Hitting the mark

Mark's on Henderson delivers on its promises

Steak au poivre was not the dish with green pepper cream sauce, but meat thickly crusted with cracked black pepper, hotter than you remember since its eclipse by the chili craze. A mound of horseradish mashed potatoes underlined the heat. Salmon with lemon and dill, suspiciously described as "really fresh," really was, though to my taste it was also slightly overcooked, past the point of pink translucence I prefer. But tuna, with lime pico de gallo, was rare as requested, and the tart mixture of pepper, jalapeno, and onion set off the dark, jelled meat.

We quibbled with the authenticity of the gumbo, would perhaps have accepted it as shrimp Creole, a tomato-sauced dish. This stew, despite the okra, was too red to to be dubbed "gumbo," which is properly based on a nut-brown roux. Desserts, though, rose again to our expectations. The cinnamon pecan crumb cake, topped lavishly with creme fraiche and whipped cream, was laced with ripples of dark cinnamon. Both flavors of cheesecake we tried--praline pecan and white chocolate--were good, but the prize went to the three-berry shortcake, which, for once, was--as it ought to be, as I expect it to be--a sweetish biscuit, (not a sponge cake), honestly "short," simply moistened with fresh berries and cream.

Right away you have to understand that it's not about food. It's about music. And, like so many new restaurants these days, it's also about the neighborhood.

The Brick Room, at the not-quite-revitalized triangular corner of Live Oak and Skillman, is the project of three guys, all of whom live in East Dallas and share a love for music and food. Kirk Hampton, an ex-musician who worked at Terilli's for the past 11 years; Dean Ryan, a real estate investor (and what's a restaurant without a real estate guy on the roster?); and Richard Cantillon, who's been a link in the chain-restaurant front for years, combined forces, fortunately hired a chef, and decided to invest in their own neighborhood. Idealists or nuts? You decide. They not only opened a white tablecloth restaurant where only York Street (with its grand total of what, 10 tables?) had gone before, they decided to make The Brick Room a music venue, too.

Foolhardy, maybe, but jazz, both straight ahead and contemporary, is the featured entertainment every weekend at The Brick Room. So the dining room (yes, the walls are the original brick) opens into the bar, which is nearly the same size, and the music from the stage permeates the whole restaurant (though if you really object to music, you can eat early, before the music begins). The whole space, according to Hampton, is designed acoustically, set up for music. In fact, the trio shopped the location for that reason. They wanted it all under one roof, a shared space for music and food, a real hybrid.

The kitchen is a hybrid, too, under the direction of two chefs, Michael Shaw, the owner-operator of York Street, and Danny Reagan, who has cooked all over town. Between them they have concocted a menu that is absolutely without surprises. It's all-American, all right, and that was the intention, but remember how American food didn't used to seem so wonderful until after Nouvelle Cuisine had waved its wand and American food was transformed into New American food?

The meals we ate at The Brick Room were fine, but without the musical attraction, they would not be memorable. The jumbo shrimp cocktail was not discernibly "jumbo." It was just a shrimp cocktail, straightforward, fulfilling the menu's promise to serve nothing ending with 'a' or 'o'. You get the picture. This ain't foreign food. That means steak, which was fine, and apple pie. Oddly, it also means red cake, that recipe with all the food coloring--what could be more American?

Clams are also a featured part of the menu, which seems odd if you're thinking regionally, which I guess the kitchen isn't. For the most part, different cuts of beef, including prime rib and baby back ribs, chicken, of course, and your standard grilled-chicken-o-the-sea, so to speak, compose the menu, and everything comes with good fries (they don't call them "French" here), baked potato, onion rings, or baked beans, as well as salad or soup. The steak, though, seems to be the point, and though The Brick Room's aren't the finest prime, they all cost less than $20, too. Swordfish, the marine equivalent of steak (it's hefty and bland), was better than the beef, nicely cooked so there was still some moisture, and served with a rice pilaf that relieved the protein. Unfortunately, on our first visit, we had to help train a waiter. Fortunately, the trainee seemed to have more aptitude for the job than his instructor, remembering to ask how we liked our meat, for instance, a detail that had been neglected.

The Brick Room is designed for the neighborhood, and the neighborhood seems to love it--the bar is usually full on weekends. And one recent Sunday night, most of the waitstaff gathered in the doorway of the full bar to hear the music, though that doesn't say much for the investors' return. The Brick Room regularly features familiar names like Marchel Ivery, Claude Johnson, John "Spider" Martin, Joe McBride, and Lane Delano on weekend nights, and there are plans to open for a jazz brunch (blessedly acoustic).

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