Bill Kim's casual, pan-Asian spot is easy to fall for. You just have to do it quickly.
The lamb and brandy dumplings at Urban Belly are best eaten whole, in one single, enormous bite. Like a soup dumpling, they burst open on contact, a rush of brandy-spiked broth assaulting the tongue first, followed by the mildly gamey flavor of lamb. Take a small, dainty bite of it and the juices will squirt everywhere. And while that’s never a good thing, it’s an especially bad fate to experience here, because these are communal tables, and it’s awkward to explain to a complete stranger why there’s dumpling juice on her new jacket.
And, of course, there’s also the fact that you’ll want to keep every drop of this stuff for yourself. The dumpling wrapper itself may be a little sticky, but this is otherwise a brilliant example of the genre. Likewise for the duck dumplings, which bypass the sticky situation by being crisply fried and are best eaten without the accompanying sauce, which only cover up the dumpling’s deep, rich flavor.
If you’re like me, you’ll hold off on the pork dumplings—frantically trying to decide what I wanted after stepping up to the counter, I was able to scan the menu thoroughly enough to know that there was going to be more than enough pork in this meal. And I was right, kind of. The pig was barely detectable in the pork-belly-and-pineapple rice. Likewise, while the meat in the short-rib-and-scallion rice was impossible not to notice—the sweet and salty ribs sat on top of the bowl like a crown—that dish also suffered from a similarly disproportionate rice-to-protein ratio. But there was more than enough pork in the Urbanbelly ramen, the bowl sufficiently stocked with tender slices of pork belly in a piquant, clove-kissed broth. You’d think this dish would be the signature of the place (it bears the restaurant’s name, after all), but I think that honor should go to the rice-cake noodles. The chewy, mini-Frisbee-shaped noodles are topped with a juicy, perfectly fried chicken breast and bits of mango, which help cool the fiery, chili-spiked broth. This is the kind of dish you want to take your time with—not only does the heat of the broth slowly work up a sweat, but the portion is so big that it would take forever to reach the bottom of the bowl anyway.
That impulse to slow down and savor this food reveals the only drawback to the room’s minimal and modern space. There are only so many seats on these benches, and the hordes of people waiting outside mean that yours already has somebody else’s name on it. So you not only have to take big bites—you have to take them fast. This was chef Bill Kim’s goal, of course—he set out to do something quick and casual and completely different from the fine dining he does at Le Lan. Hopefully, he’ll take it as a testament to the food when I say that I wish I could have eaten it slower.
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