State of the bar address

I am always surprised when I tell people I work for the Dallas Observer and they immediately mention those classified personal ads. I never look at them myself; I turn straight to Molly Ivins' column to get the dope (or hear about the dopes) in D.C., or I read the Letters to the Editor to see who's mad at me this week.

But after the last few weeks of reviewing, I'm thinking about taking a classified ad out myself. "Wanted," it will read, "bartender worthy of the title--who knows what a cocktail is."

I've been in a number of restaurants with bars the last few weeks. Not just places that serve drinks, with wine lists, or margarita machines or beer taps. Places with bars that run the length of the room, with tiered rows of bottles behind and rows of stools before. And I have ordered cocktails at these places, too. (Or what used to be cocktails.) Places which shall not remain nameless.

The State and Martini Ranch both use a cocktail--a martini--as their logo; St. Pete's Dancing Marlin devotes almost as much space to the bar as it does to tables, and there were more customers at the bar than at the tables. That's still not saying a lot, of course. And in all these places I ordered cocktails--two margaritas and a martini. Not all in a row. One at each place.

Much has been written of the renaissance of the cocktail. But some cocktails, like the margarita and the daiquiri, have seemingly been lost to Western civilization forever.

So when I ordered a margarita at State, I knew it was probably a mistake. Sure enough, I got what seemed to be a tall glass of lemonade with tequila over ice.

And when I ordered one "up" at the Dancing Marlin, I got the same thing. I ordered another and elaborated on the idea that it was not supposed to have ice. The waiter, the bartender, and some other person conferred over my order at the other end of the bar, and in the end, I received what seemed to be a glass of lemonade with some tequila, without ice.

Now let me give you a recipe for a real margarita: 1 1/2 oz. tequila, 1/2 oz. triple sec, juice of 1/2 lime. Stir with crushed ice. Rub rim of a cocktail glass with lime, dip in salt, and pour cocktail into glass.

And let me just add that since the cocktail is one of America's major contributions to world culture, it would be an act of patriotism to make one properly with pride.

Okay, enough of the diatribe. I'm sure St. Pete resents me giving over this much review space to my State of the Bar Address. There's not a place I've been to in a year that would serve a margarita like that. And anyway, besides the cocktail deal, which may be excused by the "everybody's doing it" line of thought familiar to anyone's who's ever been a teenager, as well as by the probable reason that I'm the only one who even wishes for a drink like that, St. Pete's Dancing Marlin is a fine, fun addition to Deep Ellum.

The owner is the Pete part of Sean and Pete's Angry Dog next door. New animal, new space, new menu in one of the old Crescent City locations run by an experienced Deep Ellumite who knows what works downtown and what doesn't.

The atmosphere is perfect for the neighborhood--a little bit funky, but friendly and knowing. Not unsophisticated, and not expensive. We went to St. Pete's for dinner, and, as I mentioned, the bar was more populated than the tables. I would bet that lunch is the big meal here.

The menu, which is the same all day long, offers the kind of mid-price, mid-concept food that has great lunch appeal. We ordered "Enrique's Stuffed Jalape–os," fiery little mouthfuls, the peppers stuffed with cream cheese, coated in a crunchy cornmeal batter, then fried. A gentler, Mediterranean-inspired selection was "Mama's Baked Garlic," a whole head halved, basted with olive oil, and baked till the little cloves slipped out of their natural paper and spread on the bread like butter. It was served with crumbly, deliciously sour feta and thick slices of bread spiraled with dark and light grains, lightly toasted.

There's a selection of salads: Caesar; Cobb, which (trend-watchers take note) is making a comeback to tempt our Caesar-fatigued palates; house; Greek; and pasta. A list of grilled sandwiches, several pizzas served on a soft yeast crust, and a section of mix-and-match pasta dishes takes up most of the menu. You can choose the shape, the sauce, and salad or soup on the pasta plates.

So, still in the jalapeno mood and trying to liven up the taste of lemonade, we tried the penne with diablo sauce and were surprised to have it served with a carton of chocolate milk. "To douse the fire," our waiter explained.

He was right--it was necessary, and it worked. The dark tomato-based sauce was ominously green with sliced jalapenos, seeds included, and rich with chunks of sausage. The burn started with the first bite and built, gradually overpowering the sense of taste. Then I took a sip of the smooth creamy sweet milk--soothing my mouth just long enough to enable me to take another bite. The alternation of pleasure and pain in the mouth was bizarrely satisfying and stimulating.

Nothing else we tried was as exciting, though the club sandwich was good, on three stacked slices of that swirled bread again, with plenty of fresh filling--bacon, cheese, chicken, lettuce, tomato--providing the bread's raison d'etre. We didn't venture into the shorter, more expensive section of the menu (there's a 12-ounce T-Bone, a tuna steak, and a platter of vegetables on rosemary skewers). And we didn't try the burgers, either. Good as the burgers are at the Angry Dog, I figure they'll be good at the Marlin, too. Surely St. Pete learned something in all those years! I wanted to try some chocolate cake, but the last piece sold at lunchtime. (I was right with my lunch hunch.)

However, if there are any bartenders who still mix drinks the old-fashioned way, please, I want to know where you are!

St. Pete's Dancing Marlin, 2730 Commerce St., 698-1511. Open Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.--10:30 p.m.

St. Pete's Dancing Marlin:
Mama's Baked Garlic $3
Enrique's Stuffed Jalape–os $4.50
SPDM Club Sandwich $4.75
Pete's Pasta (your choice) $6.25
Sweet Al's Pizza $4.95


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