Cars and dining go together like Botox and TV news anchors. Whole restaurant segments and a rash of clever inventions have been spawned from the marriage of food and motoring: diners, drive-ins, cup lids, drive-up windows, talking Jack heads, cup holders, probably even disposable diaper wipes (keep a tub in your car; they're indispensable for wiping refried beans off the gearshift knob). But automobile-dining nuptials reached their apex at Jack Rabbit Slims, the diner where Uma Thurman and John Travolta flirted so dangerously in Pulp Fiction. Amongst the five-dollar shakes, burgers and steaks (burnt to a crisp, or bloody as hell?) there's a huge slot-car racing track, a walkway made of pavement with a yellow stripe down the middle, and convertible Cadillacs, Chevys and Chryslers serving as dining booths.
Tucker is forged from motorcar inspiration too. The building where it is installed was once a Tucker dealership. Yet one wonders how long it could have served this purpose since only 51 of this 1948 "car of the future" were built before the company choked to death on fraud allegations. The car was revolutionary in many ways. It had its engine in the rear and incorporated futuristic touches such as four-wheel independent suspension and safety features like a center headlight that turned with the steering wheel, a pop-out windshield, padded dashboard and a cubby where the front-seat passenger could crouch in the event of a collision. (Who needs airbags when you can ball up and hide?) The car was to sell for $2,450.
Tucker the restaurant has nothing harking back to its automotive namesake. There are no model Tuckers, no photos of the car, no framed Tucker stock certificate replicas. But this doesn't mean the name is just a meaningless label. According to owner Andrew Ormsby, who also operates Andrew Ormsby Catering nearby, Tucker is slang for food in Australia. Cars and food; food and cars. Is there any doubt this linkage is the natural order of things?
Fried green tomato $8
Wild mushroom strudel $6.50
Breast of chicken $17
Grilled lamb chops $21
Fillet of sea bass $22
Ancho rib eye $24
The menu isn't particularly daring, at least not as daring as the Tucker's pop-up taillights. It's an ordinary roster of lamb chops, steaks, chicken breasts and seafood. Entrees are served with French fries and steamed vegetables (snow peas, broccoli, green beans and slivers of zucchini).
This doesn't mean the food won't veer off the middle of the pavement now and then, though it doesn't always successfully dodge the ditch. It even teases tradition a little. Wild mushroom jalapeño strudel is just such a jab. Five slices of delicate pastry swaddling a core of mushrooms chopped into paste are dribbled with pesto cream. The pastry flaked and peeled like old paint. The jalapeño was the drop kick, the spark that kept you riveted as the mushroom musk soothed and the pesto cream cooled. Dishes like this are beautiful because they respect culinary authority while simultaneously tossing up a racy question mark, this one in the form of a jalapeño-pesto smudge, which strikes a perfect note of agitated balance.
This kind of subtle twisting makes weird work of chicken. At first glance, the chicken breast looks like a baseball. Squint a little and view it from another angle, with its surface of swirling purplish blotches, and it looks like a brain. It rests in a pool of dill hollandaise, a sauce that wasn't as unctuously rich as the nomenclature suggests. The dish escaped chicken's formless flavor by embracing a core of smoked salmon, chives and cream cheese, which flooded the meat with focused savor, gently coaxed along by the hollandaise.
Yet this is where the Tucker-like boldness started and stalled. After that, everything hugged that yellow stripe in the middle of the asphalt in a solid, gummy-tire sort of way. Sure, the couscous saddled to the grilled lamb chops was cold. But this grain is a challenge to keep at serving temperature (high fives to those toque tops who do). Three chops, bone tips nuzzling one another in the center of the plate, were soaked in a gentle lamb-bone reduction that embraced the chops while keeping its distance, allowing meat flavors to peek through.
Maybe this is why the ancho rib eye proved so stumping. Steak served in historic digs like this, with smoke licks filling the room from a fireplace that snarls under the weight of real timber, should have been a socks-knocker. But it didn't elicit the least bit of beef lust. It just lay there, a barren expanse of pink with no grill-bar stripes, no crust to add a layer of bittersweet weathering to a rich interior, which was in fact impoverished. On the plate it resembled a slab of prime rib: rosy and dense with thick fat nuzzling the edges. It was roasted and mopped with a delicious tag team of port jus blotched with hollandaise. But there was no rich juiciness; no beefy joy.
Strange for a room that has the dark masculine woodcraft of an imperial steak house, one steeped in pilfered history ladled onto history. Tucker's banquettes are actually benches from an old train station; its wainscotting and heavy shutters come from a historic Dallas mansion; the bar is a castoff from the old Baker Hotel. There's an old metal pay phone stapled to one wall. The front end of the restaurant is planked with floor-to-ceiling shelves, also confiscated from a historic mansion. One side is loaded with volumes while the other is plugged with wine bottles. The wood is dark and reddish, with gold hues slipping through.
Though rougher than rich polished planks, pork and shrimp dumplings had the color of the dining-room lumber. They're greaseless, crisp pillows gripping a core of meat that is firm, pliable and sweet. The coat maintained a firm grip on its crispness even in the tarry flood of Indonesian sweet soy that reduced the green fringe at the base to a patch of wilted fluff.
Quality sticks when the color goes green. Fried green tomato is a slice buried under a heap of sweet crab slivers and celery in cilantro cream. Ribbons of bright red pepper sauce with strands of still more cilantro cream wreath the tomato, a tangy and juicy slice with a frail, crisp crust gripping its underbelly--the beauty of a feather touch.
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You have a prime accomplishment on your hands when you can merge this touch with service that is brisk and fiercely attentive. And for the most part, Tucker's service hits this note. Yet at times it was betrayed by wine bottle pours, which seemed driven more by reflex than gentle observation. The result: frequent, petite Tommy-gun bursts of red splashing into glasses one-third full (our server obviously saw them as two-thirds empty).
But Tucker really went off the rails when it trains its lights on the sea. Fillet of smoked sea bass, a perfect pearly strip of fish lounging on a bed of leeks, shared space with a pair of tangy roasted tomatoes. This fillet had little discernible smoke. Worse, it didn't flake. It was dense and rubbery, a cruel caricature of the alluring menu description. The lime-ginger sauce that bathed it was brisk and smooth, begging to foil a better piece of fish, one with buttery richness and a propensity to flake.
But these are workable problems. "Food is a dynamic, synergistic entity that changes with the seasons, times and attitudes," says Ormsby. Good thing his restaurant is named after a car with a dead-center headlight that follows the curve of the road.
3113 Ross Ave. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; open for dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 5:30-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$