Thomas by Numbers
It feels like an old neighborhood nightclub in an aging industrial city or maybe New York, one hollowed out of the ground like a gopher den. The ceilings are low. The light is scant. And while it doesn't have much in the way of coffin-nail clouds on account of political correctness and the health Nazi blitzkrieg, it has plenty of idiosyncrasies, like a black-and-white photo in the men's john depicting two guys with a hatchet about to lop off the head of a turkey. It's good when restaurant art has a food theme.
From the start, you know this isn't your average Dallas restaurant. Named after its Thomas Avenue address, 2900 is fashioned from a nondescript circa 1940s brick building that most recently housed a barbershop and an auto detailer. It's easy to picture an auto detailer here, a little harder to visualize a barber pole. The bricks are painted brown, and there are parking lots in the front and in back, with the overflow left to its own devices on the streets. Valet is conspicuously absent, as it should be at a night out in a true gopher den.
This is as close to fine dining among city grit as Dallas gets. There aren't any pretty architectural baubles here or neatly accessorized interior design accents. Not that the place doesn't pack its own version of austere gloss. There's a picture window in front of the kitchen with the 2900 logo etched in the glass and red spots beaming down from above, maybe hinting a little at Times Square before it was mopped up with Rudy suds. Behind this transparent partition sweat executive chef Mike Smith and sous chef Chad Bowden, along with assorted kitchen hands.
In one corner sits a tiny curvaceous bar with a curved soffit hovering above to hold the lighting elements. Tucked down below is a small refrigeration unit with glass doors that hold a light. Every time that door opens it shoots a spotlight-bright beam clear to the back corner of the dining room. This is where the jazz trio is parked Saturday nights, an unassuming bit of musical mega-tonnage called Dr. Dave and the Jazz Surgeons. While the name may babble hip-hop more than bebop, the understated musical thrust is sophisticated urban--before sophisticated urban became the smarmy musical equivalent of a sloe gin fizz.
And it goes well with the food, a thrown-at-the-wall-to-see-what-sticks wad of New Americana. Most of it does. Pan-seared foie gras was draped on the plate and cuddled by a spray of black-eyed peas that conceal little dark patches of pungent apple-smoked bacon. Drools of blackberry balsamic syrup are Jackson Pollacked across the plate. This Texas tea-like syrup was not as fearsome and extracted as it looked. The brakes were on the tang and the sweet. Yet it still flaunted too much assertiveness, both in flavor and in texture, wrestling with the jiggly liver's gentle richness.
Grilled artichoke hearts gave us fits. Never before has such a simply dressed thistle tugged at the heartstrings. Quartered canned artichoke hearts were grill-kissed, leaving ghostly prison-garb stripes on the outer heart layers. The briny tang of hearts rang with a smoky flavor that flirted dangerously with petroleum fumes. Ostensibly to blunt the latter, the hearts were bathed in lemon-pepper beurre blanc that soaked and perked without fouling up that nice briny-smoke dance that gave these 'chokes such a comely personality.
So taken were we with these things, we tried them at home. First rule: Don't sub marinated artichokes for the canned ones (unless you run them through the dishwasher first). The cavalcade of herbs and spices and oil make them unfit for proper grilling. And while our effort didn't approach the shrewd mingling of artichoke and sprightly smooth beurre blanc sauce, our light application of olive oil followed by an after-grill toss of fresh herbs and kosher salt held its own.
I'm not sure whether 2900's fried calamari held its own, though. Covered in a blond chalky coating (greaseless, too) and trounced with salt and shaved Parmesan cheese, the squid rings had little in the way of deft flavor and texture choreography. A thick rich tomato pesto sauce seemed more of a chip dip than a squid dunk, but it compensated for some of the flavor holes in those rings.
We tried plunging some of the hearty brittle blond chips swarmed with Parmesan gratings into the dark red pesto sludge and came away satisfied. Which isn't to say the spinach crab and cheese dip that escorted those chips was in any way flimsy. It was hearty and smooth, with a delicately sinuous sewing of spinach that was light enough so that the mixture didn't behave like hairballs on the chip edges.
2900 is the upscale, across-the-street sibling of Joel Lebovitz's Thomas Avenue Beverage Company, a casual little nosh nook that has the benefit of once being one of Jack Ruby's haunts. While Smith oversees culinary execution at both restaurants, Matt Tarantino, brother of front-of-the-house heavy Peter Tarantino and chef Patrick Tarantino, is the kitchen heavy at TABC. So far this setup seems to be working well in Lebovitz's little Thomas Avenue empire, at least judging by 2900's particulars.
Service is characterized by casual efficiency, the kind where you almost don't notice it being executed right under your nose. I said almost. The support staff, the ones who fill the water glasses and clear away plates, are a little too aggressive, sweeping away dishes before food is finished and not seeming to understand when you explain you aren't done. But the front-line waiters (ours looked like Benicio Del Toro) are near impeccable, demonstrating a fairly firm grasp of the menu.
He also strongly urged us to gnaw on the jerk-spiced venison chops that came with a pair of dueling sauces: papaya butter and avocado butter. The chops were off to the side, and the sauces were drizzled apart from the meat on different quadrants of the plate. The meat was mild and silken, lean and moist, and the jerk spice didn't kick up much distraction. But the papaya butter, which was spiked with lemon, left a distressing sourness on the finish of the meat. No matter. Meat, spice and fruit butter merged respectably, and an alluring side of fiddlehead ferns, coils of green filament that looked and tasted like capers tortured and distorted on the rack, gave the dish a quirky jab.
Pan-seared salmon was a fine piece of pink, dense not mushy, though it didn't flake much. It rested on a dazzling bed of ginger-pineapple risotto. It's amazing how well deftly coaxed and wielded tropical fruits can flirt with salmon richness.
It's also amazing how much diddling you can do to a simple piece of fish without battering it into a precious flavor collage that all but relegates the meat to the function of canvas. The 16-spiced halibut--subjected to a treatment of stuff similar to jerk spice--with black beans and rice and mango and roasted onion sauce (tropical strikes again) featured a treatment that respected the mild, white and easily flaked meat (large supple, moist fish slivers). The dish featured an array of flavors that were well-orchestrated and lively without being overdone.
The bone-in New York strip is hidden under a prodigious tangle of "tobacco dusted" shoestring potatoes. The dust was a mixture of paprika, cayenne pepper and a little sugar. The slivers were crisp enough, but I could do without the dust. The pungency was too vivid a premonition to the flaws in the meat, which, though juicy and rich (but certainly not silky), was strafed with bitterness from grilling, especially along the edges. But it did come accompanied by a dazzling array of perfectly grilled vegetables that included green and white asparagus, zucchini and squash.
Bread pudding, 2900's signature dessert, is an unimpressive spread of bread cubes, golden raisins and apples loosely adhered with a caramel sauce.
But you don't go to a place like this to chew on bread pudding, signature or not. You eat at a place like this to relish dining on decent food in a clean hole, the kind where you can almost smell the character; the kind where the focus is on the people (the ones in front of you, not the ones primping at the hostess stand), the conversation and, on the right evening, an unlikely trio of bop goons called Dr. Dave and the Jazz Surgeons.