Since the Director’s place of employ is in the Lowenstein Cultureplex, I end up in those parts a lot. So I have to confess to some disappointment upon hearing the news that a branch of Udi’s would replace Encore on Colfax; a passable sandwich shop does not a twinkly, cozy hangout make.

But a full-service, contemporary Mediterranean-American restaurant with a well-stocked bar does a twinkly, cozy hangout make; as it turns out, I like almost everything about this place.

In fact, it’s not even all that distinguishable from its predecessor. The long, narrow space looks pretty much the same, & so does the menu—a smart, breezy collection of small plates, flatbreads, salads, sandwiches, & heartier entrees. One thing makes all the difference, however: THIS.

Pane bianco just means “white bread” in Italian, but here, the structured loaf you might expect is not what you get. Rather, the high-risen round is a lot like a giant puff of pizza crust: golden, crunchy, & touched with olive oil on the outside, airy, soft, & chewy on the inside. On 3 visits I couldn’t keep my hands off it until it was gone, & I’m craving it hard all over again just looking at it here, pictured with baba ghanoush—which, however, is a little too pure in eggplant flavor for my tastes; I’m an eggplant fiend (by all its beautiful names: melanzana, aubergine, berenjena, etc.), but it can be sharp on the palate, & in this case I think a little more tahini would soften those bitter edges.

Good thing the bread comes with all the other small-plate selections too, including these terrific Tunisian-roasted carrots:

root-sweet, loaded with smoky cumin, & accompanied by a smear of thick, rich tzatziki—which is also offered separately, doused in olive oil & sprinkled with za’atar. The word “intense” doesn’t usually apply to yogurt, but it sure works here.

Some of the sandwiches also feature pane bianco, including this French dip I got to go—which is great, because why shouldn’t tender, thin-sliced roast beef & aioli be the icing on the cake of killer dough? I didn’t even mind that they forgot the side of jus—for which I mistook the container of orange-balsamic vinaigrette meant to accompany my salad. Look, I’ll dip anything in anything, so what do I care. (Ever had sushi with hummus? Primo.)

In the above light, you’d think the pizza would be equally smashing. Not quite. The crust is certainly all that, as is the zingy fresh tomato sauce—& those are the most important parts, to be sure. But the toppings still need some refinement. Take the vegan kale pizza, which sounded intriguing but proved out of whack: it was basically just a pile of nearly raw kale, plus maybe two slices of mushroom, with the bare minimum of advertised breadcrumbs & no detectable note of the garlic or truffle oil it also supposedly included.

Or the version with prosciutto, béchamel, gouda & caramelized onions—sort of; the below pie boasted the right amount of the former 2 ingredients, but not nearly enough of the latter 2. (In the rare bites where I did get the full effect, it was a throbbingly vibrant one.)

The mushroom-sausage pizza with mozzarella & red peppers was, however, ready for its close-up, so clearly the potential’s there.

To take a quick carb break, Udi’s salads aren’t wildly original—you got your Cobb, your Greek, your chicken “Oriental,” etc.—but they’re solid. The combination of frisée, radicchio, poached pear, blue cheese, & slivered almonds in balsamic vinaigrette may not be conceptually fresh, but it’s literally refreshing, crisp, balanced, generous, & fine. You can have similar salads all over town, but I’ll vouch for this one.

Same goes for the beet, goat cheese, hazelnut, & watercress salad. Overplayed times a million, sure. But nicely done nonetheless.

To return to meatier stuff (click below to enlarge): the falafel burger’s a bit dry, but the earthy, nutty, herbal flavor’s delightful, highlighted by the chipotle aioli—& the Jerusalem chicken is superb: juicy, evocatively spiced, comforting in the extreme.

So next time you’re catching a flick at the Sie Film Center, stop by the bar—I’ll probably be there, face down in a bread pocket.

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