SNACK's Roll of the Dice
Is 2323 Henderson Ave. cursed, or does the building sit on top of an ancient Indian burial ground? Nearly every mention of SNACK, the new outpost from Avner Samuel and Jon Stevens, who co-own both locations of NOSH, points to Horne and Dekker's ghost. That casual restaurant survived just a year in the space. Old stories about Horne and Dekker mention Urbino Pizza e Pasta, whose reviews invoked its predecessor Pulcinella. The first pizza place closed in 2008. Urbino shuttered in 2010. Four restaurants have resided here in as many years.
Next door, a wine bar has remained steadfast, pouring glasses of gold and rouge as each restaurant opened and closed. When Urbino came, Veritas entered into an arrangement with the restaurant, offering its crispy pizzas along with Veritas' wine. The deal continued with each new restaurant in relationships that seemed to benefit only the wine bar. Now you can order chef Jon Stevens' dishes while you sip on a perfectly chilled glass of Vouvray at Veritas.
There's wine to be had at SNACK as well, though you'll likely come more for the food than the spirits if you've taken the name to heart. The restaurant opened this May, billing itself as a small-plates venue serving tiny chicken shawarmas, pork dumplings and crispy little fish that mimicked bites you might find in food stalls around the world. Weeks later the concept shifted. Shawarmas and crispy fish were out, dumplings stayed in, and new entrees supplemented the recently culled snack menu. SNACK became SUP, so to speak, and the restaurant is somewhat better for it.
A chicken tagine means well, boasting tender potatoes, sweet carrots, chewy apricots and squash. Flavors of cardamom and cinnamon waft up from the steaming dish when it's presented, but the consistency is off, with couscous that swims in a soupy sea and sparse chicken that gets lost. When your waiter warns you the dish is hot, take heed. Not just the plate but everything in it is a degree away from boiling.
A shrimp and grits special was more disappointing. A passable porridge propped up with Parmigiano and butter was rich and satisfying, but the barbecue shrimp that crowned the plate were small, pallid and lifeless.
Other snacks need more work. Fish tacos were mealy and a bit fishy one night. But even if the fish had been perfect the plate needed something more bright and vinegary to wake things up. A soft-shell crab was cooked well but covered in creamy sauce that smothered the crustacean. Salt was abused in an arugula salad, further hampered by salty shaved ham, though the disappointment was tempered some by a perfectly grilled peach.
Don't get too discouraged. There are glimmers of hope that cast SNACK in better light. Brussels sprouts fritters seem a bit of a misnomer. They aren't fritters at all, but you won't care in the slightest; they're the greatest treatment of the bitter vegetable since hashes laced with bacon and shallots came into fashion. Stevens neatly trims the sprouts before blanching them perfectly, and a beer batter wraps the green, leafy bulbs in a salty, crunchy coating for an addictive take on the veg. The caper and pine-nut dip doesn't hurt things either.
Short-rib tacos are everything the fish tacos lack. A tiny dice of pineapple wakes up fatty, shredded brisket and cheese heaped onto corn tortillas in a dish that's good enough to make you wish a few more taco options were available.
The same pulled short rib makes its way into a delicious roasted corn fundido. This spin on queso, studded with corn, is thick and stringy and baked in a dish that arrives as hot as that tagine. Here the excess heat is a good thing, producing a small ring of cheese around the perimeter of the dish turned golden brown and crunchy. Anyone who has been lucky enough to pull la réligieuse from the bottom of a pot of fondue will understand the appeal.
Lamb burgers were small, spicy patties reminiscent of merguez sausage. Stevens tempers the juicy, ground lamb with a mayonnaise sharpened with charmoula. The North African paste is typically used to marinate seafood, but the flavors work really well here.
As if exorcising the pizzas from this address' past, Stevens has chosen "flatbreads" to describe his topped rounds, which deliver bold flavors on chewy, faintly leavened crusts. The best is the clam version, according to one waiter. It boasts chopped bivalves, fontina cheese, corn and bacon and tastes like a hearty chowder. Other versions come with spicy sausage and radicchio, roasted chicken, or tomatoes and goat cheese.
That the flatbreads recall the pizza joints that inhabited the space before is only coincidence. SNACK is an original concept with a casual, moderately priced menu that feels like a good fit in the Henderson Avenue neighborhood. But SNACK still needs polish, and a half-full dining room points to a restaurant space that may not have completely shaken its past. The loud space filled with hard surfaces and a bare-bones décor do little to inspire memorable meals. Stevens says a tight budget has forced the owners to adapt the space over time as they listen to their customers and incorporate feedback. They should hurry. The patios and dining rooms at other restaurants in the same 'hood are buzzing with patrons while SNACK feels idle, and Veritas sits next door like a wise old wine bar wondering if it will have a fifth neighbor in the future.
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