Urban Kitchen: Blessed with Finesse

An overhead shot of a sampling of menu items at Urban Kitchen in Corolla, NC

Urban Kitchen opened 7 years ago, with the assistance of a blessing from two nuns and a bit of holy water from France. Jen Lambertz, who owns Urban Kitchen with her other half, Chef Joe Panaras, said she thinks it’s helped; there are lines out the door in the summer to prove it and a loyal following of locals and non-residents year-round. A holy blessing can’t hurt but it’s clear to me the fandom has more to do with the clean, comfortable vibe inside and the finely finessed, deliciously seasonal food on the plates.

Jen and Joe are from Kansas City and have been in the restaurant business forever. Before opening Urban Kitchen, Joe interned and worked his way up to sous chef at another gold star spot on the beach, The Blue Point. 

Urban Kitchen has thrived in its space on Currituck Clubhouse Drive in Corolla since 2013 and for no good reason, my husband and I had never eaten here before. I know this was a gross oversight on my part and Jen knows it, too. There was sympathy in her nodding response to my gushing during our meal, the unspoken truth being, “Yes, the food here is always this good and you’ve been missing it.”

a little taste of greatness

Our group of five was there now to celebrate a birthday and to eat plenty of food so I could share about it here. There are personal connections between folks in our group and Jen and Joe. Plus, it’s fall now; off-season mode, so the stage was set for a really good time and they gave it to us.

Chef Joe Panaras and sous chef Jay Jones in the kitchen at Urban Kitchen
Chef Joe Panaras (right) and sous chef Jay Jones at Urban Kitchen are turning out some of the most unique, creative food on the OBX.

Before our first course of small plates arrived, Joe and sous chef Jay came out from the open kitchen, loaded up with things to share. Carrots with Apricot Miso, Everything Spice, and Crushed Peanuts (these would be talked about for the rest of the night). Scallop Crudo with Ponzu and Pickled Plums. Short Rib Agnolotti with Truffled Cauliflower. Seafood and Foie Sausage with Apples. Creativity was rolling off of these dishes; everything was as balanced and thoughtful as it was interesting. There were standout elements of rich creaminess, with savory fat coating your tongue before a sweet high note would come sweeping in to brighten everything up. There was crispness and crunch and texture to every bite. Although the chefs seem thoroughly obsessed with good food and are sort of overflowing with ideas and concepts, there’s restraint and beauty in everything that ends up on the plate.

on the menu

We moved on to more. Urban Kitchen’s menu sounds somewhat simple and straightforward but what you get is a 100 watt version of what’s described in print. “Halloumi cheese with pistachios, figs, and mint”. No. Well, yes, but it’s griddled halloumi with blackened swirls of char, topped with sticky, sweet figs, drizzled with a tart balsamic, all under a scattering of pistachios and mint, and it tastes like you’re biting into nature. There was a super-savory salmon mousse folded together with creme fraiche, finished with little poppy beads of bright orange roe, tasting like bubbly ocean between your teeth, served with thin homemade potato chips. The scallops had an irresistible, aggressive sear, giving way to a silky-soft center, their sweetness playing perfectly off the pecans, golden raisins, and cauliflower on the plate. The “Sunchokes, Sunflower Seeds, Delicata Squash, Ricotta Salata” dish was like a sunflower seed risotto without the rice- a delicious puddle of buttery earthiness studded with seeds, topped with rings of sweet roasted squash and deeply golden sunchokes under a flurry of salty ricotta salata cheese.

The Sunchokes, Sunlower Seeds, Delicata Squash, Ricotta Salata plate at Urban Kitchen
The Sunchokes, Sunlower Seeds, Delicata Squash, Ricotta Salata plate at Urban Kitchen is delicious with unexpected twists on texture.

We’d had our first taste of sous chef Jay Jones’ food when he was working at a fine dining spot called Bonne Soirée in Chapel Hill (gorgeous, glossy food with menus handwritten in cursive), although he has cooked all over the world. Jen had told me his pastry skills were unbelievable and I remembered this fact as tiny silver pots containing passion fruit popsicles were set down alongside plates of snowy white olive oil/lime powder. We were instructed to roll the palate-cleansing popsicle in the fluffy powder and enjoy. Those flavors and textures together and the overwhelming refreshment of that bite will be stuck in my head for a very long time. 

sweet endings

Feeling good and cleansed, we leaned hard into dessert- the chefs shared it all and we were happy to oblige. Spice cake with buttermilk creme fraiche and tart apples elicited satisfied moans around the table through mouthfuls of the spongy, warm cake. The chocolate panna cotta was like a deconstructed s’more with scorched, gooey marshmallows and a graham cracker chocolate crumble that left the slightest crunch of salt in your molars to compliment the sweetness. Last, someone had slipped in a special plate with little spheres of smoked pineapple cream, decorated with tinier spheres of passionfruit syrup and a white balsamic sauce- we could barely wrap our heads around this but opted to set logic aside and just give in to the incredible flavors.

There’s more. So much more. Like the way you feel you’re in the palm of the server, Lulu’s hand because she’s taking such good care of you. Or the way the space feels like someone’s cozy living room after about 15 minutes of being there. And how there was not one single moment of unease among the staff. Just pure contentment, a feeling that seeps into you the longer you stay.

You don’t go to dine at Urban Kitchen, you go to be fed. Don’t wait, just go now, go hungry, and find out for yourself. The food really is that good, and Jen, Joe, and their team really are that cool.

One thought on “Urban Kitchen: Blessed with Finesse”

  1. Glad to find this restaurant. It only came about because I was googling the name of Joe Panaras in Corolla North Carolina. My name is Joan Davis and Joe’s mother Jonell was a roommate of Mina years ago in Wichita Ks. I recently Learned of Jonell‘s passing and would like to give my condolences to Joe. I learned of her passing from his aunt Beth whom I have kept in touch with namely at Christmas time. I remember Jonell as being a very good cook herself so it does not surprise me that she had a son who now owns a restaurant. How proud she must be of him. Just wanting to extend my sympathy to him and the family.

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