These are times that try chefs’ souls.
Abacus, a Dallas landmark for 18 years, is facing its most difficult test yet. Challenges are coming from every quarter. Its former celebrity chef is suing the restaurant’s owners; its neutral-beige interior feels like a time capsule from 1999; its menu, an abrupt collision between Texas steakhouse and Japanese sushi bar, is similarly dated.
The good news is that the food can still be good, and occasionally great. Even better, the happy hour is one of the best deals in Dallas. But, over several visits to Abacus in recent weeks, I couldn’t help wondering how much this McKinney Avenue mainstay needs to evolve to stay relevant.
Abacus’ identity is confusing. Half of the menu is elegant renditions of Southwestern grilling classics — venison steaks, rib-eyes, quail, mac and cheese — and the other half is sushi. The combination doesn’t make sense in theory, and it doesn’t make sense in practice, either, although I observed protein fanatics beginning their meals with sashimi and moving on to steaks.
The dual focus isn’t new. Abacus opened when fusion was all the rage, but under new executive chef Chris Patrick, the Texan and Japanese halves of the menu have grown more segregated, with boundary lines more tightly drawn between the kitchen and the sushi bar.
The Texas game side of the menu is the more successful. Best of all is an exceptionally well-cooked venison tenderloin ($43), a bold red medium rare and the tender, simply grilled stuff of meat-fueled dreams. Two lamb chops are similarly divine and crusted in pecans ($42), but the sides are a problem for both dishes. Venison came, when I tried it, with poblano cheese grits that offered less flavor than expected, plus a gooey honey-butter sauce too sweet to belong with either the grits or the venison. Underneath the lamb chops and atop cauliflower puree was an array of romanesco that was undercooked and hard to pierce with the fork.
The quail appetizer ($20) confirms that Abacus is expert at cooking meats, the bird nearly blackened in a peppery rub and surrounded by fun accents like a miniature poblano-cheddar quesadilla. It’s likely the best of the small plates. Another starter shows more of a global influence: Thin Japanese eggplants get sliced in half lengthwise, then expertly tempura-fried ($16). They’re served on chickpeas coated with cumin and chili powder, with a few pieces of kale roasted until crispy. The dish hops across international boundaries, but it feels like a set of parts that don’t quite fit together.
Someone in the kitchen is prone to a sweet tooth. In addition to the unnecessary honey alongside that venison steak, there’s a bread service with savory and sweet breads mixed together (think olive ciabatta with blueberry muffins). The honey butter alongside is cloying on anything, but putting it on olive ciabatta might constitute a crime.
At the sushi bar, on the other hand, the chef prefers to blast diners with heat. Consider the specialty Godzilla roll ($21 for eight pieces), on which toro and salmon compete with a “diablo sauce” and slices of jalapeño pepper, some of which retain their seeds.
During summer’s wild salmon season, some Alaskan sockeye sashimi escaped the sushi menu and arrived on the main appetizer list for $20. It was presented with a graceful, light cucumber slaw, but every slice of sashimi was topped with a pea-sized lump of sinus-clearing fresh wasabi. In an effort to save my taste buds, I scraped off more than a teaspoon of wasabi and smeared it on the rim of the plate.
The Picasso roll ($22 for eight pieces) is Abacus’ most popular, and rightly so. It’s a satisfying, almost ceviche-like sushi roll that combines tuna inside, salmon on top, slices of roasted pineapple and pico de gallo for a flavor that merges Japan with Yucatan. A couple of pieces of nigiri show off fine freshwater eel ($12), but the pressed sushi with unexciting shrimp and crabmeat ($22) was unimpressive.
Worth noting: Abacus’ sashimi and nigiri prices are higher than those of the best sushi restaurants in Dallas, Yutaka and Uchi.
Of two desserts (both $12), the brown butter cake with peaches, fig ice cream and Pop Rocks was likable. On the other hand, the Red Velvet Fairytale, much bragged-on by servers as “romantic,” is a bizarre drug trip of a landscape boasting red velvet Super Mario mushrooms around a mud puddle of chocolate and patches of green tea “grass.”
Abacus’ front bar is a nice place to unwind in a more casual setting. Especially good were two spicy tequila-based cocktails, the jalapeño-infused Game of Thorns ($13) and shishito-garnished Smoke on the Water ($13). Before 7:30 p.m. weekdays, every cocktail on the list is $6 for happy hour, and all wines by the glass are half-price.
Solo drinkers should brace themselves for unusually chatty staff. Actually, diners everywhere in Abacus should prepare for loquacious employees. One night, our waiter handed us food menus and recommended, unprompted and in detail, 11 dishes.
After that recitation, he fretted, “I know I’ve just been rambling up here.”
His nerves are understandable: These are difficult times at Abacus. In December, the owners go to trial with former executive chef Kent Rathbun, who departed in a business dispute that has become a sprawling, years-long lawsuit. Rathbun’s shadow looms over Abacus. The restaurant still serves his lobster shooters (which I’ve never liked) and uses the URL kentrathbun.com. Some former regulars have taken to social media to declare that they side with Rathbun and will not visit Abacus again.
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But Patrick, the new executive chef, asserted in a D Magazine interview that, as early as 2013, he was already the de facto head of kitchen. It is a disservice to Patrick’s staff that Abacus is in the spotlight because of an ugly legal battle and that the new team has been deprived of a fresh start. That’s unfair.
Unfortunately, it feels like the restaurant’s identity crisis is playing out in both the courtroom and the kitchen. Southwestern wild game and sushi never made sense together, and now the combination feels as dated as the ambient techno soundtrack. Abacus’ best self is as a happy hour cocktail destination.
I’m hopeful that these young chefs and bartenders will get the opportunity they deserve. But, stuck with a concept that feels more dated by the season, plagued by inconsistency in the details and overshadowed by a depressing lawsuit, they may not get that opportunity at Abacus.
Abacus, 4511 McKinney Ave., 214-559-3111. Open 6-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 6-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. (Bar opens at 5 p.m.; happy hour weekdays to 7:30 p.m.)