Raising the Bar

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Don't call Vickery Park.

It's just a neighborhood tavern tucked alongside dressier venues on Henderson Avenue, after all. No need for reservations and, besides, the phone's hidden in some back office. Hmmm--if a phone rings in an empty room, does it make a sound? "We never hear it," staff members admit.

A chuckle usually accompanies this confession. In a world addicted to instant access, such blasé nonconformity seems at first a mocking gesture. But with bouncers poking through guest lists on their PDAs lurking outside so many doors in this city, it's almost refreshingly un-Dallas to find a place so plain, so out-of-touch. That's why joints like Lee Harvey's and Double Wide achieve popularity.


Vickery Park

Buffalo fried calamari$9

Picnic fries $4

Artisanal cheese board $12

Vickery park mussels $12

Poblano pepper soup $6

House salad $7

Baby spinach salad $7

Brisket sandwich $8

Pulled pork sandwich $8

Cheese pizza $7

Dos XX beer BBQ ribs $9

Stuffed pork tenderloin $13

Shrimp and scallops $13

Filet mignon suramericana $16

But Vickery Park avoids smug trailer park chic contrivances. It's not designed to be anything more than a bar serving food. Aside from a whimsical row of photos nailed on one dimly lit wall, all depicting lamps, the managers clearly placed greater emphasis on alcohol selection than layout. No valet out front. Bartenders often look as though they grabbed the first shirt from the closet floor that passed the sniff test. The décor befits a small-town hangout, and the vibe reminded us of Deep Ellum before the fall.

The menu is equally quirky. Sure, Vickery Park sells typical bar food--burgers, onion rings, fries. But the fries are not merely afterthoughts meant to stiffen soused patrons for another round of beer. Line cooks cut spuds by hand, and they retain the taste and texture of a baked potato inside a caramelized crust. Instead of wings, the bar serves Buffalo fried calamari. At first the plate of fiery rubber bands doesn't make sense. The squid and breading have no presence besides texture, a firm ring of meat under a shell turned slightly mushy absorbing the spicy sauce. But something in that combination of butter, vinegar and chile appeals to the palate. It bites, contorts your face and eases slowly away, leaving a tingling, sweet memory.

Buffalo fried calamari is the first indication of eclecticism. Oh, but there's more. Imagine popping into a rustic bar for a sensible plate of greens. Vickery's house salad contrasts the rich, earthy flavors of smoked Gouda and toasted walnuts with sweet-tart bursts of dried cranberries and bitter field greens. Balsamic vinaigrette adds a mellow and sour component. Strawberries decorate the baby spinach salad, but the combination of fruit, pecans and small leaves splashed with raspberry dressing is almost too light, something for a midsummer lunch. Fresh peppers lent a vegetal flair to creamy poblano soup.

More substantial dishes include a hefty filet mignon and ribs basted in an understated barbecue sauce laced with beer. The latter wowed one member of our group during the first visit. Cooked medium rare, the filet mignon shows off a ruby red interior under a charred crust rubbed with a "South American mélange" smacking more of store-bought chile powder than something vaguely other-hemisphere. Yet the brandy demi-glace naturally sweetened with a red wine-tomato reduction almost saves things by countering the rub. For $16, it's a reasonable steak.

We tried pizza on one visit, a surprisingly subtle blend of Parmesan, smoked Gouda and mozzarella sitting on a flimsy, tasteless crust apparently rolled out in some corporate bakery and frozen for later use. The toppings stand out, however. Three or four cheeses often melt together into an indelicate, unintelligible glob. Here the different elements seem to float in space: creamy mozzarella, a whiff of smoke, a little piquant dart.

It's not bad, and they don't even own a pizza oven.

So why does Vickery Park stray from the norm? Why list wedge salad and rosemary chicken on a bar menu? Chef Eric Najera spent six years with Marc Cassel at the Green Room picking up the nuances of "collision cuisine." Cooks exposed to Cassel's culinary antics will happily stuff pork tenderloin with more pork--genoa salami and mortadella--and plate it next to a stir-fry salad tossed with bacon. They'll also list several vegetarian options, such as an entrée of grilled portobello mushrooms and asparagus. There's something, shall we say, engaging when a chef packs soups, sandwiches, steaks, seafood, pizza and even tacos on one laminated sheet.

Najera tinkered for several months before settling on the current menu lineup. As with anything cobbled together and nudged into the background (remember, Vickery Park is a bar that serves food rather than a restaurant supporting a good bar crowd), some cracks appear. The brisket sandwich should be a bold and smoky masterpiece. It's piled with slices of beautifully prepared, tender beef outlined by a narrow layer of charred meat and seasoning. Unfortunately, a thick coating of Kahlúa cream sauce is part of the deal. Not that the Kahlúa concoction, a rich and very sweet broth underscored by the bitter essence of distilled coffee, is ill-conceived, mind you. When we tasted a dollop alone, the flavors balanced nicely and faded smoothly across the palate. But the liqueur's sweetness beats down the brisket until it becomes just a texture.

Another sandwich, pulled pork, suffered from the opposite problem. The lean and delicate meat welcomes strong sauces slathered with abandon. In this instance, however, kitchen staff splattered only a trace of pungent hoisin sauce over the shards of white meat. Only the bright taste of honey bread really stood out.

An entrée of shrimp and scallops suffered from a bed of gooey, overcooked pasta and a spice rub worthy, at best, of McCormick's.

Keep in mind Najera quickly worked his way onto the line after starting as a dishwasher at the Green Room. When Cassel left for hipper climes, he recommended the young prodigy for sous chef. Restaurant management passed, and Najera ended up on Henderson Avenue in charge of his first kitchen. He's perhaps still searching for consistency, but his talent shows. Take, for example, Vickery Park mussels, a bowl of shellfish steeping in what the restaurant calls a "homestyle citrus cream sauce." It resembles a Bercy sauce, except the chef substitutes champagne for white wine, throws in lemongrass in place of shallots and twists in some lemon, lime and orange juice. Onions and portobellos float amongst the shells adding a musty, vegetal flavor. Walk through the cramped alleys near Grand Plas in Brussels, and you'll find bistros advertising moules and frites. Good stuff, too. Mussels (moules) simmering in simple broth drenched by an effervescent Trappist ale. Knox-Henderson has become the place for this particular variety of shellfish. Old Monk serves them. Toulouse offers a selection. Hector's steams a musty, savory version. But at Vickery Park they're a standout dish--sweet and creamy throughout with layers of earthiness and salt and citrus cascading on the tongue.

Oh, when you order, ask for a bowl to discard the shells. Yeah, the waitstaff is friendly. But only one server during our three visits offered to bring something to hold our empties. That was Nora Saunders, an accomplished professional who also works at upscale establishments...and who also recognized us. The others just watched as we set shells on appetizer plates or dropped them into beer glasses.

Here's another eclectic touch: no dessert. They do, however, list a decent cheese board with fruits, cured meat and some very mild artisanal cheese. After 11 p.m. the kitchen reinvents itself, turning out soft-shell tacos until closing time.

Once again, Vickery Park is a place to hang out and sling back a few drinks. We like the low-key vibe. The kitchen falters on several items, true. There are, however, several reasons to stop in for a bite: mussels, pizza, ribs, cheap steak, fries and those Buffalo fried calamari rings. Chef Najera is young and inventive--someone to watch over the next few years.

That's our call. 2810 N. Henderson Ave. 214-827-1432. Open 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Friday; 1 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.

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