Hitting the mark

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The simplest criterion I have for rating a restaurant is integrity: Does it deliver what it promises, or not? If all a restaurant pledges to provide is a clean place to eat a decent burger, and that's all you get, then, in my opinion, it's a good restaurant. But if a place charges $25 for entrees and requires reservations and a jacket, it's raised the bar and my expectations. Keeping promises gets harder.

The little cafe space now called Mark's on Henderson has always been an unfulfilled promise. It's never been quite what you wished it was, or even quite what it seemed to want to be. Tucked into that eclectic strip of Henderson made busy by the microbrewed beer boom next door, the apparently quaint storefront originally housed one of Dallas' first wine bars (La Cave), then a second (Pinot's), both limited by the lack of menu, which was limited by the lack of kitchen facilities. (Francois Chandou's La Cave was really a wine business misplaced in a cafe space--and enophiles don't mistake it for anything else now.)

From the beginning, this has always been the kind of place where you wanted to linger over dinner--there's something about the cozy little room that encourages intimate conversation. In fact, for a long time you could only linger over pate and cheese combinations with your wine. But, over the years, as owner has succeeded owner, the kitchen has expanded its repertoire along with its equipment. Its current incarnation, Mark's, promises a relaxed but gracious dining experience, featuring food that's unpretentious and not overly ambitious in a friendly atmosphere. That's exactly what you get.

There is a full, a la carte white-board dinner menu with a range of mid-priced appetizers and entrees. Mark's also has a retail license for wine, so you can order by the bottle, drink by the glass, and take the remainder home. So far, the selection is not quite broad enough--there could be more inexpensive (under $35) selections, which would best complement the style of Mark's food--but the mark-up is correct and the concept welcome.

Chef-owner Mark Jensen was most recently executive chef of Dallas pub pair Thomas Avenue Beverage Company and Green Elephant. He fell in love with the restaurant business while working his way through college. He fell in love with this location when he managed Pinot's for a couple of years in the early '90's. As we all know, love makes you do crazy things, so it's not surprising that Jensen decided to buy the restaurant when it became available.

Fortunately, he's already worked every position in the industry, so his current job description--janitor-manager-chef--doesn't really faze him. What he has done to save his sanity is limit the hours--Mark's is open for dinner five days a week. That's approximately a 74-hour work week, manageable for a chef. However, says Jensen, "I don't plan on turning anyone away." So the restaurant is also available for private lunches (for the eminently reasonable minimum charge of $200.)

During those 74 hours, Jensen runs the front and the back of the house, making the connection between Robert, the waiter, and the kitchen extremely tight. Jensen recognizes that the restaurant business is first and foremost a service business, so besides the daily menu, which always features beef, chicken, seafood, a couple of pasta dishes, and a vegetarian selection, he is willing to alter a dish to suit a diner's special diet or request.

Our first surprise at Mark's was the offer of a Caesar salad, prepared tableside. Robert brought out the tray-stand laden with torn romaine, little bowls of egg--real ones, anchovies, garlic, grated cheese--some for mixing in the dressing and some to toss with the lettuce, Worcestershire mixed with hot pepper, cruets of lemon juice, and the slow stream of olive that magically emulsifies it all. Surely the odor of that salad filled the whole room--as often as we eat Caesar salad in restaurants, we had almost forgotten what the real thing is like. It's not just fear of raw eggs that has diluted this dish into middle-of-the-road insipidity. It's fear of flavor. The second time we ate at Mark's, we took our daughter, a Caesar fan who faithfully attends the annual AIWF competition to seriously taste and compare the wildest Caesar-inspired creations of Dallas' edgiest chefs, and who insists on her aunt's Crescent Club Caesar dressing for every birthday. (Of course, she had no idea that raw eggs and fish were part of the deal.) And I have to admit, I was pleased that she pronounced this unabashedly assertive Caesar salad the best.

Two dinners at Mark's began with shrimp, the first time broiled with dried tomato pesto, the second time with cilantro pesto, both times the firm, just-cooked shellfish curled sizzling on a plate drizzled with vivid pesto, the green paste gritty with tiny nuggets of recognizable nut, the red one fragrant with concentrated fruitiness. (We wanted bread but bread is, I hope, a work in progress. The slices were seemingly stale but toasted, which didn't rejuvenate them as much as perhaps the kitchen might have hoped.)

I went to a Memorial Day brunch where the centerpiece of the menu was simply sausages--as daring as a dinner of nothing but caviar in these puritan times. At Mark's, we had a dinner of grilled wild boar sausage, served on a bed of (almost overly) creamy risotto, with a tangle of melted purple onions. And the emphasis was, as it had been at brunch, not the weight we anticipated from the word "sausages," but the vividness of flavor and contrast of textures instead.

