Restaurant Review: Neighborhood Services Tavern
In 20 months, Nick "Baddy" Badovinus has opened three branches of Neighborhood Services. He's done for now, though. Maybe.
Nick Badovinus calls himself a “crafter of flavor hooks.” He’s also the hardest-working man in the Dallas restaurant business. In rapid succession, he has rolled out two spinoffs of his popular two-year-old restaurant, Neighborhood Services. In March, the chef-turned-entrepreneur opened Neighborhood Services Tavern on Henderson Avenue, and in late July, he launched Neighborhood Services Bar & Grill in Preston Royal. Badovinus’ fast pace has others in the industry shaking their heads in disbelief. “There is no way he can do three restaurants this fast on his own,” says one restaurateur who asked not to be identified. “He doesn’t know what he’s getting into.” Perhaps not, but despite a sluggish economy, Badovinus is twirling in the spotlight, and all three of his restaurants are booming. On a recent Monday night at the original outpost, a woman who’d checked with the hostess turned to her husband and said, “It’s only an hour wait.”
It’s tempting to attribute Badovinus’ success to his blond locks and boundless energy alone, but the way he has tailored each of his restaurants to their neighborhoods shows a sharp mind at work (and a keen eye for design). The Tavern hits a lower price point and has a casual atmosphere that fits with its mid-Henderson location, where much of the traffic is either coming from or going to the area’s surrounding watering holes. The dining room is populated by high, closely packed, tavern-style tables that don’t encourage lingering, but a partition gives the bar a coziness that invites you to hang out.
The Bar & Grill has a different feel. For one thing, it’s much quieter than its siblings. The older, more affluent residents of its Preston Royal neighborhood will appreciate being able to hold a conversation with their dining companions (such a novel concept). Many of the gray-haired regulars from the defunct Popolos across the street have already found their way to the bar, with its engaging view of the kitchen.
Above all, though, it helps that Badovinus has imported from Northern California the former CEO of Williams-Sonoma and Design Within Reach as a partner on his 270-seat, three-restaurant empire. That would be his dad, “Pops” Badovinus.
With regard to the food, all three establishments employ a similar formula of familiar flavors elevated with top-quality ingredients and expert preparation. A choice example: the steak frites. At the Tavern, order the rib-eye from Creek Stone Farms, which produces steaks from grass-fed, grain-finished cows with a deep, beefy flavor and a judicious amount of nicely rendered fat. Despite being the most expensive dish, at $25, this is one of the better steak bargains in the city. And the huge mound of thin-cut fries, the same that Badovinus serves at the original Neighborhood Services, is a thing of beauty. They are consistently golden brown and lightly crisp, with a prominent potato flavor. Thoughtful sourcing (the potatoes are cellared until they attain the ideal sugar-to-starch) and attentive preparation make them my favorite fries in Dallas. With the steak also comes a beguiling condiment called “voodoo sauce,” a rich, spicy take on the classic green peppercorn pan sauce.
The simply worded menu at the Tavern does not fully convey Badovinus’ devotion to procuring high-quality, seasonal ingredients. For instance, the “timely vegetable” was initially an addictive preparation of Brussels sprouts sautéed with pancetta and finished with a bit of maple syrup. As the seasons changed, though, the offering morphed into garlic sautéed spinach and then into succotash made from fresh peas. Other seasonal choices included soft-shell crab tacos and wild-caught Alaska salmon, both environmentally responsible seafood choices.
To maintain quality at an affordable price, the Tavern orders a limited supply of such items; as a result, some dishes get eighty-sixed before the end of the evening. This was the case the second time I ordered seared sea scallops served with creamy crab couscous, dry chorizo, and blistered tomato. I was psyched to try the dish again, but the scallops were gone. The entrée is nicely composed, with each dominant flavor echoed by another component. Meaty slices of cured chorizo amplify a wonderful umami coaxed from the surface of perfectly seared scallops. Smoky notes in the chorizo are mirrored in the blistered skin of the tomatoes. Sweetness in the tomatoes and bits of crab both recall the sweet, tender scallop interior. The acidity of a lemony beurre blanc ties everything together. Less obvious, but equally interesting, is the textural landscape that the dish covers: dense and tender scallop, chewy and unctuous chorizo, and lightly sauced pearls of loosely packed couscous.
