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Columbia’s Urban Plates balances healthful ingredients and home-cooking

From the moment I tasted the tender, seasoned steak, buttery-rich mashed potatoes and firm, flavorful mixed vegetables I realized that Urban Plates in Columbia had achieved a rare balancing act of capturing the comforts of a family meal with cost-effectiveness and healthful food benefits.

I have to admit that I didn’t quite know what to expect when I entered the chain restaurant that boasts making everything daily from scratch, recipes with fresh ingredients and the ability to offer meals for people with dietary restrictions.

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What I didn’t realize was that the restaurant excels with its customer service, which is impeccable.

It started when we entered the brightly lit restaurant, which is filled with a series of hanging lamps, exposed light bulbs, thick, nautical ropes and rustic wood mixed with a hint of industrial décor. We were immediately greeted by a friendly hostess who continued to check on us throughout our dining experience. It was like being welcomed to the Sunday dinner of a hip, loving grandparent.

The restaurant, which works like a made-to-order elevated food hall, features an open kitchen plan where customers can watch their meals being created before their eyes. It’s comforting and entertaining.

Despite our lengthy order, the cooks were patient and eager to whip up some of their culinary masterpieces. When we asked if we were missing any standout menu items, we were immediately told that we did a good job of getting all of the greatest hits. And we weren’t disappointed.

We quickly learned that the restaurant excels with many meals, whether that be its main plates, bowls, sandwiches or desserts.

The chimichurri grass-fed steak ($14.95) was the star of the night. The tender beef hardly required a knife to cut. It was cooked perfectly to the temperature I requested — medium well. And the chimichurri sauce that was ladled on top added another complex flavor that complemented the seasoned, grilled meat.

The Kimchi aioli cage free chicken ($11.95) was a treat. In addition to being a socially conscious dish, it was delicious. The aioli was slightly spicy and creamy. It completed the juicy, tender chicken breast, which was perfectly cut and plated.

The turkey meatloaf is moist, tender and flavorful. The house-made barbecue sauce that comes with the protein takes it to another level.

The Moroccan chicken braise — the hormone-free chicken slow cooked with vegetables — is a customer favorite, according to employees. And for good reason. The hearty bowl bursts with nods to North Africa as lemon, turmeric, cinnamon, and spices combine for a warm, balanced sauce. It’s perfect with rice.

The wild Ahi Tuna Banh Mi sandwich was a delight. The perfectly rare-seared tuna was marinated in a house-made harissa sauce. The grilled rustic bread didn’t detract from the tender meat, which was topped with a green sriracha aioli, sweet and sour pickled organic carrots, jicama and cucumbers. Raw cherry hot peppers and cilantro added a good mix of heat and herb.

The meatball braise ($10.50) was made from cage-free turkey bathed in a red concoction of tomatoes, carrots, onions, and fresh herbs. I was disappointed because the meatballs were slightly tougher than I expected. The sauce lacked the zesty boldness I expected from a rich tomato accompaniment.

The restaurant also features an extensive selection of wines with glasses ranging from $7.95 to $9.95 a glass. Bottles start at $30.

One employee recommended a less expensive red, which was refreshing. It was clear that she was knowledgeable about the wine selection and how it worked with the food offerings. Her choice was perfect as it went with the night’s dishes.

We were pleasantly surprised by the assortment of delicious desserts. The mango tart ($5.75 a slice) was anchored by a butter crust and filled with scrumptious rum cream. The sweet and tangy mango atop gives the dish a tropical Caribbean feel. We also liked the Heaven & Hell cake ($5.75 a slice): The pairing of angel food cake layered with devil’s food cake was a winner. The biggest surprise was the Gluten Free Pineapple cake. Usually, I avoid gluten-free desserts, but this one was moist and not overly sweet. The pineapple diplomat cream icing perfectly completed the sweet treat.

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As we left the restaurant stuffed and pleased with the dishes and interactions we had with the knowledgeable employees, we remarked that we would return to the restaurant — a place that gave us fond memories of home.

At A Glance

Cuisine: Eclectic American

Ambiance: The dining area has an elevated food hall-type feel with plenty of lighting and a number of table options from booths to longer tables that accommodate larger parties.

Service: Extremely friendly without a saccharin feel.

Reservations: For larger parties of 10 or more.

Parking: Lot

Special diets: They can be accommodated.

Handicap accessible: Yes

Prices: Sandwiches $9.50 to $10.50; plates $10.50 to $14.95

3.5 stars

The Mall in Columbia, 10300 Little Patuxent Parkway, #3035; 443-741-8787; urbanplates.com

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