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Close to perfect

My first trip to Nick & Sam's, Phil Romano (Macaroni Grill, Eatzi's) and Patrick Columbo's (Sfuzzi's) steak and seafood house on Maple, was impressive--so much so that I had to pinch myself after the appetizers. "If it stays this good through dessert," I said to my companion, "this place will tear Dallas' steakhouses a new vent between the rump roasts."

Which, given the number of steak places in town, would make for a lot of work, but Nick & Sam's may be up to the task. That first dinner maintained an admirable level of swellness right through to the check. It started with seared diver scallops with osetra caviar. They arrived meticulously crafted, a pair of scallops delivered on shimmering triangular black plates, the center carpeted with greens settled in a puddle of lemon-butter sauce. Precious few grains of caviar were evident, but that was fine. The singed, creamy white scallops needed no accentuation. Firm and delicate with a whisper-thin sear crust, the tender disks were flush with a rich, sea-washed sweetness.

Iceberg salad was structured with a cleanly symmetrical cross-section of bright green head lettuce and deep red tomato drenched in a lusty blue cheese dressing given heft by a speckling of lean, crisp bacon bits.

A guy in a tux played a grand piano atop a platform near the open kitchen. The restaurant's curvaceous counter, cloaked in glittering stainless and black and white tiles, was a showcase of breads and desserts. Before this backdrop, the pianist punched out lots of pop songs, something from The Lion King, I think, and a schmaltzy Beethoven sonata. But even if the piano was a little syrupy, it was light years better than that fake soprano sax jazz that floods most restaurants of the Nick & Sam's ilk.

Nick & Sam's service staff proved as tasteful as the appetizers: efficient and sincerely gracious. We witnessed several servers pluck wineglasses from a shelf near the piano and inspect the bowls in the spotlights before delivering them to tables.

Still, the service didn't uniformly keep a precise beat. After our appetizer and salad were delivered, three servers popped out of nowhere and in rapid succession shoved pepper mills under our noses asking whether we would like our food dusted. By the third intrusion, I wanted to grab that mill and pepper the server's noggin for getting between my scallops and me.

Yet this seemed a mighty tiny service nit to pick, especially after our entrees arrived. It's been a long time since I've passed tuna between my lips that didn't instantly make me wish I'd ordered something else. Either the meat is fishy tasting, or it's dry, fibrous, and dense. I was set for disappointment here as well when the grilled tuna fillet au poivre arrived gray with a center that was pale pink rather than the requested deep red rare. But the texture, consistency, and taste of the flesh were superb: firm, flaky, and moist. The peppercorn coating gave it backbone while dribbled threads of lively, gently sweet bell-pepper-mango sauce provided a subtle counterpoint.

Colorado rack of lamb was equally stunning. The flesh was luxuriously silky and chewy with lush flavors that never meandered into harsh gaminess. It came with a bowl mint pesto with a touch of honey and an optional dish of lively mint apple jelly. But the flavor of the meat was so fine and so well seasoned that these little dishes seemed unnecessary.

Sides never dipped from this dapper tone. Garlic mashed potatoes were creamy and hearty. Steamed asparagus, a bundle of long, thick stalks, was tender with a sweet, slightly pungent flavor. Dribbles of creamy, graceful hollandaise added rich savor without gumming up the fresh green.

But all hopes that Nick & Sam's opening would be resoundingly spectacular went down the grease trap on the second visit. Remember those intensively inspected wineglasses on the first foray? Someone must have gone nose-blind in the interim. My companion and I split a tasting flight of red Burgundies before dinner. The third glass in my trio, the one holding the delicately robust 1996 Louis Latour Aloxe Corton, smelled like mackerel run through a carpet shampooer. I had to abduct the glass in my companion's flight to get any sense of the wine.

I was suspicious. When the wine steward was preparing to serve the Saintsbury Pinot Noir we ordered with dinner, I snatched my wineglass just as he was about to splash a taste into it. I took a whiff of the bowl. Same wet-rug fish smell. The steward had to yank our glasses and bring replacements. Seems some of Nick & Sam's glassware is infected with killer bouquet.

