A week or two ago I was sitting at the bar at So&So's and the Rangers game was on the television, high above my head. The Rangers were losing, something they've become increasingly known for this season, and I wondered what it would be like to take pitches as a batter in a game that essentially doesn't matter. Of course a player's individual statistics still count, so there's still an incentive to perform night after night, but at more than 30 games back, there has to be some extra temptation to simply swing with enough force to make a lasting memory. If you miss, hey – you're one out closer to dusting off your golf clubs.
Nick Amoriello reminded me a little of those batters as I worked my way through his menu — not in that his season is shot, but in the way that he steps up to his plates with lofty aspirations. After stints at restaurants all over Dallas, including Central 214, Nobu, Mot Hai Ba, Driftwood and others, this is the first time he's run the kitchen at a concept of his own design. In the spotlight at a restaurant that presents itself as a casual, "come as you are" bar, Amoriello is a chef that hacks with bravado.
When he connects, as he does with a brilliant pork chop paired with cream cheese grits and quartered figs, the results can be out-of-the-park good. The meat is cleaved from the bone and cut in thick, pink slices for easy eating, and the bone is served on top of the grits for gnawing at later.
A hamachi crudo is just as impressive, cut into generously thick slices and paired with vinaigrette and microgreens. Tiny marbles of melon add sweetness that tone down subtle tart flavors and a razor-thin slice of chile adds a solid crack of heat. The plate is as good as any that you've had at your favorite sushi restaurant.
Amoriello doesn't always connect, though. A dish called al pastor presents a row of chips topped with perfectly cooked pork belly, avocado and other vegetables. The pork is tender, but not as tender as guacamole and half of the creation quickly returns to your plate — or maybe your lap — when you take a bite. Braised pork with a similar flavor profile would work perfectly.
Oysters are nicely shucked, small and briny, but they're plated on large cubes of ice that won't let the shells nestle in. On an order of six, half had toppled to the side by the time they had arrived at my table, needlessly wasting the oyster liquor an anonymous cook worked hard to preserve.
Don't think every plate is as orchestrated as the hamachi crudo and oysters pulled from distant, northern waters. The restaurant's tagline promises "something for everyone," and on that, owners Brandon Hays and Phil Schanbaum deliver. There are pizzas, hamburgers and rubbery chicken wings to be had, and other, more casual plates that resonate with the restaurant's relaxed dining room.
So&So's balks at Uptown's colorful lighting and modern fixtures. Above the bar and beneath the TVs that will cramp your neck if you try to watch nine innings, an upright piano that will never play Chopin again sits with crooked keys and a decades-old patina. The walls are covered with odd art, and nearly every horizontal surface is covered with vintage tchotch, as though the restaurant was exclusively decorated by Dolly Python. More than a sports bar, a makeshift stage is positioned on the left side of the restaurant and on one weekend evening, the restaurant was filled with raspy, Southern blues-rock. Recently, the picnic tables on the patio have been filled with drinkers recovering from the previous evening with a newly minted brunch service.
It's not the sort of space you'd expect an oven-roasted avocado to land on your table, not that you'd be bothered if this one did. It's draped in a yogurt sauce that's heavily spiked with cumin and sprinkled with what can only be referred to as spicy Rice Krispies. It's a little difficult to get the flesh out of the peel (I ended up peeling each half with my hands and then cutting them up with a knife) but when you do, the appetizer could easily best guacamole for a triple. Squeeze the grilled lime served on the side over everything for a win.
It's this kind of plate that can make it all the more jarring when Amoriello whiffs. Chicken and dumplings is a cozy and soothing dish when prepared traditionally: chicken and vegetables steaming away together in a steaming heavy pot. But when deconstructed à la Thomas Keller and then reassembled with less than perfect components, the results do little to evoke long-lost Sunday suppers. Here a shallow bowl holds a simple, thick and creamy soup. It's used to support dry, over-cooked chicken, carrots with no character and thin slices of celery that are soft and flavorless.
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Amoriello misses with red snapper that's cooked until it's stringy, too. The fish is in stark contrast to the peas that share the plate — they're still crunchy — pointing to a kitchen that's just not being careful. You get the sense that if the chef dialed back some of the more elaborate dishes, he'd be able to dial in some of his execution.
That burger is serviceable, though, juicy and cooked just a tad overdone when I pummeled one at the bar. And pizza that started out undercooked and almost inedible when the restaurant first opened is now deeply browned and topped with blistery cheese. But wings cooked three times, according to the menu, needed to be cooked four. They still required some force to pull the meat from the bone, when a simple bath in the fryer could consistently produce a tender bar snack.
If you're staying for dessert, the strawberry shortcake is a good option for as long as it's around, but a pair of salty chocolate cookies sandwiched with peanut butter ice cream will have you debating a second order. These kind of simple plates are the ones that work best here.
And a look around the dining room might conclude that the simple plates resonate with the younger crowd that spends time here. So&So caters to drinkers, and it's filled with servers who don't know the difference between a velouté and mom's turkey gravy (or bone-on fish and fish fillets, for that matter). Amoriello should consider tapering some of the most ambitious dishes back so they fit in a little better and focus on refining that execution. Sometimes a solid single will do.