On the fine-dining spectrum, it used to be that at one end were the white-tablecloth establishments serving multiple, tiny, exquisite courses, and at the other end were sports bars slinging quarter-pound — or bigger — burgers. There have always been some worthy contenders in the latter category, but often, it seemed that the measure of food quality in taverns lagged far behind the square footage of television screens.
Lately, however, we've seen the trend toward high-end bar food blurring the distinction between fine dining and pub grub. Even if it stretches your sensibilities to call a burger "fine," the fact that even sports bars are now connected to farmers' markets is an indisputable fact.
Urban Tap, which recently entered the East Carson Street fraternity at a relatively mature level, has us pondering such matters. Though it's wallpapered in giant TVs, the restaurant's brick, steel and wood decor evokes post-industrial chic, smartly accessorized by a staff clad in tight, all-black casualwear. The menu is mostly devoid of sports-bar clichés (only wings and nachos, both in upgraded forms, reminded us of classic bar menus), but there's nothing to challenge a sports fan's palate either. Perhaps this is the end state of America's foodie moment: We haven't all achieved enlightenment, but everyone strives for better than jalapeño poppers.
The more time we spent at Urban Tap, the more depth we came to appreciate. The entrees were protein-centric, no doubt, but firm, tender grouper topped with roasted-tomato-and-red-pepper chutney was a far cry from a fried-fish sandwich with tartar sauce, and duck confit poutine was several steps more refined than canned gravy over fries. Meanwhile, each interaction with the staff revealed additional levels of knowledge paired with the perfect mix of friendliness, accommodation and professionalism. We've been to supposedly better restaurants with far lesser service.
This, and the food itself, pushed Urban Tap close to the fine-dining end of the spectrum, even without a white tablecloth in sight. The poutine — with duck gravy, no less — was rich and satisfying, with pliant meat and creamy melted cheese over firm, crispy fries; if it needed a sprinkle of salt, that was preferable to its being overseasoned in the kitchen. Mac-and-cheese with smoked Gouda featured hearty, artisanal-style pasta in a cheese sauce that wasn't off-puttingly smoky, although it could have been a touch creamier.
A burger topped with pork belly, pancetta, short rib and a finely shredded slaw gave credence to Urban Tap's slogan, "Saahside's Finest." The burger would have stood well on its own, especially with the tender, rich brioche bun, but its toppings elevated it to near-decadence, the belly unctuous, the slaw subtly tart. A mass of shoestring fries alongside were flavorful and tender, but the ratio between soft and crisp was slightly off: Just a few more golden-crusted fries would have been ideal.
A big rib-eye steak is a standard menu item, but a slightly larger, 28-day aged cut was featured during our visit, and Jason dug in. It was hard to tell which was more satisfying: the big flavor of the aged cut, or the extraordinary char on the surface. This encompassed both bits of true crust and areas that were merely browned, providing variety rather than intensity. The only flaw was one inherent to rib-eye: The deckle, that especially tasty rim of meat, was a touch gristly from being seared. We don't blame the kitchen for that, but merely note that's why this cut — the same one that yields prime rib — is more famously slow-roasted. A puddle of chipotle-inflected sauce was tasty but superfluous, while the side of rapini was simply, honestly steamed to a firm bright green.
"Marbled" potatoes, small wedges of white and blue potatoes, were somehow browned outside while remaining a bit firm, rather than fluffy, within. When we mentioned this to our server, she eagerly offered to replace them with an alternative.
The only real misstep was short-rib nachos. Despite diced, not shredded, beef and a super-creamy candied-jalapeño queso over delicate chips, this was brought down by pico de gallo made with sad, December tomatoes and a slaw that seemed to favor insubstantial romaine over cabbage. At a humbler establishment, this dish could have been a highlight, but here — and at these prices — it was a letdown.
With flattering lighting, top-notch service and excellent food, Urban Tap elevates tavern dining about as high as it can go before we have to dress up for dinner.