Sambuca is dark and narrow. This apparently is a requirement of jazz clubs. Jazz clubs must also be sultry, smoky and have the smell of stale spilled beer on concrete. Sambuca didn't have much smoke, but it did have an aroma suspiciously similar to urinal deodorant cakes, which, when you think about it, smell like stale beer on concrete, at least to a man's nose. It also had a bit of sultriness on account of the black ceiling with steel rafters and ribbed ventilation tubes, old brick and acres of flesh sneaking out of pairs of hot pants (or their kin) and skirts the size of barbecue-shack wet naps. This flesh usually ends in leather footwear with long, sharp spiked heels, which must get better traction on sealed concrete.
That Sambuca is happening and chic in Deep Ellum is no surprise. That it maintains this natty aura after roughly 10 years in business, is. Yet not only has Sambuca survived, it has bred. Owners Kim (a former professional tennis player) and Holly (Kim's sister) Forsythe have opened four more Sambucas--in Addison, Atlanta, Houston and Denver--over the past few years with a sixth one on the way in Shreveport, Louisiana, sometime over the next several months. So there must be some magic in this concept, though one would be hard-pressed to say it's the food.
Maybe it's the lights suspended from odd snaking snarls of what looks like conduit. Or maybe the magic comes from the brilliant green neon tubes forming a rectangle above the bar, which must be shockingly disorienting after five sambucas, especially with that neon (or is it argon?) green framed bank skyscraper just down the street and over a block.
Sambuca Jazz Caf
2120 McKinney Ave.
(214) 744-0820. Open 11 a.m.-midnight Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday. $$-$$$
Salmon carpaccio: $9
Chicken piccata: $19
New York strip: $29
Penne Pompeii: $17
Smoked salmon fettuccini: $17
Sambuca cake: $5.95
Sambuca is a licorice-flavored liqueur made from the elder bush (whose Latin name is sambucus). It's also the basis for one of the best items on the Sambuca menu: Sambuca cake. A wedge of thick, firm sambuca-soaked pound cake rests near a little puddle of crème anglaise. One edge of the cake is riddled with chocolate chips, which surprisingly didn't cloy the cake into a choking sponge of sweetness. Instead, it was restrained in its richness, maybe by the cool breath of the alcohol, but most likely by a very skillful confectioner.
The other surprisingly delicious item on the menu was the escargot, which bears no relation to Sambuca cake, so go figure. Still, the escargot wasn't nearly as pretty to look at as the Sambuca cake was. It was just a heap of little gray polyps with taupe highlights pooled in olive oil toned with chopped parsley. Yet collected together with sautéed garlic, shallots and mushrooms with a few squirts of lemon, it was a delicious chew. The knobs of tender, firm snail meat were earthy and lush instead of rubbery and indistinct, as they sometimes can be. And everything married beautifully, even if the presentation was a little ugly.
But other Sambuca culinary lunges landed shy of the mark, if in fact there was a mark to be shy of. Salmon carpaccio was a clumsy serving of thick strips of pink instead of lacy sheets of translucent delicacy--the way it is when it's at its best. According to our server, the fish was "quick cured" in lemon and lime, and the resultant flavors were destabilized by the preponderance of acidity. It was basically bulk ceviche on a plate, only not as interesting, even with a tuft of chopped shallots on top. Plus, the accompanying toast points were stale, lending a dry chalky essence reminiscent of drywall.
Yet while the food was sometimes a little shy of the mark, the service almost never was: an anomaly for a nightclub restaurant, where service tends to be delivered by professionals who use battery acid as a mixer. But Sambuca's servers were attentive, exuberantly polite, gracious and sincere. Plus, they seemed to know the menu and could wax on about their favorite dishes and answer questions about what was making the olive oil an electric shade of green in some dishes (mostly chopped parsley).
But don't try to ask questions or order difficult items once the music starts, or you might end up with a Pago Pago from the bar instead of penne Pompeii from the kitchen.
That wouldn't be a bad trade-off, actually. Chicken Pompeii is another visually impaired creation with chunks of spicy chicken with a deep rust hue tangled in penne pasta. This is mingled with walnuts, roasted bell pepper, red grapes and Gorgonzola cheese. The chicken was dry and sticky without much flavor except for fire, supplied by cayenne pepper. Plus, the grapes were hot instead of cool and cooked, suggesting that perhaps they were left in the sauce (or maybe the whole dish) for too long a time, making them mushy and indistinct and unable to act as a foil for the remaining flavors and textures.
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Salmon fettuccini didn't need any foils, because there was no flavor asserting enough to merit getting slapped back down, which either means the dish was exquisitely balanced or exquisitely boring. Unfortunately, the latter was more evident than the former. Disintegrating pieces of smoked salmon hobnobbed with big capers, mushrooms and olive oil among a tangle of noodles that just seemed to snooze on the plate. The pasta was well-prepared, and the serving was a healthy dinner heap, but it seemed thrown together with little attention to detail or eye for visual vibrancy. While it certainly didn't taste this way, it looked like a plate of aging reheated leftovers.
Chicken breast piccata was better but still not up to snuff for a spot leaning heavily into Mediterranean territory. Thin breast planks from free-range chicken are coated and pan-seared. The breasts, with golden edges, are served with caper butter sauce and a fat dab of moist garlic mashed potatoes. But the chicken, dry and perhaps a little tough, had little evidence of lemon--a key ingredient in piccata--which made the flavors lie flat.
But lemon or little else could have saved the New York strip steak in a mushroom port wine sauce. Two thick pieces of meat leaned onto one another, creating a plate that looked neither elegant nor lasciviously satiating. Ordered medium rare, the steak was the color of gunmetal once it was cut into and yielded no juices. It looked neglected instead of just undercooked. So it was sent back, and the second time, the meat sported two anti-gastronomic hues: cooked gunmetal (with grayish undertones) and uncooked gunmetal (with rosy undertones), depending on the section that was cut into. Unfortunately, it didn't taste any better than it looked. The meat was dry and gristly. Accompanying the steak was an assortment of vegetables (cherry tomatoes, green beans and baby carrots that were like little split sticks) and a puff of harissa mashed potatoes. (Harissa is a smoldering Tunisian sauce made of chilies, garlic, cumin, coriander, caraway, garlic and olive oil.) Curiously, the potatoes were dry and stiff when served with the first steak, and moist and fluffy when they returned with the two-toned steak.
As for the rest of the menu, might I suggest using sambuca as an ingredient in everything. It worked for the jazz and the pound cake. Maybe it'll work wonders for salmon and the penne pasta, not to mention the thematic consistency it represents. Just leave the snails alone.