That's unfortunate, because this place makes a big stink, so to speak, about its wine program. The foyer is essentially a glitzy showroom to the stuff. A glassed-in wine cellar is packed with all manner of oversize bottles and wooden wine coffins stacked in that stylish, slightly rumpled wine-cellar sort of way. Just before the entrance to the bar and restaurant is a wine salon furnished with tasting tables. Thick candles smolder atop those tables, spewing thick gobs of wax all over the surface and creating a touch of rusticity among the handsome glitz. There's also a lounge area with all kinds of slick wine magazines flashing cult labels on the cover: the equivalent of Cosmo cleavage for the cork set. Walls are covered with filled wooden wine racks.

Tucked in a nook is a kiosk with a computer monitor that has a touch screen on which you can select items from the menu, find wine matches, and print out a card to order a tasting flight. From there you can choose which wine to have with dinner. The screen also contains links to winery Web sites such as Mondavi's, where you can take virtual winery tours to work up an appetite before dinner.

Pretty clever, only I couldn't get the thing to work. The touch screen was difficult to manipulate, even for a wannabe computer geek like me. Each time I touched one of the selections, this tiny rack of icons popped out of nowhere like a presidential scandal. The icons were so small that every time I tried to get my finger on one, the thing fluttered and choked. So I just ordered a glass of Marcelina cab, a big, plummy drink from Napa, and tried to drown my grape technophobia.

The ensuing dining experience featured its own technical glitches. Regrettably, it was as forgettable as the first one was memorable. Mussels in fennel garlic and Chardonnay sauce were riddled with inconsistent shellfish. Some were tender and resilient with a good gust of sweet brininess, but most were mushy and spongy with slightly off flavors.

Tuscan white bean soup in a veal stock with chopped tomatoes picked things up a bit: The pottage was elegantly rustic with cleanly balanced flavors and tender, resilient beans.

Things tumbled badly from there. Grilled swordfish steak, a beautiful slab of blond flesh with a grill grid neatly scorched over its surface, was soppy with a wisp of fish stink wafting over the plate.

Our server raved about the bone-in prime aged sirloin. Yet after tasting it, I had to conclude the fawning was sparked simply by price: It was among the most expensive cuts listed. The flesh just didn't stun with lusty brilliance. It had a marginal level of sweetness, was buttery in texture, and was perfectly grilled. But the flavor was somewhat hollow, lacking the heart-stopping robustness and full dimension of a vigorous piece of prime beef.

A side of mushrooms was nearly flawless, though. Sauteed forest mushrooms, perfectly singed in butter and wine, were flush with earthy flavors and fresh, buoyant textures.

Then the creme brulee blundered. It was another one of those corrupted custards packed in a pastry shell with plump and racy berries scattered along the edge to give it charm. The custard was creamy, yet cold instead of slightly cool, while the singed sugar lid was cool instead of warm.

Named after the toddler sons of Romano and Columbo, Nick & Sam's is stumbling a bit just out of the chute. And perhaps there's a good reason for that aside from the normal ramp-up glitches. Shortly after opening, maitre d' and managing partner Dennis Renna, a former Brinker corporate chef, died of a massive heart attack, sending tremors through the operation and no doubt disorienting the staff. It's hard to discount such an impact.

But the fundamentals here are relatively sound, and the operation seems firmly pointed in the right direction. Nick & Sam's managing partner Joseph Palladino, a former police officer and onetime restaurant manager for the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, boasts that Nick and Sam's is different from virtually every other steak house because it adds a distinctive visual and culinary flair to its dishes.

"It's one step up," he says.
After my visits, I'd say that assessment is roughly half true. But consistency is what makes a great restaurant great. Nick & Sam's has proven it can deftly create a grand dining experience. Now it just has to recapture that touch on a frequent basis. If it can do that, this spot will not only be a standout among Dallas steakhouses, but will distinguish itself among Dallas restaurants period. The pressure is on.

Nick & Sam's. 3008 Maple Ave. (214) 871-7663. Open Sunday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 5-10:30 p.m. $$$

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Nick & Sam's

3008 Maple Ave.
Dallas, TX 75201

214-871-7444

www.nick-sams.com


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