Merkow's steak is an ace of spades and a seven of hearts. Those are the cards Merkow's Seafood & Steak owner Gregg Merkow was dealt when he pocketed $561,195 last year in a poker tournament at the Grand Casino Tunica in Mississippi. He used this win to capitalize his restaurant, which took shape in the former Greenville Bar & Grill space, a 70-plus-year Lower Greenville institution that went down for the count earlier this year.
"I'm kind of a gambler," he says, fresh from the U.S. Poker Championships in Atlantic City last week, from which he left with empty pockets. "I mean the restaurant business is gambling. I've been a gambler my whole life and kind of fell in love with poker." Merkow says he's only been playing poker for two years, and the event at which he won his half-million-plus was his first major tournament. In January, he pulled in another $300,000. "It got me hooked for life," he says. But will he hook us?
Merkow, who opened Hurricane Grill with Dodie's founder Charlie McGuinness in early 2001 before promptly cashing him out, flies around the country buying and cashing chips. He's so infatuated with the sport that he calls his restaurant company Dumb Luck LLC. Still, even a hardened gambler needs a safety net:
There is risk with consuming raw oysters or any raw animal protein. You are at greatest risk if you have chronic illness of the liver, stomach or blood. If unsure of your risks, consult your physician.
There. You've read the warning on the menu, and now you're safe to gamble on a six-pack of Merkow's cold-water oysters or Merkow's ceviche martini. It's odd, this ceviche. Not because it's tumbled into a martini glass. That long ago ascended to ceviche cliché. And it's not because the tightly packed rumple of scallops, shrimp, tomato, red onion, chilies and avocado has a concert shell-shaped red cabbage leaf cupping the contents toward you to focus the implied sensuality. No, it's because instead of some milky citrus-soaked white fish such as tilapia or red snapper, this is loaded with tender, ruby folds of tuna, barely scorched by the citrus soak of orange, lime, lemon and jalapeños. (Merkow's chef, Barry Moss, brother to poker hustler Gregg, admits he sometimes poaches in a pinch.) Plus, there are fragments of diced green Spanish olives scattered throughout, a thing you rarely see in ceviche. Everything is reasonably fresh. Yet on one visit there was little citrus, not even a puddle in the bottom of the martini cone. Odd. On a second visit, the citrus juices drained into a pool.
Firecracker shrimp doesn't need any raw protein warnings and is no doubt safer than salad--or poker chips. Five firm shrimp are plump, well-sautéed and thickly cloaked in a sticky blanket blended from sambal (an Asian condiment composed of chilies, brown sugar and salt), ginger, sweet soy and lime juice. Next to the fanned firecracker spread is a cucumber relish with thin cucumber shavings and slivers of scallion in a minty-lime dressing--a perfect foil if the shrimp get a little too unctuous, which they do.
Despite the menu warning, you can't really go wrong with Merkow's seafood, which is probably why "seafood" precedes "steaks." It isn't that the seafood is startlingly provocative; it's just consistently competent, never disappointing with mush or misappropriated spices or that deodorized urinal fume that sometimes billows from a stray crab claw or flounder fillet.
Tuna sashimi salad with barely seared tuna, cilantro-ginger dressing and a skyscraping tangle of crispy rice noodles, is as satisfying as it is invigorating. Chopsticks protrude from one end of the salad, making those rice noodles look like a disheveled hair bun.
Ginger- and peppercorn-crusted Hawaiian big-eye tuna--again seared rare but this time with ponzu sauce--is billed as a Merkow signature. The tuna is moist and rich, and it comes with cold soba noodles woven with bell pepper, scallions and a little cucumber--a patch of brilliant modesty underscoring the signature.
Sometime before this place became Merkow's and presumably a bit after Gregg Merkow scored his Tunica pot, the Greenville Bar & Grill was gutted. The iconic neon sign overhanging the avenue went from "Greenville" to "Merkow's." The wood paneling was ripped out. The walls were retextured. Mahogany was applied. The open kitchen was converted to semi-open and a pounded copper hood was installed. Still, the black and white tiled floor remains the same.
A curved partition was added as a sort of concert shell for the piano. On one visit, the man seated on the piano bench strummed a guitar. He sang songs from the Beatles, James Taylor and the Eagles, stuff that once came across with a tawdry edge but now can be heard in the pasta aisle at Tom Thumb after a stray unplugged Eric Clapton. Yet somehow these tunes get you in the mood for a juicy steak, that other Merkow meat.
At first blush, my rib eye got ensnared in the menu's raw protein warning. Though I ordered it medium rare, the steak (crowned with a dab of cold, hard garlic-rosemary butter) arrived big-eye tuna rare after I performed the suggested steak-cutting ceremony in front of the waiter--strange for a steak that's as thick as a runway model. The center was cold, which means that rosemary butter would retain its disk shape in perpetuity. It was dispatched back to the kitchen.
It came back hotter with licks of melted butter across the surface. The steak-cutting ceremony revealed a warm center with a pinkish rose interior. The meat was packed with fat globules, highly elastic sinew and pockets of gristle. Although it was juicy, there was little flavor, save for whatever hints were deposited from that rosemary butter pad.
Steak Oscar, a tenderloin topped with crumbles of lump crab and lavished with béarnaise sauce, was dull and flushed with off, livery flavors.
We abruptly shifted back to the seafood. Pan-seared scallops, thick pucks soused in rock shrimp and garlic lemon butter sauce, were tender, sweet and delicious. Asparagus stalks and carrots accompanied them. Plus, there was a dollop of creamy polenta--a brilliant variation of the usual steak and potato.
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Lobster scampi was harder to decipher. It's a set of Canadian cold-water lobster tails halved, sautéed in olive oil and dribbled with green butter sauce rendered from ground parsley, shallots and garlic. So far, so good. But the meat was loose and stringy, and the vegetable medley nestled at its side was littered with browning snap pea pods.
We finished with an almond basket: a gummy folded and pleated almond cracker cup jammed with vanilla bean ice cream, mango sorbet, fresh berries and raspberry and mango coulis--mostly a string of high notes.
Merkow's is a gambit for Merkow. He opened this slightly upscale seafood and steak (he insists he isn't competing with Kirby's down the street) house to capitalize a neighborhood shift: the scraping and retrofitting of Lower Greenville housing lots with imposing, simulated mansions. But if he wants it to pay off, he'd best capture the flare generally associated with the seafood creations and apply them to the steaks, both with better beef cuts and more skillful broiler performances. That or switch the moniker to Merkow's Seafood & Game.
2821 Greenville Ave., 214-821-2828. Open 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m. -11 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. $$$