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The Gossiping Gourmet: Cafeteria-style eatery worth trying

I spend a great deal of time looking for new restaurants — or older ones that I have missed — and usually rely on recommendations.

Recently a friend told me about Urban Plates in Irvine, which I had heard of but had not yet visited. My dining companion and I were surprised as we entered to discover that this is a cafeteria-style set up, where you take a tray and walk down the food line trying to decide on what you want to eat from tasty-looking offerings. The servers will be happy to give you a small sample if you can't decide.

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We wanted to try as many things as we could, but the menu is extensive and portions are generous. My companion began with a small cup of Moroccan Chicken Braise, which is made of free-range chicken, slow-cooked with squash, onions, preserved lemons, olives, turmeric, paprika, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, parsley and cilantro. It is gluten- and dairy-free.

We found it to be very good. It was rich and complex with a spicy aftertaste, so good that we were sorry we had only a small bowl, but there was still more to come and we had to pace ourselves. We will be back for more of this one, for sure.

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I haven't had barbecued ribs in a long time, and Urban Plates had a half rack of Duroc pork spare ribs with house-made barbecue sauce. All the entrees come with two sides of the guest's choosing. The ribs were meaty and cooked perfectly, and the sauce was great. My only slight complaint was that the ribs were room temperature, but they were still delicious with the house-made sauce.

One of my sides was a large portion of roasted and well-seasoned Brussels sprouts with turkey bacon pieces, garlic and onions. It was very good. I also had roasted rosemary potatoes, and they were perfectly cooked and seasoned.

My dining companion selected the chicken Cobb salad. The server put it together on the spot with a lettuce blend, , organic tomatoes, turkey bacon, half of an avocado, blue cheese and organic sprouts, with grilled free-range chicken slices and a sliced, hard-boiled, organic egg on the side. The dressing was buttermilk dill. It was a dinner-size salad full of flavor and texture.

The two desserts we tried were equally good. Both featured chocolate. One was a rich, dark chocolate cupcake with peanut butter, pretzel and cream with lots of ground nuts on top. It was yummy, as was the other dark chocolate dessert, which was a four-layer cake with dense cream in the middle of each layer. We actually couldn't finish them, but they were excellent.

Categories include "greens" "plates," "sandwiches" "braises and stews" "pizzettes" and "seasonal soups." A kids menu is also available. Urban Plates also makes its own cookies, cupcakes, tarts, brownies, layer cakes, cheese cakes, cream pies and more.

In fact, the restaurant makes everything on site and tries to use only high-quality natural foods and organic ingredients.

It also has curbside pickup. Call when you arrive.

Urban Plates has a covered patio in front of a long wall of windows and another open-sided but covered patio at one end of the building. The interior has that industrial look with open, high ceilings and wood floors, hanging lights and a wall with one long banquette as well as tall tables and stools and some regular tables.

We found the staff to be very friendly and helpful.

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Location: 3972 Baranca Parkway, Irvine

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Prices: $3.50 to $11

Wine: By the glass, $7.50 to $9.50

Bottle: $30 to $38

Information: (949) 387-2600; urbanplates.com

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TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at themarkos755@gmail.com.

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