Urban Café: Tiny space, big flavors

SMALL WORLD: Urban Café co-owner and chef Brooke Souhail, right. incorporates influences from Morocco, Europe and India into her menu. Also pictured are co-owners Simo Berzem, left, and Sam Souhail, center. Not pictured is Amanda Berzem. Photo by Alicia Funderburk

An imaginative and affordable breakfast and lunch spot opened downtown early this month on the ground floor of the BB&T building on Pack Square. Situated in the tiny venue previously occupied by The Sandwich Company, Urban Café cranks out a globe-spanning range of bold flavor combinations from its compact kitchen — and offers them at close to fast-food prices.

Co-owned by Sam and Brooke Souhail (who also own Tobacco Plus on Eagle Street) and Simo and Amanda Berzem, the restaurant has a coffee menu featuring Bean Werks products and offers three varieties of fruit-based smoothies at $2.99 each. Breakfast items include a personal quiche-of-the-day that sells for $4.99, and occasional treats like a recent special of peanut butter-banana French toast made with brioche from Karen Donatelli Cake Designs. Biscuits and breakfast sandwiches will soon be available.

Brooke Souhail, who attended the A-B Tech culinary program and previously worked at Cedric’s Tavern and The Stable Café on the Biltmore Estate, created a lunch menu that centers around a diverse assortment of paninis, cold sandwiches, wraps and salads. She makes as many of the dishes in-house as possible, given the limited kitchen area, and sources her veggies from the WNC Farmers Market. All lunch items are in the $5-9 range, and sandwiches come with a choice of house-made sides or chips.

The generously portioned curry portobello panini is made with portobello mushrooms marinated in a yogurt-tikka sauce layered with sweet potato, apricot-lime chutney and coconut-cilantro spread. The combination of sweet-and-sour chutney, mellow sweet potato and earthy ‘shrooms makes it pleasingly complex. Paired with one of the house-made sides (recent choices were a lentil, almond and goat cheese salad or a green-tomato, basil and blueberry salad), it is a filling and satisfying lunch — and a steal at $5.99.

Among the other sandwich choices are a hickory-smoked turkey breast panini with pickled green tomatoes, roasted kale, pimento cheese and Cajun remoulade and a duck confit panini with brie and fig jam. Salad choices range from a vegetarian offering featuring roasted Smiling Hara tempeh and a mix of veggies with green goddess dressing to an adobo-marinated flank steak salad with avocado, cucumber, red onions and Monterey Jack cheese in a honey-lemon vinaigrette.

Xpress recently stopped by Urban Café to ask Brooke Souhail about their new venture and plans for the future.

Mountain Xpress: In planning to open a restaurant, were you intentionally looking for a small space?

Brook Souhail: It was really kind of a coincidence. We had been thinking about opening a Moroccan restaurant. I was browsing online, and I saw that The Sandwich Company that used to be located here was for sale, and we kind of just jumped on it. Also, it was kind of a financial thing. We knew it would be pretty cheap to do, we didn’t have to do a lot to fix it up and the overhead is really low here. We just saw a lot of potential for making some money and making good food.

What are some of the challenges of having a tiny kitchen area and dining room?

Storage space is a huge issue, but it’s kind of good in a way because we have to keep things fresh since we don’t have the ability to keep stuff hanging around. We also have to be superorganized. … I mean, this is basically like running my garde manger station at Biltmore, but it’s a whole restaurant. There’s pretty much only room for one or two people [in the kitchen]. As far as dining space, we are looking into adding some tables on the patio in front of the building on Pack Square to make an outdoor café area.

Are your prices introductory or do you plan to keep them affordable?

I think we’ll be able to keep our prices low. We have superlow overhead here because our space is so small, and we only have two employees, so I don’t see any reason to go up on our prices unless food costs go up.

What inspired your menu?

My husband is from Morocco, and I’ve traveled there a few times with him as well as to Europe, and that definitely has influenced a lot of our flavors and my techniques. And I really love Indian food, so I draw from that as well. I do a lot of experimenting. I get bored and I have to try new things.

Do you still plan to open a Moroccan restaurant?

It’s still on my mind. I would love to do it. But right now we’re really working on building a following here… We plan on being very competitive. We’re not trying to do it in a day, it will take time, but eventually we want to kick [the competition] to the curb.

Urban Café is at 1 W. Pack Square in the BB&T building. The entrance is on College Street. Hours are 6 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday. Delivery is free in the downtown area. facebook.com/avlurbancafe 552-3008

About Gina Smith
Gina Smith is the Mountain Xpress Food section editor and writer. She can be reached at gsmith@mountainx.com.

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