Steak au poivre was not the dish with green pepper cream sauce, but meat thickly crusted with cracked black pepper, hotter than you remember since its eclipse by the chili craze. A mound of horseradish mashed potatoes underlined the heat. Salmon with lemon and dill, suspiciously described as "really fresh," really was, though to my taste it was also slightly overcooked, past the point of pink translucence I prefer. But tuna, with lime pico de gallo, was rare as requested, and the tart mixture of pepper, jalapeno, and onion set off the dark, jelled meat.

We quibbled with the authenticity of the gumbo, would perhaps have accepted it as shrimp Creole, a tomato-sauced dish. This stew, despite the okra, was too red to to be dubbed "gumbo," which is properly based on a nut-brown roux. Desserts, though, rose again to our expectations. The cinnamon pecan crumb cake, topped lavishly with creme fraiche and whipped cream, was laced with ripples of dark cinnamon. Both flavors of cheesecake we tried--praline pecan and white chocolate--were good, but the prize went to the three-berry shortcake, which, for once, was--as it ought to be, as I expect it to be--a sweetish biscuit, (not a sponge cake), honestly "short," simply moistened with fresh berries and cream.

Right away you have to understand that it's not about food. It's about music. And, like so many new restaurants these days, it's also about the neighborhood.

The Brick Room, at the not-quite-revitalized triangular corner of Live Oak and Skillman, is the project of three guys, all of whom live in East Dallas and share a love for music and food. Kirk Hampton, an ex-musician who worked at Terilli's for the past 11 years; Dean Ryan, a real estate investor (and what's a restaurant without a real estate guy on the roster?); and Richard Cantillon, who's been a link in the chain-restaurant front for years, combined forces, fortunately hired a chef, and decided to invest in their own neighborhood. Idealists or nuts? You decide. They not only opened a white tablecloth restaurant where only York Street (with its grand total of what, 10 tables?) had gone before, they decided to make The Brick Room a music venue, too.

Foolhardy, maybe, but jazz, both straight ahead and contemporary, is the featured entertainment every weekend at The Brick Room. So the dining room (yes, the walls are the original brick) opens into the bar, which is nearly the same size, and the music from the stage permeates the whole restaurant (though if you really object to music, you can eat early, before the music begins). The whole space, according to Hampton, is designed acoustically, set up for music. In fact, the trio shopped the location for that reason. They wanted it all under one roof, a shared space for music and food, a real hybrid.

The kitchen is a hybrid, too, under the direction of two chefs, Michael Shaw, the owner-operator of York Street, and Danny Reagan, who has cooked all over town. Between them they have concocted a menu that is absolutely without surprises. It's all-American, all right, and that was the intention, but remember how American food didn't used to seem so wonderful until after Nouvelle Cuisine had waved its wand and American food was transformed into New American food?

The meals we ate at The Brick Room were fine, but without the musical attraction, they would not be memorable. The jumbo shrimp cocktail was not discernibly "jumbo." It was just a shrimp cocktail, straightforward, fulfilling the menu's promise to serve nothing ending with 'a' or 'o'. You get the picture. This ain't foreign food. That means steak, which was fine, and apple pie. Oddly, it also means red cake, that recipe with all the food coloring--what could be more American?

Clams are also a featured part of the menu, which seems odd if you're thinking regionally, which I guess the kitchen isn't. For the most part, different cuts of beef, including prime rib and baby back ribs, chicken, of course, and your standard grilled-chicken-o-the-sea, so to speak, compose the menu, and everything comes with good fries (they don't call them "French" here), baked potato, onion rings, or baked beans, as well as salad or soup. The steak, though, seems to be the point, and though The Brick Room's aren't the finest prime, they all cost less than $20, too. Swordfish, the marine equivalent of steak (it's hefty and bland), was better than the beef, nicely cooked so there was still some moisture, and served with a rice pilaf that relieved the protein. Unfortunately, on our first visit, we had to help train a waiter. Fortunately, the trainee seemed to have more aptitude for the job than his instructor, remembering to ask how we liked our meat, for instance, a detail that had been neglected.

The Brick Room is designed for the neighborhood, and the neighborhood seems to love it--the bar is usually full on weekends. And one recent Sunday night, most of the waitstaff gathered in the doorway of the full bar to hear the music, though that doesn't say much for the investors' return. The Brick Room regularly features familiar names like Marchel Ivery, Claude Johnson, John "Spider" Martin, Joe McBride, and Lane Delano on weekend nights, and there are plans to open for a jazz brunch (blessedly acoustic).

Mark's on Henderson, (214) 841-0900, 2926 N. Henderson, Open for dinner Tuesday-Saturday 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m.

The Brick Room, Skillman, (214) 823-2725. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., for dinner 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday till midnight. Brunch starting in July.

Mark's on Henderson:
Shrimp with Dried Tomato Pesto $8.50
Tuna with Lime Pico de Gallo $16.00
Seafood Gumbo $12.00
Caesar Salad $8.00
Three Berry Shortcake $5.00

The Brick Room:
Tenderloin of Beef $18.95
Brick Room Baby Backs $14.95
Swordfish $16.95
Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail $7.95
Apple Pie $3.75

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