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Belly-up

The suit. The white napkin. The cleanliness. Are you sure this is a bar and grill?
Stephen P. Karlisch

Greenville Bar & Grill owner Terri Russo recoils when it's suggested that her refurbished old bar (established in 1933) borders on upscale. Yet with its clean looks, white-tablecloth demeanor and 51-bottle wine list (called GBG Juice), it would be hard to call it anything else but a stab at a rakish noshing pit.

But she says it all depends on the time of day. On weekend afternoons the comely dive is filled with cheeseburger-chewing sports fans or bored neighborhood barflies testing "sizzling Texas sting wings" with blue cheese dressing. Late Sunday morning Greenville is filled with pew refugees who file in from fire and brimstone intonations to munch on brunch. She even goes so far as to call GBG nothing but a purveyor of roadhouse food, what with a menu huddled around Cobb salads and chicken-fried steaks and grilled cheese sandwiches. "It's because it's brand-new," she says, dismissing the suggestion of the slight upscale appearance of the dining room. "A couple of years down the road it won't have that feel. It needs some wear and tear."

Russo shares wear-and-tear duties with her partners Greg Hillan, Craig Wolf and Wesley Weaver. They're all from Primo's Bar & Grill on McKinney Avenue: Russo managed front-of-the-house operations while the three guys were behind the bar, providing psychotherapy and margaritas. They took over the shuttered Greenville bar in the summer of 2000 and opened it about a year later, and the transformation of the dilapidated venue into the dapper room proved more laborious than any of them had imagined. They found layers of grime and goo that would make children squeal.

"The renovation was a lot more than we had thought," she says. "When we got into the building, every layer we took it down we had to take it down another layer, the building was in such bad shape. The bathrooms were horrendous."

This meant that there was very little of the original tavern they could keep. The wiring and plumbing were bad. The bar leaned. The floors had to be taken down, she says, literally to the dirt. Interestingly, the part of the Depression-era bar and grill that was salvageable actually looks the newest--newer than the new stuff in fact. "People think the tile is old and the hardwood floor is new," Russo says, referring to the black and white tile near the bar and polished wood floors in the dining room. "But it's the other way around." They also restored the original sign, which Russo says is as old as the bar and grill.

Perhaps the most significant change they made to the place, other than the installation of white tablecloths, was the elimination of live music, which was a constant before the place went dark in April 2000. They installed real chefs, too: James Rowland and sous chef Mike Palish, both of whom worked at the Hotel Crescent Court, the former at Beau Nash. So there is a flair to the fare, whether it's a simple burger or something a little more elaborate, with ingredients that are impossible to pronounce after a couple of Buds. Spinach pecorino-stuffed mushrooms are not the kinds of things you're likely to find in the typical tavern. Most roadhouses drag their mushrooms through Bisquik and drop them in roiling bacon fat. But these inverted buttons are crammed with spinach leaves and tangy pecorino cheese (made from sheep's milk) and roasted garlic. The mushrooms are chewy and moist without being mushy, and the sharp cheesiness foils (or maybe wakes up) the mushroom must.

Greenville serves steak, too, so it has that requisite preparatory red meat-ingestion gut stretcher: the "wedge." Our server recommended this to me instead of the crispy tenderloin strips as a pre-steak appetizer. Maybe he feared bovine hormone overload in his station. The Greenville version of this salad is a dramatic visual composition based on the hacked iceberg head. It's a sharp horizontal ridge that stretches across the plate. A trio of red onion rings balances on the precipice. At the base of the ridge is a puddle of blue cheese dressing that is creamy, but short on those pungent pimples of soft cheese. Or maybe it just seems like the cheese was stingy, because buried in the creamy depths of the dressing is a generous dispersion of tiny hickory-smoked bacon specks.

The strange thing about the grilled rib eye steak was that I was never asked how I wanted the thing done. Yet it was delivered with a perfect medium-rare ruddiness. I don't know if this is acute waitstaff intuition or just dumb luck. Whatever it was, one thing was for sure: This was not a stupid steak. The meat was chewy without being gristly and fatty, and the cabernet-thyme demi glace was a deft complement--instead of a smothering intruder--bringing out the richness of the meat. The wine list bulges with dozens of choices to tread with the steak or other steaklike menu squatters (seared filet mignon, home-style meatloaf), from a trio of pinot noirs to Cotes du Rhone to a cabernet-syrah blend.

A few of the reds on this list would even make a fair pair with the grilled Asian salmon. This slender strip of pink has an orange soy glaze, one that imparted a sweetness that perhaps needed a little bite of something (tang or herbal intensity) to counter it. The fish came with a mound of fluffy, separate basmati rice with almond shavings and scallions within.

This was all reliable fare that, while it put some stretch marks and twists on a stripped-down tavern menu, wasn't astoundingly innovative or dazzling. What was dazzling was how Greenville twiddled with dull, middle-of-the-road grub. Eggs for instance. It wasn't because they stretched boundaries on this typical breakfast fodder. It was that they stayed within the boundaries so competently.

Greenville's eggs Benedict is slathered in a smooth, tangy hollandaise sauce that blankets a fluffy, plump poached egg. A thick, chewy sheet of Canadian bacon hovers over a muffin that is so tender and pliant it disintegrates as soon as it hits the mouth (and it isn't one of those watery, predigested muffins either). Perhaps even more amazing is that this version is actually hot through and through. Not cool, not warm, not piping-hot hollandaise over a hard egg with icy whites and golf ball-hard yolks, but hot, from muffin bottom to hollandaise tarp. There was no rubbery egg white or watery discharge from poaching.

Omelettes are constructed with the same exacting care. They're fluffy and light, almost like little soufflés. Our spinach and mushroom omelettes, ordered with chicken, came with a small knoll of chicken slices all tender, juicy and well-seasoned.

Even the fruit plate--typically a no-brainer with thoughtless casting that stars the mealy and the insipid--had plump berries overweight with flavor, sweet honeydew and cantaloupe and bits of fresh pineapple that were as tangy and juicy as they were golden.

And just as Russo eschews upscale sensibilities in her clean tavern, the waitstaff shuns professional demeanor. They wear polo shirts, khaki shorts and white socks--not exactly buttoned down. Still, their execution is tuxedo-smart. Questions about the menu (OK, so it's no phone book) are answered without referring to cheat sheets or tripping over sauce pronunciations. And they seem to know the wine list, which it is hoped is because they've drunk most of the GBG juice and not because they're blowing smoke (easy to do) up guests' snouts. Yet this staff will never get too slick. If they do, Russo will no doubt apply the same wear-and-tear treatment to them she's hoping will take the gloss off her dining room. For now, don't let the white tablecloths and the GBG juice scare you off. This is one place where you can dress like a fool and eat like a king.

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