The phrase "farm-to-table" gets tossed around a lot these days. And it's not being used only to describe small, chef-driven joints. Chain restaurants like Paul Martin's American Grill and Tender Greens are apparently farm-to-table adherents, too.
Unveiled in September 2011, Urban Plates is another jumbo-size eatery that recently joined the locavore movement. The original location is in the rambling Del Mar Highlands Town Center (12857 El Camino Real in Carmel Valley). A second location opened two months ago in Irvine.
The décor at Urban Plates features silver pipes and weathered wooden tables. The industrial-provincial vibe is trendy, albeit a little hackneyed. A cafeteria-style setup begins with two lines: one for salad loyalists, the other for everyone else.
Diners in the second line are headed toward their Urban Plates station of choice; pizzette and sandwich stations are two of several. I arrived around 6 p.m. on a Sunday night, so the place was tightly packed; I felt like one of 20 unexpected guests at a gathering meant for five.
After a 10-minute wait, I reached the Carve Up station. Here, grilled, hand-carved meats like medium-rare steak and wild ono are the main act. I went with the free-range chicken. Two seasonal sides and a chargrilled slab of focaccia completed the $10 meal. An open kitchen pulls the curtain back on all the action at Urban Plates, making it reasonably clear that your food will be fresh.
It seems like every detail at Urban Plates—from the cast-iron pots in warm, buttery shades to the bushels of fresh produce on display—is trying really hard to communicate a distinct message: This place is homey and rustic, the epitome of a relaxed yet refined neighborhood joint.
Maybe it doesn't matter that I sensed something slightly contrived about the whole experience. Maybe it's enough that the cheddar mac and cheese is splendid—velvety smooth with a faint nuttiness, the spiral pasta noodles cooked just right—or that the tender, juicy chicken flaunts a straight-off-the-grill smokiness. The focaccia—pale and altogether lackluster—needed more charring, but the Brussels sprouts were beautifully roasted. The green gems mingle with flecks of turkey bacon and Asiago cheese.
The desserts span a wide gamut of tastes and textures. Most impressive, at least visually, is the mango tart. Bright yellow slips of mango create an intricate, sinuous rose design. Unfortunately, the fruit, not quite ripe, lacked a rich flavor. Its flat, sour taste and fibery texture clashed with the sweet cream base.
For a foolproof conclusion to a meal here, try the banana cream pie. Everything about the dessert is spot-on—from the crumbly graham-cracker crust to the silky cream center to the neat heap of chocolate shavings.
As for Urban Plates' farm-to-table promise, the website doesn't list any local farm suppliers. Neither does the menu—which strikes me as strange. Usually, restaurants like to highlight their locally grown produce. Although UP fare certainly tastes farm-to-table fresh, it's difficult to decipher whether the new kid on the block is a genuine locavore or just riding the trend.