Restaurant Reviews

Tavern Noir

Maybe you're a mutant. Maybe you're the kind of bloke who wants to waddle down to Victory Park—noting the cognitive dissonance of the Blade Runner-esque Victory Plaza big-screen flicker dry-humping the art-deco American Airlines Center—and enjoy a relaxing nosh in a neatly trimmed banquette. Maybe you're so creepy you even want to hear yourself taste.

Then again, maybe you're just old. Those seem to be the folks least equipped to hear the conversation of their dining companions amidst the torturous clanks, clangs and squeals riding a disco froth at places like Nove Italiano and N9NE Steakhouse, places where enemy combatants should be sent after Guantanamo Bay is finally buttoned up.

No, for you, such hyper-stimulation begets a sort of restaurant road rage. For you the ceaseless energy and kaleidoscopic flash that rebounds off marble and metal and glass abrades your senses. For you, there is Victory Tavern City Grille.

Victory Tavern is stylish without being smug. It's edgy without rubbing your face in it. It's handsome without acres of faux roughed-up wood or polished steel or computer-generated flicker.

Noise? Listen. It's there. You can hear it riding on a thin fog of bluesy rock 'n' roll. But mostly the knock and jibber recedes to the background, because people are sparse, at least at 7:30 on this Thursday evening, when places like N9NE and Nove are no doubt in pandemonium.

The bar is empty, save for a much-tanned and leggy blonde in a pinstriped gray skirt that, with the edge of her blouse, forms a loose pucker, exposing a generous parcel of midriff. To the left near the steps is a table with wine bottles perpendicular to another table stocked with glasses. A tall woman pours. There are edibles. All is free.

On Thursday nights Victory Tavern has wine tastings. Tuesdays are dedicated to handcrafted martinis. Prime rib takes top billing Wednesdays. "It's something to bring people in, actually," our server says. Such are the necessities of a home-grown Victory Plaza venue, without the power and the shekels and the rut appeal of Las Vegas and New York. Our server is happy to go over to the tasting table and fetch a glass of Pinot Gris or Pinot Noir, one each from California and Oregon. The manager does this too, which is how we are able to sample all four wines from Valley of the Moon in California and A to Z Winery in Oregon in no time flat. They don't seem to mind that they might be displacing wine list sales.

Leave it to Patrick Colombo to insert such sophisticated sanity into the high-tech circus that is Victory Plaza. Colombo, who developed Ferré and Crú A Wine Bar, aims to twist up classic American comfort food with his modern tavern. The grilled cheese sandwich goes highbrow with maple-glazed ham and Muenster on a baguette. The jumbo shrimp cocktail (in a martini glass filled with Meyer lemon cocktail sauce with tiny shrimp buried in its depths) comes with tuna tartare whirred into avocado and onion and tomato and spooned onto a tortilla chip. The only way you know you're eating tartare is the blushing pink that occasionally peeks through green smears. Get great tuna and dial back everything else, is what I say.

There's a delicious roasted sweet corn soup crowded with zucchini and bell pepper with peas, celery and squash, something to quash the chill that isn't there. A tangle of fried sweet potato strands coils out like an Irishman's thinning mop. The really good fries really aren't: too soft; too listless.

But a simple boat of sautéed baby spinach with shiitake mushrooms and garlic is every bit as good as the best of Dallas' 4.21 million steakhouses. Pan-fried soft shell crab, dribbled with spicy rémoulade, rests on a single golden tomato slice that reins in the marine skunk funk this crab releases between bites. The accompanying savory corn pancakes buffer the crab raciness further. Maybe too much.

Victory Tavern is a multi-tiered ensemble with a street-level bar, a dining room sunk in a Euro-modern ditch and an upper level of seating above the open kitchen. It's gill-loaded with matte woods, dusky matte metal and frosted glass panels. The bar and the kitchen are at opposite ends of the space, exerting a delicious tension on the dining room.

Yet the most bemusing design elements are the chandeliers. In the dining room hangs a trio of what looks like giant skirt hoops with hundreds of tiny irregular filaments embedded along the outer edges—like little Italian lights but grittier. Over the bar dangle chandeliers made of inverted bourbon bottles, or so it seems. Fluorescent tubes inside flicker amber light, making the bar look as though it's illuminated by street lanterns.

Call it postmodern tavern noir. Yet Victory Tavern is a little too clean, a little too scrubbed, a little too Victory. You almost wish it would get clouded by Marlboro fog—if it didn't stink and it wasn't illegal.

Victory Tavern doesn't dazzle. It isn't meant to. There are no frivolous obsessions in these contemporary comfort-food renderings. Victory Tavern boasts about its prime rib, and rightfully so. It's a motley cut of slow-roasted meat that's dark and singed with crisped fat pockets that almost taste of fresh tobacco. And though it wasn't quite the medium rare we ordered it, it still came off rich and luscious. Be sure to try the summery butter lettuce hearts, a plate full of lettuce leaves weeping under the weight of a dozen or so seedless watermelon cubes splashed with raspberry vinaigrette.

But there are times when Victory goes weak. Red wine is served warm. Not room temperature, not just a little above, but coffee-halfway-through-dessert warm. Our glass of Byron Pinot Noir was tolerable, but the more expensive King Estate Pinot Noir was unbearable. It was at least 5 to 7 degrees above room temperature when these wines should be served at least 5 to 7 degrees cooler than room temp. We asked our server to have the bartender plunge the bottle in ice for a couple of minutes before refilling. She seemed to think we were nuts. The next glass came back even warmer.

But who the hell goes to a tavern for wine anyway? You go for the beer and bourbon and the hand-crafted martinis. You go to remember the times when you could puff Camel smoke into your melting cocktail ice.

You don't go for braised beef pot stickers, but there they are, five of them with a pomegranate dipping sauce next to a salad of carrot, wonton strips, slivered asparagus and scallion, a stalk of which is battered and fried.

You don't go for seared fish either. You go for fish and chips—tarted-up Chatham codfish, beer-battered and fried. But you'd be a fool not to sample the pan-seared halibut, a fish that cleanly flakes into flavors so lush and moist and sweet, you'd swear you were eating a fresh, perfectly cooked rope of meat from a king crab leg. The fish sits on a creamy asparagus shiitake risotto berm. Acids from the yellow tomato parsley sauce nicely etch fissures into the sweetness.

Dessert is another weak spot. The peach and blueberry crisp isn't crisp. It's doughy and gummy—a metal crock of muck. But that doesn't mean you should avoid this place. Unlike its more famous out-of-town brethren, Victory Tavern manages to generate energy and sass without inflicting undue pain. So in theory, you'll drink less. But you probably won't, especially on Thursdays. 2501 N. Houston Ave. #100, 214-432-1900. Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Saturday. $$-$$$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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