Review: Olenjack's Grille

You can see the curving steel beams rise like a bump in the distance, cranes hovering over them like mantises, the spine arching out of a wave. Olenjack's Grille rests in the thick of it, or what is likely to be the thick, standing ready to exploit intermittent captive audiences released from the new Cowboys stadium, even if the food isn't worth a damn. Lucky for them, it is.

On a Saturday night guests coagulate around the hostess stand and in the sitting room aft the front door, where high-backed chairs and a wine bottle exhibit hem the chaos. A woman and two young girls shoehorn into one chair, the girls making use of knees and armrests. Others stand and cradle drinks. Though just about every stool and chair is taken, the bar is strangely sparse, no clusters of the thirsty stacking up.

Everyone hears their name and when one is called, three or four groups converge on the young woman with the pen and the notebook and the sheaf of menus hoping maybe—just maybe—they heard right. Two or three groups wander back to the sitting room, watching the folks with the correct name leave them behind. This place is about food. Nothing else much happens.

Clacks and clinks punctuate the conversation. Though black speaker boxes are posted high on the walls, no music can be heard. All is subservient to the food. Behind the open kitchen slit you can see the chefs and cooks, their black hats turned so the bills hug the napes of their necks, stirring, pouring, plating, their chins and lips blurred in the mists from rising steam. They smile and laugh. There's levity to this intensity.

Servers read menu details from a note pad: "Roasted duck risotto, asparagus, jalapeño, onion." It doesn't arrive as a risotto would, in a bowl like thick oatmeal or as a hillock on a plate, steaming shavings of Parmesan into flaccid flaps. It's spread over the plate like rice with gravy, strips and chunks of moist rich duck woven through the slurry with inch-long slugs of asparagus and strips of shallot. Jalapeño jabs. It scores all of Olenjack's goals: hearty, hot, haute.

Salt and pepper shrimp, varnished in garlic pepper oil, squeak plump sweetness when bitten, the shells creaking in briny crunch.

Olenjack geometry is jarring. The dining room stretches away from the bar, separated by a jagged partition topped with glass panels. The room doglegs around a corner, plunging deeper into the space. Interior trimmings are clean and chain-restaurant flat. Decor is designed for efficiency over style. Floors are covered with low-cropped, high-traffic carpet in a smoked salmon tint. Tablecloths and napkins pick up those tones and rust them up.

This was once a Flying Saucer Draft Emporium, Shannon Wynn's ode to microbrews and UFOs with a back bar lined with scores of alternating taps dispensing European and other boutique suds. It was gutted and refurbished. Thus this interior is strangely deliberate.

Out on the patio, shielded with zippered plastic and nursed by heaters, diners chew on antelope ribs. Blunt bone ends jut from perfectly carved rectangles of meat, glistening with jalapeño jelly among sprigs of cilantro for fringe. They're sticky sweet with a jerky chaw and fibrousness not unlike slow-cooked pot roast. A metal bowl, with sloping edges so that it's almost square, is for the bones.

That same kind of bowl nests Olenjack's greens, which you should order before you consider anything else. It's a mesh of greens batted in tomato vinaigrette with slices of grape tomato and chunks of candied pecan that calms even as it invigorates—the starter equivalent of Manzanilla sherry.

Such is the personal statement of Brian Olenjack, the New England Culinary Institute grad who has worked in Boston (seafood), Chicago (steak), and the Chisholm Club and Reata in Fort Worth as well as Patrizio's and Metro Grill in Dallas. His restaurant is in Arlington's Lincoln Square strip mall, down from Half Price books and an Electrique Boutique whose windows are loaded with mannequins in stilettos and garters and thongs of a variety not seen much outside of dancing poles.

Olenjack's objective was to create a dining space with chef-driven food that scoffs neither at sensibilities nor pocketbooks. Example: At lunch, Olenjack's serves a softshell crab sandwich, delicately crispy crab tucked in a croissant with bacon, tomato and mayo—Boston with a streak of Texas brash.

Pulled pork sandwich, pork shreds stuffed into a warm rich bun, drips a garishly dark house-made barbecue sauce that is as sweet as it is ribald, relentlessly stinging on the finish.

Crab cakes could probably vacate the swarm of menus they occupy and not be missed, even the good cakes, the ones not like a crab Twinkie. But Olenjack's are worth a taste. Salmon flecks are meshed with flaccid glassy tongues of crab with just a shadowy presence of filler, leaving the distinctive riches of crab and salmon; a thick ribbon of Creole mustard sauce shakes it up further.

You can barely pull discernible flakes and strands of fish from the smoked salmon chowder—thick as a chip dip—but you can't miss the chunks of potato as big as parking lot gravel or the kernels of corn. Stay with it and you can find those fish pieces—smoky rich fish as big in style as the soup from which it comes.

Olenjack's has steaks, as all restaurants must. The Kansas City strip drooled its juices into a rosy pool when cut, though it's far from hypnotic. Its richness is too subdued, its silkiness blunted with pockets of gristle. Next to it, a lump of mustard greens, sautéed into a pleasing Southern mush, releases its cleansing bitterness.

Meat tumbles off the baby back rib bones, espresso-glazed, bitter and sweet, more dry than chewy. But they have a good, swift kick of spice. Detail: As much thought was put into the side of wet napkins, perfect white warm towels rolled as tight as toquitos, arranged with fighter squadron precision, slices of lemon wedged between.

Striped sea bass rests on fingerling potatoes over a crawfish butter sauce that is remarkably restrained, permitting the seasonings and the delicate bass to unleash on the palate unencumbered. It's covered with a crust as wispy as a camisole.

Finish with a key lime tart—creamy stiff custard assertive in citrus with a thick brittle crust, deftly salted.

Olenjack's is pure Americana: chef-driven, understated and pleasing. With tight technique and a sure sense of craft, it sketches New American culinary-scapes with Southwestern inks and Southern penmanship and zero pretensions. In retrospect, its exurb interior makes perfect sense.

770 Road to Six Flags East in Arlington's Lincoln Square, No. 100, 817-226-2600. Open 11 a.m.- 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$

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