plummeting into lukewarm crab cakes. My wife’s lamb chops are hot, but they’re cooked closer to medium than the medium-rare she’d requested, and the presentation is further marred by a demi sauce that’s broken.
The main course is partially redeemed by the accompanying sides: cumin-glazed carrots and collards with the crab cakes, grilled asparagus and wild mushroom risotto with the lamb. The asparagus stalks need another inch of so of tough ends to be trimmed, but the sides are otherwise well-executed.
A shared slice of cheesecake – unremarkable, though the sweet-tart berry sauce drizzled across the top is tasty – brings the ride to an end on an even if uninspiring keel.
The ups and downs continue a few nights later. The PEI mussels that weren’t available when I tried to order them last time are still not in the offing. I’m amply consoled by a starter of eggplant slices, grilled to a subtly smoky turn and topped with marinara, basil leaves and molten fresh mozzarella.
Another high: an entree of pistachio-crusted salmon with a bright lemon pepper relish.
Another low: the dry, overcooked lentils that accompany the salmon.
A thoroughly disorienting loop-the-loop: an entree of shrimp (decent) and scallops (with a chlorine aftertaste betraying their wet-pack origins) tossed with spinach linguine (not the conchilie described in the menu) and white beans in a preserved lemon cream sauce (delightful).
The linguine-for-conchilie switch is just one of several inaccuracies on a menu that, as of mid-January, is still touting a wine dinner that was held Oct. 15. “Pesto, beet, hummus puree” turns out to be not a puree at all, but two separate items: a coarse beet “hummus” and quinoa tossed in pesto. And in this era of cheap printers, it’s hard to justify continuing to list green beans as an accompaniment for the rack of lamb when, for some time now, it has been asparagus.
Williams has hung a few vintage wine prints on the walls, but has otherwise done little to change the quaintly charming space he inherited: a converted 1880s bungalow that was previously home to Mo’s Diner (and its more recent incarnation, Holly’s on Hargett) for nearly two decades. Fans of that restaurant will recognize the cozy rooms with fireplaces (sadly, no longer functional), timeworn hardwood floors, ladder back chairs, and windows hung with taffeta curtains. Even the mural of Sir Walter Raleigh in the entry hall remains.
Those dining rooms were nearly empty both times I visited – once on a weeknight, the other on a Saturday when, on the other side of Moore Square, restaurants and bars were humming with activity. Notte Urbana’s location is tantalizingly close to the action, but as the only nightlife destination on that side of Moore Square, it’s easy to overlook.
Williams believes the Moore Square makeover, tentatively slated to be completed in the summer of 2017, will bridge that gap and bring more foot traffic to his side of the square. That gives him a year and a half to find the balance between restaurant and catering business. Given his track record with the latter, it’s a good bet he’ll succeed.
306 E. Hargett St., Raleigh; 919-856-9938
Rating: ☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: cozy and homelike
Noise level: low
Recommended: Tuscan chicken skewers, pistachio-crusted salmon
Open: Dinner Wednesday-Saturday
Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; porch seating; parking in lot and on street.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.