A basket of nuts does little to stir the pulse as it slides across the bar. The snack is older than pull-tabs and seldom very interesting. Bar nuts are almost always poured directly from the package they're shipped in, and if they're mixed, you have to worry about cherry pickers leaving behind the Brazil nuts. Even when they're not mixed, you still have to worry about grubby fingers mucking up the dish.
Still, nuts are the perfect foil to a cold glass of beer. Take a salty nibble, chase it with a refreshing sip and repeat until you slide off your bar stool. Sometimes a bar or restaurant will turn pedestrian nuts into a snack worthy of another round of drinks. I've encountered compelling Marcona almonds warmed with olive oil and dusted with sea salt, and a mix of walnuts and pecans spiked with sugar and fresh rosemary that I stayed with until I reached the bottom of the bowl.
2711 Elm St., 214-872-0840, 4:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Friday, 12:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday, 12:30 p.m.-midnight Sunday, closed Monday, $$
Wok-fired cashews $5
Charred okra $5
Crispy yucca $5
Green papaya salad $7
Jerk sausage $11
But I'd never encountered a riff on bar nuts that really wowed me until I ordered wok-fired cashews from Deep Ellum's latest cocktail lounge and restaurant, On Premise. They showed up warm in a basket, an angry shade of crimson that foreshadowed a serious burn. The nuts were garnished with bright green cilantro, lime wedges for tartness and cabbage leaves for wrapping up a few nuts at a time. The whole basket was gone way before I finished my first drink, which was good because my mouth was ablaze. Bonus: Because I paid $5 for them, nobody's fingers were in the basket but mine.
There are other interesting snacks. Long, thin batons of yucca are fried perfectly and dusted with an aggressive blanket of chili powder. That basket came with a tangy aioli. Charred okra arrived with an herbal dipper, and the scent of fish sauce occasionally wafted through the air — On Premise's take on bar food is anything but typical nachos and pub grub. A burger isn't even on the menu.
Chef Brian Zenner and executive chef Ann Marie Romero are behind the interesting array of bar bites that rarely cost more than $11. Zenner, who last worked at Oak, is also responsible for The Mitchell, which recently replaced the Chesterfield downtown. The two designed the menu together, but Romero, who has worked at Pakpao, Oak and the Mansion, is charged with daily execution. With a fiery wok and flavors from around the globe, she's turning out some of the most interesting bar food in Dallas.
Jerk is most commonly associated with chicken, but the method for cooking meat was originally applied to pork. Pigs have a higher fat content than chickens and are more suited to the low-and-slow technique rooted in Jamaican cookery. Enter the jerk sausage, which may not be traditional, but who cares? It's delicious. The sausage is packed with smoke and spice and paired with a mango chutney that lends tangy-sweet flavors.
Such a quirky menu deserves an equally quirky dining room. On Premise took over the old Lemongrass location on Elm Street and completely transformed the space. One wall is lined by a long bar, while a few tables and benches park along the adjacent wall that frames the kitchen entrance. A handful of other tables are tucked away in the corners, but the space is laid out more like a bar or lounge, with plenty of space to mill about.
Metal gears and the dim glow of antique light fixtures loosely evoke the set for a steampunk film. High-backed chairs and Victorian couches in a seating area continue the theme, but the aqua seat-covers in glossy, faux-reptile skin smack of tacky decorating. Pair the decor with customers who wear 4-inch heels and skirts of a comparable length, and On Premise feels like a bar more suited for Uptown. Happy hour groups (a number of lawyers one night) come to mingle and imbibe. The bar is drawing a new crowd to join the bustling nightlife of Deep Ellum.
People who drink need to eat, and Romero is happy to oblige them, but her cooking might be better if it were more focused. The menu encompasses Spanish, Portuguese, Mexican, Moroccan, Peruvian, Greek and Asian cuisines. It's literally all over the map, and not all of the dishes are as stunning as they could be.
Romero's biggest strength is the cooking influenced by her last post at Pakpao, a Thai restaurant in the Design District. Those cashews and a take-your-breath-away spicy papaya salad are must orders.
A wok-fried whole fish would have been just as impressive if it hadn't been a little overcooked. At nearly $50, the red snapper deviates from the budget-friendly menu, but it comes with sticky rice and wok-fired vegetables. Two dipping sauces (an oily, dried chili sauce and a fish sauce spiked with fresh chilies) turn the meal into an experience, but the basket of sliced Middle Eastern flatbread is completely misplaced here.
The brandade served as a fritter grows tiresome after a bite or two, and lamb kebabs and dishes from other regions aren't as exciting as their Thai-inspired counterparts.
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Other sides of On Premise point to a bar with mixed personalities. The thoughtful table service is fit for a reputable sit-down restaurant, but the sound booth attacks the space like it's Friday night at the club. Head-bobbing DJs manning MacBooks pull from a tired mix of '80s, dance and other music while diners pick flesh from the bones of fried fishes. The atmosphere on the weekends is not one for reflection.
Still, the restaurant adds something new to Deep Ellum dining and is a unique place to grab a bite. Restaurateurs brave enough to open without a burger on the menu are as rare in Dallas as side streets without potholes, and the menu here has enough gems to warrant a return visit.
Even better, the kitchen stays open past 1 a.m., making On Premise a good place to crash after a show. Dallas hasn't been kind to diners who get hungry after 10 p.m., and while a few restaurants have started keeping later hours, night owls could use more places to roost.
At the very least Zenner and Romero have seriously upped the ante for the bar-nuts game. You won't find me at the bar without a freshly emptied basket of those wok-fired cashews nearby.