Nosh: Avner Samuel's Latest Is Fine, Affordable and a Touch Too Friendly.
When Avner Samuel, a revered titan of the Dallas dining scene, this summer dismantled Aurora—where the famed Grand Tasting menu cost about what a minimum-wage worker takes home each week—he saved its most accessible elements, stitching them into a new concept he's calling Nosh.
Samuel purposely lifted the expression from a language that doesn't have words for "black truffles" or "Champagne cart." The word Nosh, which rings the menu, is supposed to convey informality and whimsy. It's meant to reassure diners that they can get away with grazing here, to suggest it's perfectly OK to order an $11 salami sandwich and a $6 saucer of hummus and declare it dinner.
So Nosh is a decent restaurant name. But Samuel really should have called his new place Schmooze.
Nosh is where lunching ladies come to gab and bespoke couples flock to sun in Avner and wife Celeste's attentions. Servers, apparently schooled in the Samuel style of customer care, fawn over regular guests, asking after friends and relatives who aren't at the table. The earth-toned room reverberates with empty conversations: Dining there feels a bit like gathering in a clubhouse, without the hassle of hauling out a golf bag.
Many Nosh regulars apparently have a greater appetite for the restaurant's false familiarity than its beautifully composed small plates: I watched a number of women turn their expensive faces away from uneaten salads and seared scallops to chat with staff members, including a server who made my first two visits so distinctly unpleasant that I returned for a third meal as a palate cleanser.
This particular server made a point of introducing himself and shaking my hand, which might have struck me as a friendly gesture had it been the last time he touched me. Hardly. He cupped his hand around my shoulder while reciting specials, squeezed my arm when he offered me another cocktail and patted me on the back whenever he felt like it. Perhaps sensing his unbidden demonstrativeness wasn't bringing us any closer, he rallied to recall the good old days:
"I remember waiting on you two at The Green Room," he said with the confidence intimacy bestows.
Well, no: My dinner date had never visited The Green Room. We shook our heads dismissively, but Mr. Hands-On seemed unconvinced.
I imagine there are Nosh diners who would have just gone along with the server's revisionist history, which was certainly in keeping with the phoniness that clouds the restaurant's studiously casual dining room no matter which servers are on the floor. I found the ambiance unappetizing, but perhaps I'm too easily distracted: Surely there are eaters who don't let a smattering of insincerity interfere with their enjoying a good meal.
And the food is very good at Nosh. There are a few dishes with a down-market flair that don't quite work: Watching chef Jon Stevens' classical-leaning kitchen fuss with burgers and cheese grits is vaguely embarrassing, like seeing your mother in a short skirt from Forever 21. On the other end of the seriousness spectrum, there are dishes so canonical that it's hard to muster much excitement about them: A flawless duck confit ornamented with sweet cherries immediately fades into memories of dozens of similar dishes.
But, between those poles, there's an array of dishes that are playful and precise. There's a startling amount of mastery invested in Nosh's noshes, the vast majority of them bearing single-digit price tags.
When I worked as a fine-dining server, I had a coworker who'd rattle off a list of recommendations that ended with a calculated pause that riveted guests more reliably than the dessert tray. "I'm fixing to talk about the lamb," he'd say, making clear this dish was so winning it required an introduction.
Folks, I'm fixing to talk about the escargot fritters.
Neither of my servers mentioned the escargot fritters. They persisted in pointing out which items were most popular, which is a pretty shabby way of determining what's best on a menu. Restaurant-goers most frequently order the food they know, which is why diners guided by popularity end up eating calamari and crème brûlée along with everybody else. They don't get to try escargot fritters.
I'm wary of using the term "snail goo," since I suspect it might repel fastidious diners. But that may be the best way to describe the fritters' glorious cream filling, speckled with chopped escargot and gently fried. The fritters, served in a cone and garnished with delicate threads of Parmesan, are accompanied by a citrus-scented tartar, but there's no need for saucing. The crisp fritters are a terrific upscale riff on the State Fair's yearly deep-fried shenanigans, a perfectly suitable snack for la fete d'etat.
Equally exciting is the "Town and Country" pâté plate, a preparation that betrays a lingering allegiance to elegance. The rustic pâté is homey and coarse, but the real stunner is a glass jar of rich, velvety pâté that kings and queens must use as butter. Completing the bistro trifecta, there's a small serving of pickled vegetables, including a few sonorous cornichons.
It's best to adopt a Gallic attitude when ordering, since the dishes without a French accent have a sad tendency to disappoint. Even nubs of Jonah crab can't rescue a tidy column of tuna tartare from yawn-inducing pedestrianism. The tuna's fresh and pretty, but the tower's overpowered by a generous spritz of stringent yuzu sauce. I didn't have any better luck with an overcooked quail joined by a sodden side salad of oil and smoky bacon.
So go French, and go fancy. Try the beautifully proportioned beet salad, shimmering with a raspberry vinaigrette, or the fat spears of roasted asparagus, scattered with salty kalamata olives and goat cheese. Don't bother with the colossal croque monsieur, a ham-fisted take on the classic workingman's ham sandwich: My order was served on egg bread teetering so close to burnt that the final call would probably require instant replay on the giant screen suspended above Nosh's bar, which now broadcasts goings-on in the open kitchen a few paces away.
The television's among a few odd dining-room quirks: There aren't any steak knives to be had—"chef's discretion," our server explained—and, even though the restaurant's astir at lunchtime, the only available iced teas are flavored and served in plastic bottles. That could be a gentle prod toward the wine list, which I wish had a slightly more extensive by-the-glass selection to match the restaurant's small plates.
Still, wine's surely the best foil for Nosh's capably steamed clams, submerged in a sheer ivory-hued broth stocked with diced potatoes and clipped bacon, or its lovely fried oysters, bobbing in a dish of Newburgian sherry cream sauce.
At the end, there's cheese and house-made ice cream, a pot de crème and tarte tatin. On my first visit, I ordered a hazelnut financier, instinctively pronouncing the word the way it would be said on CNBC. My server looked flummoxed, as though he had no idea to which dessert I might possibly be referring. "Financier?" he asked tentatively, restoring the Frenchified vowels.
I'm none too keen on server smarm. Personally, I prefer when my servers don't correct or caress. So I'm trying to see the staff's behavior the way the restaurant's loyal fans do: Here, servers take the time to educate diners about European culture! They defer to social status! And they forge relationships with their guests, refusing to bow to American boundaries restricting personal space! If that's what you're seeking, Nosh has it—and some fantastic pâté too.
Nosh Euro Bistro 4216 Oak Lawn Ave., 214-528-9400, www.nosheurobistro.com. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday and 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sundays. $$$
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