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Wit on a Stick

Spike may appear to be just another Dallas nightclub, but it's better than that.
Peter Calvin

Spike is a dwelling of odd contrasts, ones so striking that it's a good bet they were unintentional, which makes them all the more delicious. On the surface, Spike is another in the long line of Dallas' shallow nightclubs with pulsing music, lighting that requires bat sonar and shopworn chic touches like thick, plush draperies. Stay for a while, though, and like eyes acclimating to a secret candlelit back room, the chic kitsch dissipates.

First, notice that while there are a few people with edgy frocks (and sideburns that look like they were trimmed by crop-circle aliens), most wear jeans and simple tailored shirts juiced with swell shoes and designer ocean liner-size handbags. Second, observe that while the music sweats a little of that creepy synthetic thud designed to trigger the erectile pill-popping reflex, it's melodic and harmonic, and you can talk through it without cultivating laryngitis. (Disclaimer: We were in and out before 11 p.m.) Third, note that the ambient light is ample, so you can neatly skirt potentially debilitating hazards, such as paying the check with your PETCO discount card. Fourth, see that the wallpaper at the back of the small room is actually a movie screen showing a single film, Baraka.

According to the producers, baraka is an ancient Sufi word that, loosely translated, means "a blessing," or the breath, or the "essence of life from which the evolutionary process unfolds." Though the soundtrack to this dialogue-free, plotless broadband postcard disguised as a documentary is compelling, the sound is off (to clear space for club twitter), freeing you to drink in nothing but the very nightclub-toxic images. Instead of Justin Timberlake sneering at the FCC, you get saturated images of donkeys struggling to drag a wagon up an incline, throngs of scavengers (mostly women and children) scuttling over heaps of refuse in a Calcutta garbage dump and stacks of impossibly compacted and shabby tenements teetering in the bosom of a breathtaking South American mountain range. This is enough to make you indulge in an activity that is suicidal on the Dallas nightclub circuit: reflect.

It's weird--weird--to gaze at a sheet of leathery calamari, charred and fashioned into the shape of a giant cannabis bud on a stem, while these kinds of images stream just above eye level. The bud swells with mushy minced-crab filler, but on the screen, rows of women as far as the eye can see toil in a stuffy Indonesian cigarette-rolling factory. Strange as this sounds, though, the visual images on the plate are nearly as compelling as those on the screen. That bud of calamari, though its innards didn't satisfy, is surrounded by wedges of ruby and white grapefruit in a shrubbery of greens--a clever foil to the minuscule crab shreds. The citrus punch plays off the musky sweetness of the bud and brings unexpected color and shape contrasts to the plate as well.

The menu and the film seem oddly in sync, loose though the synchronization may be. Baraka is woven from vignettes, images of landscapes and herds of commuters in a sped-up, time-lapsed frenzy, spliced with lingering images of painted and tattooed skin. As the name denotes, Spike is a patchwork of skewered small plates. The menu cobbles together its offerings in chapters: spikes, herbivore, omnivore and spike dinners. The latter is sectioned off into ocean and land & sky, with the latter further splintered into walking bird, billed bird, quail, porky, lamb and cow (pick three). It's a strange sensation eating something called cow, which is generally thought of in conjunction with milk, cheese and cuds instead of jerky and sirloin hoagies. But the spiked cow strips (the cows in Baraka are the emaciated Calcutta kind) are tender and well-seasoned with a ruddy center. Spiked pork or "porky" strips were seasoned with red wine and honey, rendering them juicy and teeming with flavor. The lamb chop, a bit thin and shy on sweet meatiness, was nonetheless chewy and moist with a good dose of thyme and rosemary seasoning.

Jerked chicken ("walking bird" in Spike parlance) arrived at a weird Baraka juncture. As the strips of juicy chicken carpeted with underpowered jerk seasoning hit our table, a rapid flurry of bleached eggs flung into a whirring assembly-line carousel flashed onto the screen. The egg barrage morphed into a conveyor belt flooded with fuzzy yellow chicks. Women with gloves tossed the chicks into sorter bins, hurled them down large stainless steel chutes and burned markings into their tiny beaks by shoving them into a slot with an electrical filament, clouds of scorched beak billowing up from each singe. (Lucky for us, Baraka wasn't shown with smell-around technology.)

But the images shifted to hissing volcano craters when the portobello mushroom cap in soy and sugar sauce arrived; the meaty top was tender and juicy. Crumbled blue cheese mottled the earthy darkness.

Quail skirted the walking bird/billed bird aliases, going by its Christian name. The grilled meat was tasty, and it steered clear of the livery tastes that infest quail from time to time. But it was swollen with a distressing wad of stuffing pebbled with raisins and onions that blunted the meat with its pasty essence.

While no fish made a cameo in Baraka, Spike had tuna. It arrived as a wedge, a shape that in politics turns issues into naughty weapons. It's a little naughty here, too. The meat was stringy and spongy, though the delicious honey-horseradish sauce did its best to frame it into a higher grade--a failed effort. There were even patches of gristle, the domain of cows.

Fortunately, we found solace in the lobster, a twisted swollen curl of creamy tail meat with a spike through it. The end of it was still fastened to the shell, charred from the grilling. The bulk of the flesh was pulled from the split shell, and it rested on the plate in a delicious bath of smooth lime-cayenne butter sauce. My guess is that the tail, at $9.95, was frozen.

Yet for the most compelling Spike experiences, look to the entrée specials. One was a near-flawless filet mignon resting in a puddle of cherry-balsamic reduction. Despite the images of thick, bothersome unction such a description might elicit, this sauce was remarkably balanced, with the aggressiveness of the balsamic toned down, permitting the racy sweet of the cherry to come through. The tender, juicy and rich fillet was rimmed with crisp and grilled asparagus spears, onions and scalloped (minimally) potatoes.

Sea bass was beautifully charred and flaky with that rich buttery flavor that makes this fish so irresistible. A sprawl of the delicate white meat is ringed in a tomato mojo. Spike's rendition of the Cuban sauce, which strikes the tongue not with a citrus but with a pepper finish, paired well with the richness of the fish. But it was served chilled instead of warm, a distracting element that injected dissonance. Still, the meat was brilliantly firm, not spongy; juicy and not overcooked.

Spike was originally part of a trio of little slot restaurants loosely linked in a Mockingbird Station chain. Gelato Paradiso is still in operation. But Ollie & Lei's Luau, a cafe steeped in authentic foods from the Hawaiian Islands plus Thai bubble teas, was, er, spiked--literally. The cafe was shuttered, and the space now has been absorbed by Spike as a separate club room out of visual range of the movie screen; an antidote to the ruinous reflection impulse.

5321 E. Mockingbird Lane, 214-828-2229. Open daily 5 p.m.-2 a.m. $$


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