The waitress attending my table one evening applied the ominous phrase "to die for" to almost every dish. Really, when I think about it, I'm not certain I want to die for my meal—although it's always a possibility. As every veteran food writer will tell you, if a slider has your name on it...
That's right, sliders. No culinary trend is more disturbing than the appearance of this word on up-market restaurant menus. Slides right in, slides right out—that's what you want running through your head at dinner: intestinal wizardry and the wonders of functioning bowels. But there they were, loaded with shredded lobster and bacon, and supposedly to die for.
Might as well boil up some prime tenderloin Maid-Rites next.
Granted, Victor Tango is not a fine dining destination. It's more of an oasis for cocktails that also serves shared plates and a few small entrees—a concept Henderson Avenue impresario Tristan Simon and corporate executive chef David McMillan are still piecing together. Much of the menu they devote to items meant for the table itself. A group of people show up, sit down and decide to dabble in a little bread, maybe some nachos, a few ribs or whatever—all for one and one for all.
Now, before anyone says "I knew it, socialism," consider that chefs often expend their creativity on appetizers and small plates. And many guests prefer to sample a number of dishes rather than indulge in one monotonous hunk of meat.
Besides, if you don't kick in for the bill, it's more like...why, hell, that there's welfare.
There's nothing wrong with the basic idea: Grab a bunch of friends, talk, drink, nibble—sort of the same progression as when Victor Tango was a hard-door den of conspicuous consumption known as Sense.
You end up with three or four lobster BLT you-know-whats sitting on downsized Hawaiian buns, the sweetness of the bread mimicking that of the shellfish. Pieces of comparatively brash bacon threaten to shatter the peaceful little sandwiches, however, occasionally gathering enough force to bash weaker flavors. But only for a moment; in the end it all works well enough. Not so the tuna nachos, a line of maybe eight wedges topped with tartare, avocado and other tidbits. Rather delicate ahi caves in to the offbeat, pasty flavor of wonton chips, and before long, a dominant sauce of spicy, earthy, vaguely Southwestern bent routs the entire lot. Better to throw on some Starkist than waste such beautiful, scarlet meat.
McMillan is better than this. He ran the kitchen at Nana before opening the highly acclaimed (but not well-attended) 62 Main in Colleyville. Caramelized foie gras seared just to the melting point, diver scallops kissed by heat, sublime sweetbreads that seemed to dissolve on your tongue—he created memories, so why can't he do nachos?
Frankly, he's in under his head.
The chef admits cooking for a younger, hipper crowd has been a challenge. Trend-hoppers enjoy names—ahi, diver, nigiri, small batch, that sort of thing—but care little for nuance. They don't want to deconstruct, they want to be slapped in the face. So McMillan and his crew deliver bold, clumsy, easily understood flavors. Hanger steak is one of those suddenly popular cuts, a slab once considered worthy only for the butcher's use. It moves too quickly, he says, to rest the meat in marinade long enough to really break down muscle fibers. Big deal. It's still the color of claret, maybe a shade lighter, and gentle enough to please any fan of prime beef. But so what? A pronounced campfire flavor, acrid and intense, manhandles your palate.
The sauce slathered over sticky ribs not only clings as advertised, but also rips through your tongue with salty shears, shreds stomach lining and demands from your body all of its precious fluids. Yeah, the meat is tender, falling off the bone—all that stuff. There's another consideration, however. Cocktails draw people to Victor Tango. They cluster around the bar and sample classics such as Sazeracs or French 75s (named after the 75mm artillery piece the French army often abandoned on the field of "battle") and modern adaptations like the elderberry gin fizz. Where drinks are consumed...well, imagine trying to impress a date with goo all over your fingers and strands of meat jammed between your teeth. Haystack potatoes, served alongside the hanger steak entrée, resemble fried floss: Wire-thin and tangled, they defy refined consumption and spill from the plate each time you slice into the meat.
You end up looking like a slob.
In the "hand-cut" iteration, Victor Tango's frites huddle together in lifeless clumps. They would seem completely inert if not for the razor-sharp sting as a month's worth of salt once again plows furrows across your mouth.
It's a good thing you're in a bar, huh? The wine list will change, but $8 specialty cocktails and an interesting selection of microbrew beers may calm—or at least prevent infection in—frayed esophagi. One evening, however, I ordered a basic martini with a twist. The waitress returned bearing a cocktail glass and a lemon wedge. "We can't do a twist," she explained. Hmm. Lemons, knives...never mind. I mentioned this to a bartender at The Old Monk a few days later. He chuckled and very quickly outfitted me with five strips of lemon for my revisit, just in case they were still trying to figure out the mysteries of peeling.
"Takes two seconds," he said.
In the same amount of time, one could down Victor Tango's double-stack burger, two 3-ounce patties in a bun held between a thumb and forefinger. But resist the urge to wolf it, for this is an extraordinary little sandwich. The beef strides with great confidence, dripping, husky in flavor, masculine enough that nothing stands in its way; sautéed onions follow in the wake, lending a more down-to-earth finish to each bite. Now this—this is David McMillan.
He plans to add a few ounces of beef to the burger in the very near future. About 20 percent of the existing menu will also change. Gone, the basket of twisty bread dusted with crumbles of what tastes like an exceedingly sharp white cheddar and served with puckering green stuff thought to be an attempt at pesto. Also gone, crab Rangoon built around a decent filling smacking more of shellfish than cream cheese.
Perhaps with the revisions McMillan hopes to show off some of the finesse that drew acclaim for Nana and 62 Main. Maybe he'll ditch the one-note bar fare and distract inebriates from their twist-less cocktails long enough to earn a slurred "wow" or two.
Possibly even a figurative "to die for."
The restaurant side needs some time to work out the kinks. The bar staff must re-educate themselves in some of the basics. But the concept isn't that far off. Sharing stretches the idea of tapas and tasting menus to its more communal logic—the perfect thing for a gathering place.
And sliders—yes, the original greasy, gastrointestinal grenades have gone upscale for now. But it's still not worth diving on one, even to save a comrade
3001 N. Henderson Ave., 214-252-8595. Open 5:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Tuesday-Saturday. $$-$$$
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