2120 McKinney Ave.
Sambuca is still around.
It still has one of the more sophisticated courtyard spaces in Uptown and still brings in live entertainment. But the room appears somehow stale.
As a restaurant slips into middle age--about four years without a makeover--pressure builds on the kitchen. Their work must contend with dulled color, familiar decor, blandishments becoming blander by the month. Even if they perform to a reasonable standard, the restaurant will still lose luster.
Sambuca's kitchen performs reasonably.
Chicken samosas should cause a revival of the famous Wendy's commercial, with Clara Peller--who would be 180 this year, we think--growling "where's the bird?" Not only do the three savory tartlets lack any real hint of meaty flavor inside, the shell squishes and springs back like Wonder Bread mushed into shape and lightly fried.
But that's an example of the downside. When it comes to more robust dishes, the kitchen crew manages quite well. Ribs covered in Dr. Pepper sauce, for example, ooze fatty flavor from meat tender enough that it slides off the bone. You can't keep them intact...which, of course, leaves you poking for remaining hunks buried in the thick, sweet, almost unpleasantly acrid glaze. The thick cut pork chop is equally juicy and tender--an impressive feat, considering how many local establishments treat the other white meat. More intrigue comes from plan leavings, scorched black and clinging to the edges of each chop, forming an intense and bittersweet crust.
Is that enough to keep the place on everyone's mental shortlist, the one they flick through when someone mutters the inevitable "where should we eat?"
At $40 for a three course meal, it's an interesting question.