Neighborhood Services Tavern brings good taste to social networking

Unexpected garnishes and house-made mixers make NST’s cocktails as exciting as its food.
Sara Kerens

A loosened tie. Rolled-up shirtsleeves. Ditching heels for flats. Friendly banter during the ballgame or an "I'll get the next one."

Any beer commercial can extol the virtues of expressing your real self after a hard day working for someone else, but that's all posturing...and the fake slaps on the back and CGI sweat beads on the bottle are easy to detect. The real challenge lies in creating a place where those scenes from a commercial could happen naturally, effortlessly.

When chef/owner Nick Badovinus had the opportunity to open Neighborhood Services Tavern—the "decidedly more youthful" sibling, or perhaps offspring, of his original Neighborhood Services on Lovers Lane—he jumped. Even though it meant putting a restaurant together in just over 60 days, Badovinus says he was determined to say yes to East Dallas customers and create a venue that would not simply be a place to eat food but also facilitate social interaction.

In contrast to what he calls "the epic" on Lovers, the Henderson tavern has a more whimsical, even precocious atmosphere, the walls festooned with images of heroes like Roger Staubach and Paul Newman in their youthful prime. A baby-and-daddy photo and even chapter images from Badovinus' "go-to" Raymond Oliver cookbook hang in the dining area—clearly a reference to his motivation and culinary foundations. In all honesty, the décor is a little all over the place. But in a good way.

The vibe is personal and totally accessible. As general manager Jason Kosmas says, "It's the modern interpretation of a classic tavern model—all the trappings with a mixed personality. It's a little more clever than what boys are used to. It's more lighthearted and it's supposed to be disarming." And it is disarming, in that essentially hidden behind a vertical garden of herbs there lies a perfectly cramped tavern with flatscreens, high seats, James Bond audiobooks piped into the rest room, knowledgeable staff, happy patrons both male and female—and not one neon light.

How does this relate to the food? Perfectly, actually.

Badovinus and chef Jeff Bekavac have managed to create a menu that doesn't sacrifice any of the spirit of its surroundings for quality. No one ever said food served in a smart-casual setting had to be prepared with any less thought or effort.

And there's enormous effort when it comes to the table service as well. Kosmas says that before each shift, servers are given up to an hour of debriefing and study on the daily specials. They practice delivery with one another with the goal of easy, comfortable presentation. In their monogrammed polo shirts and jeans, they're unpretentious but obviously passionate about their work.

NHS Tavern's hors d'oeuvres provide for every size of appetite, and while it's tempting to go with Mom's warning to not spoil yours, you'd be remiss to not try a couple.

The fried little asparagus is crisp and light, with just a flash-fry. The shower of pecorino and bed of cut greens with lemon-dill dressing supplies an earthiness and tartness that erases any oily essence and enhances the natural flavor of the spears.

Tuna-and-avocado tartare is as much a star as it is a starter. A mound of minced tuna seasoned simply with a sweet chile vinaigrette sits atop a mountain of avocado mash. The warm, house-made tortilla chips—dusted with red clay sea salt—are an upscaled version of the beloved game snack and make for a friendly vessel with which to unabashedly scoop the rich and decadent raw treat.

Call ahead if you're a deviled egg fan. The bar snack special isn't available every day, but it deserves a sample. The traditional comfort app is amped up with a mélange of cured and fresh salmon tartare.

Not surprisingly, the culinary staff proves its mettle when it comes to a good entree of fish. After all, what good is a tavern without a strong showing in the fish and chips department?

Fish cheeks and chips is a fine representation of the brewpub classic, with a highbrow edge. Cheek meat—here cod, halibut or Madeira Beach grouper, depending on the night—is beloved for its texture, lack of bone and, for Badovinus, the 100 percent yield. Much smaller than the basic filet, it seems even more decadent tempura-battered and fried. When paired with a slaw already loaded with the malty goodness you'd normally douse on a lesser piece of fish and presented with a remoulade smoky from paprika, those cheeks don't need the accompanying chips. But, with an NBA playoff game on the flat screen, who doesn't want the chips?

A "Willy's fin fish" special of pan-roasted swordfish is evidence that swimmers need not be dunked in an oil bath to shine. The steak of refreshingly appropriate portion size flakes to the tines. Silky, salty lemon-caper beurre blanc drizzled over the perfect savory sear is craveable to say the least. The accompanying Mediterranean salad of potatoes, greens, tomatoes, olives, cucumbers and lemon-caper vinaigrette is a fine pairing, tempering a bit of the richness of the dish and offering a distraction from mowing down the swordfish immediately.

Scallops top a handmade-noodles special: the scallops fra diavolo (again, call ahead for specials). The sweet rounds are cooked expertly to melt on the tongue and lounge upon a bed of traditional pappardelle pasta. Pastas, at NHS Tavern, are made fresh each morning. The piquant, chile-flaked tomato sauce is applied with discretion and doesn't compete for attention with the scallops. It's a casual, symbiotic relationship of sweet and spicy, once again reflecting the restaurant and the neighborhood.

A three-meat ragout (pork, veal and beef) tops the pappardelle on other nights. The red wine sauce is slow-cooked for seven hours and garnished with house-made ricotta. True comfort food is apparent in every bite. And the same can be said for the Jet Lag Special—with its Yankee pot roast hash, so fork-tender under the "EZ egg" and Tabasco hollandaise. It's the East Dallas tavern's answer to Irish stew, and—though you might feel guilty for using it, what with all the effort that goes into preparation—it soaks up the alcohol just as well.

Pork sees glory in the Berkshire Minute T-chops. Chops are pounded thin and served with horseradish mash and red-eye gravy. Delmonico steak frites takes the coveted ribeye to the next level with a peppercorn sauce that is virtually drinkable. Either pork or steak could handle a serving of "Last Word Mac" on the side. The spicy crust of panko and paprika on top gives way to creamy, gooey blend of Monterrey jack, pepper jack, cheddar and pecorino ("a good blue-collar parm," says Badovinus). This is adults-gone-child in a bowl.

Smart-casual dishes call for smarty-pants desserts. The Tavern's Rice Krispies ice cream finger sandwiches are light as air, but don't be fooled: Kosmas says during the test phase, the culinary team came up with the "richest Krispies treat possible." They put Henry's (Plano) chocolate ice cream between the rounds, drizzle with fudge and voila: It's memory inducing. The devilishly rich, homemade Ding Dong 2.0 is also a four-star trip back in time.

While the desserts are fun and conversation-worthy, so too are the drinks. Kosmas came from New York City just nine months ago and brought with him an arsenal of cocktail know-how. His offerings, such as the Domino Fizz (a Tom Collins with Old Tom gin and fresh lavender that is beautifully aromatic and refreshing) are replete with fresh ingredients or house-made syrups and infusions. Plus, his attention to detail makes a new drink even more exciting in the simplest of ways—for instance, he stocks replicas of old cocktail straws because the metal makes the drink stay colder all the way through the sip.

So, yes, you have your cocktails, your beer and wine. And there's your pub cuisine, your tavern fare. It's all there; it's just elevated past the normal, beyond that neon light and then some. How'd it get there? It seems some rambunctious little tavern decided to express its true self in East Dallas. Pretty epic, huh?

Neighborhood Services Tavern 2405 N. Henderson Ave., 214-827-2405. 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. $$$

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2405 N. Henderson Ave.
Dallas, TX 75206


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