Restaurant review: Avner Samuel rises again at Nosh Bistro and Bar (3 stars)
"Hearing that Avner Samuel has opened a new restaurant is about as surprising as Elizabeth Taylor taking another walk to the altar."
So wrote Waltrina Stovall, then-critic at The Dallas Morning News, way back last century. It was 1994, and Stovall was reviewing Yellow, Samuel's fourth restaurant in Dallas. That didn't include the two hugely important hotel dining rooms where he presided as executive chef: The Mansion on Turtle Creek and the Fairmont's legendary Pyramid Room.
Samuel would goon to open no fewer than 20 restaurants -- and close 19 -- in and around Dallas (one was in Plano) over the course of three decades.
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Along the way have been some important milestones. Samuel was the first chef to earn five stars for his cooking at The Mansion (The News provided separate ratings for food, service and atmosphere until 2009). He was one of the "Gang of Five" chefs -- with Stephan Pyles, Dean Fearing and others -- who put Southwestern cuisine on America's culinary map. Samuel opened splashy hotel dining rooms in London and Hong Kong. He enjoyed a seven-year run as chef-owner of Aurora, the elegant and intimate French restaurant he owned with his then-wife Celeste Samuel. Aurora earned five-star reviews from The News on two occasions.
Yes, the Dallas dining scene wouldn't be the Dallas dining scene without the mercurial chef.
If you still need convincing, taste the tempuraed Brussels sprouts petals at the new Nosh Bistro and Bar he opened in a North Dallas strip mall, in the space that most recently was the short-lived Oso Food and Wine. (Jeffrey Armand, whom you might remember from his days as general manager of Aurora, the original Nosh or Dee Lincoln Steak Bar in Plano, and who runs the front of the house, is the owner.) Hot, light and perfect in their paper-lined chalice, they're just right with their mustard sauce for dipping. Or take a bite of Samuel's hand-made saffron pasta: tender, pale golden ribbons of fettuccine arranged in a silken sauce that tastes exactly like a proper bouillabaisse and crowned with three beautifully grilled giant prawns. Both were recently offered as specials.
This is the third incarnation of Nosh. Samuel opened the first five years ago in the Oak Lawn space of what was previously Aurora; later it became known as Nosh Euro Bistro. I first swooned over those Brussels sprouts at the second Nosh, in Plano, in 2012, shortly after it opened. Six months later, Plano's Nosh closed, and in May 2014 Samuel abruptly closed the original.
Apparently his fans have forgiven him. Though his new place opened with barely a peep, his guests, many of them former Nosh or Aurora regulars, have wasted no time finding it.
For these folks, he may have a complimentary amuse at the ready: an eggshell filled with silken savory egg custard, strips of smoked salmon and chives.
It's very luxurious, formally French, flawlessly executed -- and somewhat out of whack with the spirit of the place, a decidedly laid-back, invitingly casual bistro. Nosh's menu is Mediterranean, and starters with a Middle Eastern accent seem most deliciously at home here.
In fact they're quite special. The torpedo-shaped Lebanese croquettes known as kibbeh -- fashioned from bulgur wheat and lamb and filled with lamb, onions, pine nuts and spices -- are notoriously difficult to prepare, and Samuel's are superb, fried to deep hazelnut-brown and served with cucumber-yogurt sauce. So are his Egyptian falafel, well-spiced chickpea nuggets, bright-green inside and with an intense mahogany crust. Be sure to order some handmade pita to sop up whatever's left of their tahini sauce.
Even more strikingly delicious is a generous patty of superb house-made lamb sausage served on a thin slice of melty, charry grilled eggplant and a smear of tzatziki sauce. (The only way to improve this dish would be to double or triple the eggplant.)
An assorted meze platter -- which happens to be gorgeous -- includes pleasantly craggy baba ghanoush; hummus garnished with chickpeas and a swirl of olive oil; a salad of finely diced, roasted red and yellow peppers; a fresh and vibrant salad ("Avner's Mother's Salad") of diced cucumber, tomato and bell pepper flecked with dill; Moroccan carrot salad; slender eggplants grilled to melting tenderness, a little charred around the edges; good marinated olives. If you're lucky, you can score some fiery red, nicely textured Yemenite sauce to go with it all.
I'd return every week, if I could, for any of those glorious Middle Eastern starters.
The pastas are standouts, too, as in fat handmade pappardelle noodles tossed generously with lobster bolognese and finished with grated Parmesan and parsley.
The dishes that skew more European tend to make less of an impression, even if they're often quite likable. Samuel resists the urge to go too sweet with his light sauce of fresh currants accompanying a terrific duck confit with burnished, crackling skin, but its garnish -- spaetzle studded with broccolini and cauliflower -- seems dowdy next to the marvelous duck. Saucy beef short ribs on whipped potatoes are satisfying, if not as soulful as the dish can be. The pan-roasted half-chicken (which comes with fabulous frites) is fine, if not as crisp-skinned and succulent as those I enjoyed at the original Nosh.
There were clunkers here and there: French onion soup that was unpleasantly sweet and thin-flavored; a pasty mess of not-very-crispy calamari mucked up with fruit. The crust of a carefully made tarte Tatin had turned mushy, probably from reheating.
I couldn't help but wonder, with the current vogue for modern Israeli and Lebanese cooking -- as made popular in London by Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi and worldwide thanks to his inspiring cookbooks -- why Samuel doesn't take that part of his Mediterranean equation and run with it? As far as what's coming out on his plates, it tastes (and looks) like that's where his passion lies at the moment.
In any case, there's much that's working well here: The dining room is much more inviting than the last one in that space; Armand's fairly priced wine list holds some nice surprises (such as a delicious cabernet franc from Israel); the service is attentive and warm. I look forward to stopping back in for one of the tasting menus Samuel is offering by advance request at the counter of the open kitchen.
Will the restaurant be around to enjoy for years to come, or will Samuel's famous restlessness lead him sooner than later to something new? That's anyone's guess. In the meantime, his splendid cooking is there to enjoy.
Nosh Bistro and Bar (3 stars)
Price: $$$ (lunch starters $7 to $18; sandwiches and main courses $14 to $22; dinner appetizers, soups and salads $8 to $18; main courses $14 to $38; desserts $8)
Service: Attentive, warm and professional
Ambience: A laid-back, comfortable contemporary bistro with an open kitchen
Noise level: Music plays at a reasonable volume; the dining room is quiet enough for easy conversation.
Location: 11910 Preston Road at Forest Lane, Dallas; 972-701-0277; noshbistrobar.com
Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Monday-Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.
Credit cards: AE, DC, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar, with a fairly priced, one-page global wine list that offers a few interesting surprises, such as a 2011 Tulip Mostly Cabernet Franc from Israel for $65 (it retails for about $36)