Stolik means "little table" in Czech. The name is brilliantly captured on the menu: a tiny, crude, hand-stamped ink impression of a table, precisely pressed in the center of the creamy cover stock (a tiny barstool illustrates the bar menu). This expresses much: space, honesty, simplicity, warmth, timelessness.
On this Wednesday at 8 p.m., heat off of the pavement ripples the air. We scan the upper-level dining space after scaling the long, straight staircase. Just one table is occupied. This isn't the case below in the lounge. Here it hums. Ice clinks against glass; glass bases clank against bar top; lips murmur.
The bartender talks up a Piping Shrike shiraz at $9 a glass. The bait is taken, and it's good: bulging fruit tightly tethered to an oak spine that sweats spice. It has that bruised lavender ring where the surface touches the glass, and the glass tugs at the surface tension and thins the fluid in an abrupt but slight upward curve. That Welch's shade generally warns of fruit bomb hazards--a rambunctious red with youth, vigor and no sense. The Shrike is good, but more finesse is demanded on this hot July night.
Stolik is like that wine: full of youthful preoccupations with vigor and slick sophistication. Stolik has sense, but not enough.
Hip. It's a pose with the pill of its own demise built in. Not many lounges consciously dressed in hip--"decadent...silks, posh sultry suedes"--live long. The most successful lounges with a culinary component (however feeble) really aren't lounges at all. They're bars, dreadfully dull ones when measured on the hip Richter: the Old Monk, the Loon, Primo's and Terilli's come to mind. These spaces thrive because they don't strive to create a scene through a tight regimen of slick implication. They allow the scene to emerge on its own by giving it space and loose (if any) cues that permit the crowd to improvise, organically culturing an ecosystem, whether they realize it or not.
Because Stolik self-consciously strives for that hip restaurant-lounge vibe, it seems jarring. Yet this posture isn't necessarily effusive; it comes through mostly in a few weird furniture pieces (stone-like benches with pillows in the dining room) and intrusive sonic wallpaper that may invigorate the lounge but spurts like venom when it reaches the dining room, poisoning the nosh (keep that music to a murmur until 9:30). In essence, Stolik is too much lounge and not enough restaurant, and the paucity of diners bears this out. The loud "ain't we hip?" Euro-throb is good for watching sweat beads stream down a chest runnel but deadly when trying to absorb the nuances of foie gras.
It arrives with an egg of smooth, creamy mashed potatoes; a fanned caramelized pear, blemished in age-spot bronze, cupped over one side. A single thick slice of foie gras leans against the opposite face. It is an irregular oval, dull gray (no delicate rose) except in those spots where the sear scorches it into a deep cinnamon. The lobe is cool and stiff like a slice of liverwurst branded in a skillet with hot fat. There was no creamy richness, no delicate pistachio finish. Thick, stubby lines of mandarin balsamic emulsion dancing around the edge of the plate flaunt their tangy extracted fruitiness in vain and only whet the yearning for that gentle rich cream texture. Two tumbleweeds of wilting frisée tack down the flanks. A single cold toast point, saturated in oil (truffle would be my guess) so that it oozes when squeezed, is slotted near the frisée. All of this trim is woefully out of place with a centerpiece that seems more at home between two pieces of bread smeared with Dijon than on a plate assembled with doily intricacy.
Ceviche slips from other expectation summits. In a bowl pooled with juices wades a few half-moons of avocado and thin slices of cucumber. Pieces of tuna, snapper, sea bass and shrimp rise from the citrus swamp in a smooth, architecturally consistent crown. Grape tomato slices and thin rings of chili pepper dot the mound, crowned by a parsley sprig. But the dish is feverishly warm. The pool at the bottom of the bowl has no chill, nor does the fish, cooked by the citrus sear to a milky haze. The flesh is ripe, sloughing off fishy aromas and flavors that hang distressingly like a stubborn smog in the roof of the mouth.
Sounds aside, Stolik's highly stylized pose is restrained when measured against the bulk of hip restaurant-lounge urbanity. The design is well-clipped, almost timeless. Flat rock is embedded horizontally into the walls, giving it the rustic look of a roughly hewn cliff face. Horizontal wine racks trimmed in black brilliantly juxtapose bottles to rock slats. Understated artwork is minimally applied. Ox blood floods the walls. Cozy woods frame the sparkle.
This flushes out a question: With so much sleek assuredness, why does the menu so consistently tangle itself in troublesome indecision?
The macadamia nut-encrusted mahi mahi in a soy-ginger beurre-blanc sauce and cilantro-pineapple chutney (catch a breath) isn't a problem on its face. It's just that there are little flaws that nag: a knot of greasy sautéed leeks; the pallid coitus between the ground macadamia crust and the moist, flaky but listless fish. Inspiration is AWOL. But there is one saving grace: The chutney has an alluring acidic bite, fueled with peppers, carrot slivers, green onions. But like the mandarin balsamic emulsion near the foie gras, it triggers yearning more than satisfaction.
With all of the hints of rusticity, it is perhaps predictable that Stolik would be at its best when it leans more into the robust than the urbane. Moroccan organic chicken arrives in a beautiful bowl--a chicken in a pot to deliver us from hip. It is anchored in lemon couscous, roasted vegetables and harissa sauce, a blistering Tunisian ooze made with chilies, garlic, cumin, coriander and olive oil. The aromatic tease rings the nostrils once the lid comes off. It deepens into a lusty rush. Though slightly dry, the chicken is dolled up with all of the sensual perfumes and tongue teasers you could ever wish for in a hip lounge. Sprigs of rosemary, cinnamon sticks, carrots, pepper strips, mushrooms and raisins wreathe the chicken. Delicious, separate couscous, well-drenched in lemon, injects a briskness that keeps it from collapsing under the weight of ornamentation.
Cast-iron seared fillet of beef is even more delicious: a silky, rich and juicy medallion. The skillet branded a wisp of a crust over the top that is crowned with thin cooked lemon slices. It sits in a garlic vodka jus.
Mussels held so many promises. Served in a metal pan with a hinged lid, the shellfish rest in a delicious broth of white wine, salpicao (marinated smoked pork) and chourico sausage with bits of tomato, slices of garlic and bay leaves the color of army fatigues. But the mussels kill this beautiful slurry. They're loose--almost a custard-like gel--and they leach the horrifyingly strong flavor of standing swamp muck that crashes into consciousness before you can swallow it away with a tortured wince. It frightened us from slopping up the broth with pieces of bread.
Lobster Nha Trang, with mango and Thai chili orange sauce flecked with fried basil leaves, was gummy and void of succulence. A fine crème brûlée, as tightly detailed as Stolik's décor with a bowling pin set of blueberries tucked in the corner of the dish and a bead string of raspberries around the plate, is creamy and rich with a thick, brittle blowtorched lid.
Despite the careening, Stolik has all of the ingredients to congeal into a distinctively luscious venue: crisply rustic décor and a menu that thrives when robust, even as it falters when consciously urbane. Dumping hip for a shameless plunge into colorful, unassuming basics would make this little table as charming as the stamping on the menu cover.
2816 Fairmount St., 214-220-9992. Open for dinner 5-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-midnight Friday & Saturday. $$$
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