You have to admit it. Owner Hamid Moallem did a hell of a job retrofitting his new restaurant into Soho Food, Drinks and Jazz. I remember when it was Okeanos, featuring seafood by famed Dallas chef Avner Samuel. The institutional terra-cotta tile floors and baby-blue walls with yellow trim the color of deviled eggs were washed in flickering fluorescent light, reminding me of a public restroom. If they would have scented the place with those deodorant disks tossed in ballpark urinals, I would have peed right there at the table. Swear to God.
Thoughts like this wouldn't come to mind or bladder in Moallem's version of the space. Textured walls splattered and smeared with earth tones hold colorful impressionist paintings interspersed with images of a fish and a moon projected in light onto the wall. Banquettes are upholstered in cool gray-lavender. Most compelling are the tabletops, the base of the tiny bar, the kitchen door, and the rear wall: They're crusted with copper-bronze leaf that shimmers in the understated halogen lighting. Two doors open onto a thin strip of patio, and a window links it to the bar so that you can order drinks without going back into the restaurant. At night, it's hard to believe you're in an Addison mall with an elevated view of a parking lot. (On each of my visits to Soho, a BMW covered with the Robert Crumb-ish doodles and scribbles of Dallas artist Jimmy Sasso was parked near the patio. Anyone who would do that to a Beemer should be sentenced to a life of Italian cars and German cuisine.)
Moallem has shoehorned jazz into a space that's barely bigger than a Highland Park shoe closet. On one visit, a trio--muted trumpet, bass, and keyboard--blew, plucked, and tinkled at appropriately subdued sound levels. The only drawback to this combo was that its beat was kept with a drum machine. Listening to a geek box simulate straight-ahead jazz rhythms is like eating lasagna layered with Cheez Whiz.
Thankfully, Cheez Whiz doesn't appear on executive chef Chris Finch's menu. A former sous chef at Chamberlain's, Finch has crafted a sometimes daring menu with heavy Asian and Italian influences. It's sometimes simple and tightly focused; other times, it's clumsy.
Baby lobster tail tempura resembled an elaborate headdress, or maybe a vicious insect. The dish comes anchored on the butt of a cucumber. Its skin is carved with a pattern of rectangles. Four wooden skewers are stabbed into the cucumber: three along its circumference and one on top. Baby lobster tails with a tempura coating are impaled on these pikes. A tangle of shredded carrot, cucumber, and red cabbage in rice vinaigrette surrounds this apparatus. While the tail meat was freshly firm and succulent, the tempura coating was soggy and gummy, and a lemon beurre blanc dipping sauce did little to salvage it.
Most of the dishes, at least visually, mimicked the crisp elegance of the dining room. Tuna carpaccio was firm, clean, and silky with a clutter of tiny artichoke shards spread over its surface. Clumps of wasabi-infused tobiko (flying-fish roe) added interest. A lemony blend of sesame and olive oil sauced the fish, but it swamped the dish. A lighter touch is needed here.
An oil glut also choked the tomato salad. Large, thick slices of tomato over greens struggled valiantly in the depths of a lumbering, oily dressing. A lighter, more agile treatment would have worked better here too.
Departing from these awkward miscues, crab and vegetable spring rolls were simple, clean, and graceful. Served on a tiny rectangular dish, a trio of thick, loosely packed silos of shredded cucumber, carrot, and red cabbage are arranged vertically on the dish next to a dish of ponzu sauce. The only drawback was that the rolls had precious little crab, but at least the crab was real and not the ubiquitous fish pulp known as surimi.
Most entrees were tight, save for a speckling of minor flaws. Rustic sea bass had a nearly perfect texture and a meltingly buttery flavor. A puddle of black truffle broth added a concentrated spark from bits of pancetta, but a girding of white beans proved a bit too solid. The things were hard and undercooked, flattening any hope of elegant harmony.
Angel-hair pasta with shrimp in a creamy tomato sauce was another nearly flawless creation. The sauce was lively with a surge of spice, while a speckling of artichoke pieces and a crown of crumbled Gorgonzola gave it sharpness. But the sizable shrimp were flabby and loose in spots and infected with an off flavor suggesting they had spent too much time in storage.
A fried catfish po' boy sandwich on the lunch menu was thick, robust, and sturdy. Cornmeal crust on the fish held up well under the strain of the smooth remoulade and a bed of marinated cucumbers and onions that never made good on their threat to soak the thing. But the side of fries was inedibly hard and pasty. A dessert of pears poached in Armagnac and filled with mascarpone cheese proved a savvy marriage of soft, creamy delicacy, rich butteriness, and sweet nuttiness.
Soho is a magnetic spot. It's the kind of place where lingering is easy with service that's a bit slow, but gracious and nurturing. Time and a little culinary tuning will let it blow effortlessly on key. Oh, and the bathrooms are nice too.
Ocean Grill & Jazz is another small mall slot that seeks to pair jazz and a seafood menu. Clustered photos of jazz greats--Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday--fill the walls just to the right of the bar where musicians play. On one visit, a hastily assembled quartet attempted to fill the room with moving sounds, though the results were somewhat flat and smarmy, with notes that just barely touched on cool.
Yet if the music wasn't solid cool, the menu sure was. Literally. Our visits unearthed a trio of chills that no doubt would have grown into quartets or quintets had we expanded our visits. Grilled ocean snapper over tomato orzo pasta and under a tangle of fried leeks was firm and flaky, but a puddled sauce of brandy cream charged with mango was cold. Grilled halibut suffered from the same affliction. Texturally, the fish was tight and flaky. But the dribbling of ginger butter sauce was cool, and that's unfortunate, because it seemed as if this sauce was the sole source of seasoning. A side of basmati wild rice with sauteed vegetables, however, was thankfully warm, moist, and delicious. The third cool note was the creme brulee. It was served ice-cold instead of cool with a warm, freshly browned sugar coating. And the flavor was equally dissonant: bitter lid over stiff, pasty custard.
Yet one dish here almost flirted with flawlessness. Seafood paella was rife with moist, supple risotto harboring the perfect level of aromatic saffron. Mussels and pieces of shrimp, calamari, and snapper were all firm and succulent with good, fresh, briny flavors. Sadly, one bite into the baby lobster tail marred the dish. The flesh was viciously sour, as if it were well into the throes of decomposition.
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Opened originally just a couple of years ago as Ocean Grill by Anson Chan, the restaurant was picked up by businesswoman Deborah Ingleman last summer when jazz and extended hours were added to the mix. Reopening chef Mario Melgar, formerly of Clive & Stuart's, has since left and has been replaced by James Creager, former banquet chef at the Crown Plaza Suites.
It's ironic that the most successful dish was the grilled sirloin sandwich, a tender piece of beef slipped between sturdy, house-made flat bread slathered with roasted garlic mayo. But cows don't swim in the ocean. And the notes they blow mostly stink.
Soho Food, Drinks and Jazz. 5920 Belt Line Road at Montfort, (972) 490-8686. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; Open for dinner 5:30-10:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Jazz goes until 2 a.m. on weekends. $$-$$$
Ocean Grill & Jazz. 18101 Preston Road, Suite 102, (972) 248-9983. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; open for dinner 5:30-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 5:30-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Jazz Thursday-Saturday 9 p.m.-1 a.m. $$-$$$