Restaurant Reviews

Get Uppity

Employing Buddha to drive nightclub adrenaline is odd when you think about it. There are bars named after this enlightened fellow (here there was Buddha Bar before it went Bali Bar before it went bust), and Buddha busts and figures inexplicably fill nightclub alcoves, dugouts and pedestals. At Sambuca Uptown, there's a giggling Buddha as well as a Buddha that sits in deep repose atop a privacy booth upholstered in leather, secluded by sheers and equipped with conveniences like personal volume controls to modulate the piped-in sounds--gentle ones judging by the Annie Lennox that seemed to play in perpetuity. These are dens of debauchery, or at least one would hope they are. Drag an open palm over the leather and imagine the tales that have played out here--stories of ribald gripping, missing skivvies and shameless salivating all done up to a soundtrack of wheezing hums. Somehow Buddha has evolved into the teat of hipness, a deep and complex spiritual icon boiled down to the shallowest of nightclub gilt. This is odd, especially when history offers up such worthy alternatives as Cleopatra and Heidi Fleiss.

Not that there is anything wrong with Buddha posing as a trendy nightclub prop, though one gets wistful for the daring entrepreneur who might give the task to Confucius, or even Mohammad. But it's hard to dismiss the fact that Buddha steered clear of the sensual indulgence that is the mother's milk of Dallas night crawling. According to Karen Armstrong's biography of Buddha, the enlightened one saw life as nothing but a grim cycle of suffering, a process that begins with trauma of birth and proceeds inexorably to "aging, illness, death, sorrow and corruption." This is not the mind-set that those with their Diane vonFurstenbergs reeking of Porsche leather yearn to embrace. This isn't to say Buddha didn't party, but he obsessed over the repellent side of fun. Armstrong recounts:

That night, he woke to find that the minstrels and dancers who had been entertaining him had fallen asleep. All around his couch, beautiful women lay in disarray: "Some with their bodies slick with phlegm and spittle; others were grinding their teeth, and muttering and talking incoherently in their sleep; others lay with their mouths wide open."

Yet there is an upside to the repellent side of pleasure, and Sambuca Uptown is the place to find it. For those whose jaws grow slack, there is cuisine with which to fill the void--delicious cuisine, dashing in its simplicity. This is not a menu with an ethnic or planetary theme buzzing through it, but one with familiarity twisted just enough to keep the incoherent muttering at bay.

What's more ubiquitously dull and comforting than tortilla soup? (Calamari is, but let's start with the soup.) Most tortilla soup is a ponderous swill of mushy tortilla strips, overcooked chicken and tortured vegetables suffering in a broth as frighteningly drab as the alcoholic beverage code.

Not so here. A simple white bowl arrives with a crown of bleached chicken shingled with tortilla strips interlaced with cheese shreds. The thick ochre broth is swirled around the crown from a pitcher spout, ensuring those tortilla strips will be crunched instead of slurped. It's rich and creamy and ripping with spice that is pulled into balance just as the grainy texture settles into the finish.

Calamari is not as successful. Body cavity rings, tentacles and peppers are corseted in a light batter. Though tender, chewy and topped with shreds of Reggiano Parmigiano cheese, the result is loose and greasy, with the flimsy sheath slipping off with the slightest nudge. It comes with two sauces for dipping: a diablo sauce and a riveting lemon aioli. Both harbor astonishing complexity and balance--a pity this beast didn't wear them well.

It's fitting that a place outfitted with gauzy sheers, velvet drapes and ceilings plush with gold fabric rippling with pleats would turn surf 'n' turf into lingerie. It arrives on a narrow platter with rosy strips of lacy beef lipping creamy orange sheets of yellowfin tuna gauze, the latter looking like shaved melon. Lemon zest curved over the beef, while orange zest looped over the tuna. Surf 'n' turf carpaccio is an ingenious invention when you think about it, something that might even shove the Buddha off his grim cycle of despair. The meat is so delicate it evaporates on the tongue, while the zest coils fill in the gaps with a velvety acidic pinch.

Imagine a place like this serving breakfast, or brunch as it's called at places with mandatory valet parking. Imagine that ceviche, served in a martini glass, is one of the offerings. Admittedly, lime-cooked fish in a martini vessel might be appalling after a night of hard clubbing. But it's beautiful: shrimp, crab shreds, tomato flecks, pepper, cucumber and red onion all gently spun into a clean, brisk peak that rises above the glass rim in supple freshness. The seafood is firm, briny and chewy. It doesn't bounce the jaws like those creepy little shrimp coils that are too cooked or too freezer burned or too whatever it is that makes them seem like they were cooked up in a Firestone lab.

Breakfast progresses with Mexican scrambled eggs: fried tortilla strips pebbled with feta and goat cheese crumbles and buds of scrambled egg. Despite the paucity of egg, the hash was, with its spread of tomatillo sauce, deliciously brisk and fresh. And if the worst you can say about a dish is that there wasn't enough of the headliner, well...

Camped out in the former Salve! Ristorante space, with its angular jaunts and a geometrical outdoor courtyard in the center that's softened with gauze and sticks and sofas, Sambuca Uptown is tipped with a handsome patio right where Pearl Street meets McKinney Avenue. It's a heavy-duty apparatus with thick timbers bolted to concrete piers secured with massive nuts--a play off of feminine delicacies inside.

Yet the contrasts on the plate are more interesting. Surf 'n' turf is not limited to the raw and sheer; it erupts as the cooked and the bulky as well. Like all good fillets, this one is petite but tall. Two creamy pieces of bulbous crab claw, stained with swirls of bright red, are draped atop the summit. The first taste of the crab had us by the collar. So potent was its crash of sea-washed sweetness that we questioned whether we had really been eating crab in Dallas all these years. What about the meat? Moistened with a deft béarnaise sauce, rife with tarragon, the meat is smoothly silky and juicy, bleeding that heady richness that makes beef cravings the rutting dance of the Dallas diet. Five thick asparagus stalks posed on the plate, putting a sober vegetable spin on all of this fleshy decadence.

Miso sea bass was a scorched fillet: loose, buttery, even flaccid in parts. Flakes slipped from one another as if they had been greased. The crust was crisp in that delicate way that betrays the violence that forged it into existence. The long fillet slumbered on a bed of rice, separate and fluffy. But whatever the flaws, and they were measly, they were blunted into extinction by a superb hash of bok choy and tart apples, which mingled with the meat, feeding it spark.

Raspberry sabayon, fresh pert berries in a wisp of custard, is served in a slanted bowl that tilts toward the diner: a subtle angle that leans the gentle heap of berries hugging one side into the creamy custard sheet.

Is this Sambuca finally the cream? Deep Ellum Sambuca, which this Uptown location replaced, was a shabby place, in terms of its chic and its grub as well as its in-your-face stage presence. This new version is more contemplative with tolerably amusing décor, well-executed live music that leaves sonic vents for conversation and food that's better than both. What better way to pass through your own grim cycle of suffering?

2120 McKinney Ave., 214-744-0820. Open for brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday; for lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday; for dinner 5-11 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 5 p.m.-midnight Thursday and 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday & Saturday. $$$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz