People demand certain things of restaurant patios. They want a view, perhaps, or a stream of passers-by, each more interesting than the last, and maybe a breeze off the lawn smelling of lavender—that sort of thing. Then there's Dallas' version of outdoor dining, which usually involves a deck jutting into some parking lot, caressed by the sweet scent of unleaded.
So don't expect much from the street level outdoor space at Zymology other than the usual lower Greenville scenery: the sun dipping behind the pawn shop casting a rosy-fingered glare across the tattoo parlor. Although, during my first visit on a warm, al fresco-friendly day, I was privy to a bonus DIY demonstration as local craftsmen struggled to dismantle the restaurant's front door with an array of power tools and prying objects. Forty-five minutes of a metallic whine was interrupted only by occasional minutes of frustrated pounding. Whoever first installed that thing took his work seriously.
One could argue that restaurateurs should schedule demolition projects for, say, before opening hours. But oh well. If a few guests are inconvenienced, so be it. Zymology is, after all, part of a work in progress, a subtle reinvention of lower Greenville through the introduction of destination-worthy drinking and dining, if not outright Henderson-ization. Or perhaps you haven't noticed Hotel Capri, DiTerra's Urban Italian and now this place opening in rapid succession. The first is a sleek lounge flanking Teppo. DiTerra's fills the old Firehouse space with surprisingly decent interpretations of Italian fare. Zymology is like a bridge between the two, emphasizing craft beers, good wine, shared plates and all the other trappings of a "gastro-pub."
We're stuck in a culture in love with trendy terms to describe trends. People who strive to purchase locally produced goods become "locavores." Those meeting the definition of gourmand label themselves "foodies." And now this.
To meet the gastro-pub standard, Zymology serves artichoke dip. Of course, Cape Buffalo also whips up an artichoke dip, but it's a sports bar. Besides, Cape Buffalo can't match the fluffy, almost soufflé-like airiness of Zymology's version. There's a neat continuum of tartness that rises and falls from the main ingredient through a touch of citrus, blended with a dusting of toasted Parmesan. There's no denying the kitchen's talent here or when you get to their mussels starter. The meat itself is hardly spectacular, or maybe the slippery shellfish just pales in comparison with its broth. Murky like papier-mâché, fleshed out with root vegetables and seasoned heartily, it could stand alone as a soup of the day. Served with slabs of charred crusty bread, it's one damn good way to start an evening.
Yeah, Vickery Park and The Old Monk also serve mussels, but they are merely plain old pubs.
Small, one-person pizzas come in your choice of red, white or green. The relatively thin crust still bubbles on the edge for a more ethereal touch to flatbread that shows some already impressive tendencies: chewy, yet with a crisp veneer, some acrid streaks from the oven and a nice dusting of flour. Come to think of it, it's possible to OD on bread at this place, what with pizza dough, warmed wedges served with the artichoke dip, those heavy, crusty things that go along with their mussels and the surprisingly hefty buns on Zymology's mini-sandwiches.
Served as a trio, the sandwiches could substitute for an entire entrée, thanks to large portions of bread and the thick slice of grilled tuna in the BLT. On one visit the kitchen managed to keep their catch on the heat a little too long, leaving me with a dried-out, tacky hunk to go along with good, crisp bacon. Cheese had apparently melted off the blue burger, as well, leaving a perfectly medium-rare mound of ground beef supported by a couple wisps of caramelized onion. The bun overwhelmed their spinach and asparagus sandwich, although it's easy to see where this combination of earthy, bitter and tart flavors could be a really satisfying thing.
Like I said, it's a work in progress. They may eventually whittle down the buns or fill in the centers or whatever's necessary to get these little buggers just right. They should put a hold on the fried green tomatoes until later in the season. Right now they are fiercely sour, inedible demons.
Oh, and it might be best to rename the pork "rack" entrée. Technically, chef-owner Sam Dickey is right: He serves meat sliced from the rack. Center cut loin, dressed like a chop, only much thicker. In other words, nothing like the rib portions most people associate with the word.
No matter. It's rather refreshing to find precision in a menu...and in the cooking. When Dickey says "mac & cheese," he means an old-fashioned pasta dish without upscale contrivances. There's no pan-seared chorizo, no sun-dried tomato, just macaroni and a modicum of cheese under a toasted coating. Cakes of cheese grits, sliced into wedges, show the same basic, one-dimensional flavor profile and creamy texture. Mild guajillo chilis prove a smart match to crawfish meat, formed into patties and pan fried. The pepper slinks into the background, yielding a measure of piquant heat that does not interfere with the shellfish.
On the other hand, the simple line item "broccoli with fried capers" fails to fully describe what may be one of the best uses of the unloved vegetable (other than discarding them) in the city. It starts with steamed broccoli, of course. Tossed with the seared capers, the dish picks up a salty-tangy and strangely nutty sensation, as if the chef had chosen to release the essence of the Mediterranean. Every so often, you encounter remnants of whole peppercorn too—sodden, yet still somewhat fiery. There's richness, a pleasant bite, some heat. My God, a great pile of broccoli.
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But Dickey is no miracle worker. His blue fries, for instance, are as floppy as a priest counseling childless couples. With sharp cheese, good smoky bacon, some salt and pepper, it's all just fine—except for the fries themselves.
Then again, very few restaurants undertake to make decent fries these days. So just maybe patrons used to flaccid things weeping oil will appreciate this attempt. To me, it's an unfortunate sign of shortcutting from a kitchen capable enough for warm and inviting mussels, simply prepared sides and occasional expressions of brilliance.
Hell, they even take the time to bottle their own hot sauces here, so why not blanch the fries? Oh, well. Few restaurants are perfect. And for what they are trying to achieve, Zymology can be a rather impressive place.
Zymology 2010 Greenville Ave., 214-954-7171. Open Sunday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5-11 p.m. Bar remains open later. $$