If anyone has earned the right to label his craft "all peoples' cuisine" (a proletarian twist on the tired "global fusion"), it is Avner Samuel. This culinary wizard has cooked his way around the globe with stops in Jerusalem, Paris, London, Hong Kong, Dallas and Boca Raton, Florida. As a result of his cuisine and wandering flourishes a couple of Avner clichés have emerged: Avner Samuel, to paraphrase John Lennon, is a friggin' genius; and Avner Samuel is somewhat of a culinary vagrant, having had enough kitchen stops to provide entries for a half-dozen résumés.
Yet when his new effort, ethniko, is examined in the context of these threadbare clichés, Samuel becomes as perplexing as his restaurant's name is clumsy. For starters, Samuel hasn't gone anywhere. Ethniko is in the same Snider Plaza space that Bistro A, its predecessor, occupied. This means that Samuel has been cooking in the same kitchen for more than three years--an astounding feat. Second, the food is not the work of a genius, friggin' or otherwise.
Despite the subtitle on the restaurant's moniker, the first thing you might notice on a visit to ethniko is that it serves what appears to be "no peoples' cuisine." On one of our visits during a Saturday lunch hour, at a time when Snider Plaza was teeming with shoppers, there was virtually no one in the place except us. Two tables were occupied on a second weeknight visit. And there was no sign of Samuel either. On the menu Samuel is simply referred to as "host," while a gent by the name of Roger Cob is listed as chef.
Not that ethniko's menu is riddled with potholes, although at least two items could be considered craggy craters. Yet the food doesn't dazzle, even those dishes that are well executed. Ethniko begets a trend that seems to be emerging in the Samuel lexicon. When the fierce perfectionist is not mercilessly pounding his poor kitchen toilers to perform, all of the magic leaks out of the food.
This was the problem with Bibendum, that atrocious attempt at "global tapas" Samuel opened on McKinney Avenue 18 months or so after Bistro A opened. The Bibendum botch later morphed into Mazza, a Mideastern foray that came complete with belly dancers and flavored water pipes. It was barely open two weeks before its bellies were stilled.
So what is ethniko, and will it go the way of Samuel's water pipes and hired tummies? Ethniko is a kind of Asian-New American-French melting pot, and my guess is that Samuel enjoys a committed following among the Park Cities residents around Snider Plaza, which alone might keep this restaurant afloat for a while. After all, there are a few things that will no doubt keep them coming back. One is the crab miso soup, an addicting (and expensive at $6.95), heady broth floating shiitake mushrooms, tofu, bits of crab and scallions.
Fried smelt were delicious, too, and they arrive in an interesting delivery system. The crispy sweet fish are inserted vertically into a paper-lined tumbler, like pencils in a pencil can. They're accompanied by a pinkish spicy tartar sauce, one that didn't throw any heat to speak of.
Wasabi calamari fries looked like the typical fried sea creature (or cheese refugee) you might find at Red Lobster. Dark ruddy-brown sticks with a rough coating surrounded a ramekin of roasted tomato garlic sauce. The calamari was firm and tender, while the coating was crisp and virtually greaseless.
But grease pummeled the crispy duck spring rolls--short stubby billets with duck meat, cabbage and carrot. They gleamed on the plate. They lubricated the fingertips. They sheened the lips and tongue. And they no doubt traveled through the throat and crashed into the gizzard faster than normal cuisine, so greased were they. These rolls made typical Chinese takeout rolls look dapper.
One nice ethniko touch is the inclusion of a small bowl of complimentary white rice for every diner in lieu of bread. And to spark this substitution, two sauces accompany the rice: a rice vinegar sauce with carrot slivers, and a spicy Thai peanut sauce blended with fish sauce, sesame oil and soy with spices. The fluffy rice is near perfect with separate grains that never get clumpy.
Ethniko's heavy Asian bent carries through to the décor, which is sharp and intelligently Spartan. The walls are ragged green, and the long wall opposite the open kitchen has a fat stripe that is a collage of clippings from Asian fashion magazines. The opposite wall holds two small display cases filled with richly colored butterflies. Chinese characters are tattooed on the chair backs, in the same color as each chair's trim.
Place settings are equipped with chopsticks, as well as a fork and knife, all bound together in a black napkin secured by a clothespin. It's all crisp, yet approachable.
Service is equally sharp. On one visit, a clumsy chopstick move catapulted the sticks onto the floor. A server instantly swooped down to pick them up and replace them. The same maneuvers led to a quick fork replacement. Yet it's hard to attribute this to great service when we were practically the only ones in the restaurant.
On one visit, we ordered a fried soft-shell crab. Our server steered us away, advising that the remaining crabs in the kitchen weren't up to snuff and that the gentleman at the next table ordered the last worthy one. He pointed the man out, who sat alone drawing a few crispy crab legs past his lips. I'm not sure if this is good service or not.
We promptly subbed the crab with the sautéed foie gras on garden greens with fig and balsamic vinaigrette. Now, I've had sautéed foie gras that was soft and mushy. I've had sautéed foie gras that was slimy and runny. But never in my life have I had sautéed foie gras that was hard and cold. It was like eating an overcooked turkey giblet from a beer cooler. The top of the liver was scrawled with a bead of fig fudge that really didn't add to this miserable organ. Cold is a funky way to serve foie gras that isn't a pâté, and my guess is it was sautéed and then flung into the back of a cooler, which would have put a dent in the aluminum wall. This was more like liver sausage than it was a precious savory appetizer.
Other salads fared better. The grilled red ahi tuna perched against an Asian vegetable slaw was easily the best item on the menu. A gray sheet of tuna with stark black crosshatched grill marks singed across the surface was like silk in the mouth, with squeaky-clean flavors.
The grilled chicken salad wasn't far behind. Thin sheets of grilled chicken breast were tiled around a summit of Asian slaw. The chicken was moist, exquisitely seasoned and tender enough to parse with chopsticks.
But God help me, what in the world is the black-onion-seed-crusted rack of lamb? Is this a prototype, or is it an attempt at camp? An Indian and Middle Eastern spice, black onion seeds are generally toasted or dry roasted before they're inserted into food. But these were...words escape me. The spongy sour lamb meat was pimpled with these black gnatlike scraps that made your teeth squeak when you chewed. It was like eating a forkful of plastic grommets.
Much better was the crispy red snapper with bamboo shoots and shiitake mushrooms, but not by much. It was a little overfried, or inconsistently fried. Portions were dry and leathery. Other spots were crisp and moist. Still other parts were spongy while others were just plain mushy. Plus the broth in which it swam had too much fish sauce.
The end of the meal landed where the rest of the meal rarely hovered above: mediocrity. Ethniko's apple tart was built on a mushy crust--almost fuzzy in texture. The apples were dry and void of tang. It was just limp, and eating it was like working a puff of wet fuzz around the mouth.
Like the word itself, ethniko is hard to understand in the context of Samuel's past accomplishments. By regular restaurant standards, ethniko barely keeps its head above water. By Samuel standards, it's a wreck, one that has gone to pot well before its time.
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