Nickie is a fan of English football's perennial also-ran, Liverpool.
That's neither here nor there, really, except that I got into a rather lengthy (but friendly) flap with Nickie one night over the relative chances of her cast-off Reds against my mighty Red Devils of Manchester United, and that she was our server at Nick & Sam's Grill.
Her willingness to spar with a guest says a lot about the veteran steakhouse's downscale spin-off. Whereas Nick & Sam's prides itself on two things—good cougar hunting in the bar and, more to the point, showy refinement in the dining room—the Uptown grill strives for something closer to the in-your-face familiarity of a neighborhood joint. While waiting for my dinner guest that night, for example, the bartender launched into some observations about the crowd even before I ordered my first drink, as if I was a gruff old regular of the place. During my final visit, a different waitress kept checking in: "I noticed you were just eating the hummus; don't you like the pita bread?" Actually, the little wedges resemble dinner rolls served at some Lion's Club function, sliced into triangles, rather than good flatbread, but so be it. "It's fine—just have another course to go," I responded. Nearby, a waiter jousted with the group at his station.
Then Nickie stopped by to greet me with a half snarl, half smile and an "oh, it's you."
All of this banter is presumably well-calculated, either to fit in with the restaurant's spectacularly casual open-air quality and lively atmosphere or to make guests happily remember the time they spend here, even when food falls short.
Oh, Nick & Sam's Grill is not all style over substance. The hummus ends up with a decidedly gritty but also quite intricate texture that adds character to the straightforward mash. Although somewhat sodden, their striped bass entrée rides on a subdued "Asian" sauce similar to a miso reduction, yet skillfully stepped back in order to allow the taste of fish and seasoning some room for maneuver. "Damn good" (their words) fries have a crunchy shell and soft, gushing interior—a sign that chef Samir Dhurandhar's kitchen may have rediscovered the lost art of blanching.
But there's very little that is not in some way a little off-kilter. While the fries don't flop disappointingly like the typical Dallas version, they could use some help when it comes to seasoning. Surprisingly tender meat clings to teriyaki wings, but the coating feels like it spent time in a secret Bush-Cheney detention center: tortured until an acrid resentment smolders under the sweet I'll-tell-you-anything surface. It tastes, in other words, of burnt molasses.
Maybe that's a one-off mistake, a line cook allowing the night's glaze to reduce past the breaking point. But so many of these bumps occur that you can't help but wonder: Are they still working through the usual restaurant growing pains? Or do they think Uptown crowds value the scene more than the plate?
Order the meatloaf plate and you'll believe the former, based on the mound of creamy pureed potatoes with a strange yet fascinating brown gravy that looks savory, but strikes your palate first with a note akin to maple syrup. Spears of asparagus pick up on this dense, woody edge with a smokiness of their own, something lured from an open flame, it would seem. Beautiful stuff; in fact, the only thing wanting is the meatloaf itself—a thin, extraordinarily parched pressing of protein fiberboard someone sought to cover over with loads of pepper. Indeed, the only thing you'll remember is the pepper.
Good thing I waved the waitress off when she approached with a grinder. That would be overkill.
The kitchen should know better. But Phil Romano's restaurants have never been lauded for subtlety, only style. When I last reviewed the parent steakhouse, back about five years ago, Dhurandhar's line cooks managed to destroy a cut of Kobe-Angus beef rated at something closing on $80. It turned out far less tender than their rare and near perfect New York strip. The Romano team, when they opened the short lived We Oui about a decade ago, handed out condoms—wink, wink—to guests as they paid. Classy. Here they inexplicably pack Greek salad in a canning jar. Not certain of the symbolism involved, if any, although it seems to suggest a connection between downscale and yokel. But it's not something they elaborate on.
I know the folks who live in the Uptown ZIP code consider themselves more "with-it" than suburbanites, and I've begun to suspect that certain restaurateurs hope to capitalize more on the area's trendy nature. Why else would Alberto Lombardo hand out chopsticks with Italian marinated fish at Pescabar? They understand a younger, hipper crowd looks to be wowed, whether through presentation or association or even through subterfuge. I mean, where in the 'burbs can you order pork chops and receive schnitzel?
Probably nowhere. But at Nick & Sam's Grill, the menu listing for chops yields you a flattened, breaded, fried, boneless cut of pork. Pretty much sounds like schnitzel. And, as a schnitzel, it's brilliant: pounded until strands of fiber break apart into the pork equivalent of rare prime beef's buttery texture and crusted in crumbs and fat until it dissolves on your tongue, it's a hearty, melting, meaty thing on the palate. It may even be one of the best examples of the German dish you'll encounter in this city, cut by a smart and acidic white sauce.
This is an example of genius in the kitchen. So why can't they call it schnitzel? Or chicken-fried pork, perhaps? And why, for that matter, would Nick & Sam's Grill serve "sliders," that disturbing allusion to diarrhea the city's diners consider so appealing? Of course, Dhurandhar ensures me his little sandwiches take a couple of days to pass through the bowels, but still...
And why else would they list a "brick" of guacamole on the menu when what you actually receive resembles a plop of Gerber? This is hardly a brick—not that a hardened intestinal lump is what you want to think of when you order, so I guess there's no reason to complain. It's really like baby food in texture, with a flavor built upon something impenetrable, salty and foul like fish paste, but without the intensity.
The restaurant Standard served humble, well-made food in an unpretentious (but also quite boring) atmosphere. It occupied the same space, but failed to resonate.
The Nick & Sam's team are a little smarter. They opened up the room, building from the outside in, giving it an airy feel. Who can resist? One patio area satisfies the "see and be seen" urge, another gives a feeling of seclusion. As the outside spills in, tables crowded against each other and up against the bar make guests feel like part of something special. Waitstaff flirt and parry with the people at their tables.
Nick & Sam's Grill, from the staff to the crowds, is simply a fun place to hang out. Actually, right now it's the "it" place in Uptown. The atmospheric buzz and the effort put in by the wait crew keep the venue going at a lively pace. Only the kitchen lags.
Service and ambience may just spell success here. After all, it's a jinxed building: Martini Ranch, Stolik, Standard, Strong's Everyday Tavern—none managed to wow the crowd like these guys.
The food doesn't matter if what you really want to do is pick another fight with Nickie.
Nick & Sam's Grill 2816 Fairmount St., 214-303-1880. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-midnight Thursday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$