Specials typically have a less-than-savory connotation within the restaurant industry. If a chef orders too much meat for Friday and Saturday night dinner services, he might throw what's left in the grinder the next morning, creating the makings for a meatball special for Sunday brunch.
Day-old fish covered in a thick and creamy sauce is special, as is chicken simmered in heady spices. Anything mysteriously braised in a stewpot is a special. Very special. Specials are the last ditch effort to squeeze a few more dollars out of less-than-fresh ingredients before they're hauled out back.
Unless the specials in question happen to cross the pass at Proof + Pantry, the new restaurant by Michael Martensen and his recently formed Misery Loves Co. group. Martensen secured a lease in One Arts Plaza, moved chef Kyle McClelland who previously worked Driftwood (also by Misery), and proceeded to turn out a parade of kitchen specials that consistently eclipse the rest of the menu.
The address might be considered a special as well, as it has played host to a series of restaurants that withered like old broccoli forgotten in the back of the walk-in. Martensen says the folks at One Arts approached him when he left his previous partnership behind Cedars Social, Smyth and the Establishment to break out on his own.
"I had to make sure the numbers made sense," he says, but the revenue established by both of the previous restaurants in the space seemed perfectly manageable. Martensen liked the idea of opening a restaurant in the Arts District, and saw the area as a section of the city that was still weathering a transition.
What has resulted is a restaurant unlike any other in the Arts District, open or closed. Proof + Pantry has a small dining room dominated by dark wood tones, with a bar area that seats only 12, and a kitchen that is open but tucked around a corner, mostly out of site. Drawn wood blinds and low lighting add to the dark, closed-in feel and the crowd is young and skews younger as the night moves on.
Many come here for the cocktails on which Martensen has built his reputation, and they're as attractive as ever. The menu is divided into three categories according to "proof," with a number of spirit-free drinks and sodas, a few with some kick and some capable of knocking a patron from a bar stool. Expect obscure bitters and oils, and other elaborate flavors and garnishes. Also, expect to be drunk if you spend much time here. But you should temper your consumption because the food coming out of the kitchen at Proof + Pantry is every bit as good as the drink, with the specials demanding distinct attention.
If you're lucky enough to come on a Tuesday, Nanna's meatballs and gravy will have you quoting Sopranos episodes into the next day. The $24 deal offers a salad of baby greens, expertly dressed in lemony vinaigrette, and a bowl of freshly cut pasta adorned with a thick tomato sauce and meatballs so tender they almost fall apart. And (of course) it all ends with a cannolo with an impossibly crisp shell that shatters when you cut it. The mascarpone inside is studded with pistachios or chocolate and piped seconds before the dessert is brought to your table.
Or how about a regal 30-ounce behemoth of a T-bone? The one referenced on the golden slip has been lovingly aged for 45 days. The $125 price tag might be cause for consideration, but all worries are washed away the second the plate begins its procession from the kitchen. The steak stands two inches tall, and the meat has been cleaved from the bone and carved into tidy slices -- perfect for sharing. Soft roasted carrots, parsnips and snappy green beans are strewn about, and all of it wafts with the pungent funk of well-aged beef.
Hopefully you are inclined to share, because nobody should eat this much steak on their own and Proof + Pantry is a restaurant made for social dining. Martensen says that's one of the reasons behind his quirky menu design. Terms like land, sea and soil have been used before to distinguish between fish, meat and vegetables, but here they form the basis for the entire menu structure.
You'll find no appetizers should you come in for a snack, and sides are hard to discern should you want to pad out that steak that lands with a thud. Instead, you'll have to lean on the help of your server to find the dish that suits you.
If you come with a large group, though, the menu can lead to adventurous dining, pushing customers out of their traditional ordering regimens and into a veritable smorgasbord. Start with an item or two from the bulk section. In addition to a rib-eye steak that can easily feed three people, you'll find a whole roast chicken and a whole fish. Each comes flanked by vegetables, but don't let that keep you from ordering other sides if you can find them, specifically that cauliflower number coated with melted cheese and black truffle, both in decadent excess.
McClelland seems particularly adept with seafood, turning out a brilliant wreckfish as another special, and a creamy seafood stew loaded with smoked shrimp and potatoes. There are crudos, too, and while the lime and apple gels paired with kampachi are a little too Willy Wonka for seafood, they're used very sparingly and the fish is firm and fresh. Oysters past their prime and offered at $4 a shell, though, were a disappointment since their briny liquor had completely withered away. Perhaps they should have been breaded, fried and offered as a po' boy special.
Whatever you order, save room for dessert. Beyond that cannolo there are baked goods that come in threes, one of them resembling an artful Oreo cookie, and a "pavlova" that seems like a reach (oh, there's the meringue) but makes for a delicious close. Another solid close could be found at the bar in a nightcap, with a swelling group of young drinkers that give this tiny dining room energy.
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This is the space One Arts has been sorely lacking -- a spot that's open late, that you can hit up after a show and grab a snack or have a drink. And drink late, since the bar is open until 2 a.m. on the weekends, long after the rest of the Arts District has been tucked in for the night. You can grab a simple malt whiskey, or a cocktail with no less than 17 ingredients that somehow tastes balanced. Just don't expect any Fireball specials.
1722 Routh St. Suite 102, 214-880-9940, proofandpantry.com, 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday, 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday, 4 p.m.-midnight Sunday. $$$$
Rib-eye $75 Seafood stew $17 Kampachi crudo $17 Cauliflower stalks $16 Pavlova $9