Among the many other successful dishes is the Schnitz, veal saddle pounded into tenderness, breaded, and perfectly fried, then draped over a mound of spaetzle (German dumplings). Deep brown, crisped edges of veal peek out from beneath a brightly dressed salad featuring tender young frisee. The underlying spaetzle is sautéed with shredded leaves of beer-braised chard, lending a complex herbaceous character that bridges the toasty flavor of fried breading with the subtle bitterness of frisee. The excellent choice to make the spaetzle smaller and more delicate than usual, together with the frisee salad, results in a dish that is satisfying yet surprisingly light. A neighboring diner at the bar, recently returned from Germany, declared it “better than the real thing.”
Do not overlook the plump, meaty mussels and chorizo, served with enough bread to sop up the tomatoey broth. I also direct your attention to the tender Creek Stone meatballs au poivre, served atop a pool of voodoo sauce, adorned with crumbled Point Reyes blue cheese, and temptingly impaled by tiny wooden forks. But do not be deceived. The wooden forks are useless, because they destroy the meatballs as you lift them off the plate. But, by whatever method, once you get a bite into your mouth, you’ll be rewarded with an exterior browned to the brink of crispness and a meltingly tender interior.
As a rule, the execution at the Tavern is solid, but there are a few dishes that fell short. The Jet Lag Special, billed as a hash made with braised brisket and sauced with a Tabasco hollandaise, caught my eye as a meaty breakfast-for-dinner option. I imagined bits of meat and potato, perhaps slightly crisped on a griddle, sauced and unified with a freshly broken egg yolk oozing throughout. Instead, the chunks of meat and potato are too large—an inch or two on each side. This basic strategic failure produces a dish that is less than the sum of its parts. The potato seems crude, the perfectly cooked egg almost a distraction. Badovinus’ version of fish and chips is another great idea weakly executed. Fish cheeks, instead of the usual cod fillets, bring a distinctive, slightly chewy texture that would be wonderful if the bland fish were salted a bit more before it hit the batter.
Desserts, like those at the original location, are amped-up re-creations of childhood favorites. The signature concoction, a Ding Dong redux made from chocolate cake filled with white cream and topped with rich chocolate ganache and cherry sauce, tastes good. But be forewarned: it’s cloyingly sweet. Similarly, the intense butterscotch flavor in the pot de crème is fantastic, but after two bites, the rich pudding overwhelms.
One of the amazing things about the Neighborhood Services trio is the understated cast of characters Badovinus has assembled to execute his vision. Any one of these heavy hitters would provide a significant draw for a restaurant. At Neighborhood Services Tavern, there are at least three stars. Start with Jeff Bekavac, the chef who has been working with Badovinus since his time at Hibiscus. He has been promoted to executive chef at the Tavern. Brandon Kelly, former sommelier at Charlie Palmer, manages the wine list for all three locations. Running the Tavern’s business in the front of the house and from behind the bar, you’ll find general manager and bartender Jason Kosmas, who made his name as mixologist and co-owner of Employees Only, a highly regarded retro speakeasy in Manhattan’s West Village.
Personally, I’d rather put my after-dinner calories in the hands of Kosmas or fellow barkeep Andrew Lostetter. These two have made the Tavern my go-to place for real cocktails. They oversee a list of creative drinks that includes several updated twists on classics such as the Egg Man, a smooth, grilled pineapple-infused pisco sour finished off with a delicate foam dotted with red spots of Angostura bitters. Bourbon and Bullets presents a fascinating herbal, sweet, and tart combination that pairs the anise of absinthe with lemon and chai tea-infused grenadine.
The most interesting item on the drink menu is Cocktail DJ, Dealer’s Choice. If you’re open to new flavors, it’s fun to see what the bartenders come up with. Often, it will be a throwback classic, like the original Manhattan recipe made with the stunning Carpano Antica vermouth, or a predecessor to the martini called the Martinez. Sometimes, Kosmas will create a deliciously weird cocktail, such as the New York Flip, in which brandy, port wine, and egg yolk somehow transform into the flavor of coffee.
Although it’s too early, as we go to press in late July, to critique the food at Neighborhood Services Bar & Grill in Preston Royal, early visits suggest Badovinus has another hit on his hands. The vibe is a tad more formal than the original location’s. And the Bar & Grill, unlike its sisters, will be open for lunch.
Is Badovinus planning to offer his services in other neighborhoods? “Man, I’ve opened three restaurants in 20 months,” he says. “I want some balance in my life, but these businesses have found an audience, and it’s nice to have people who never paid much attention to me calling me now with opportunities.” It’s a sly answer from a crafter of flavor hooks.
Get contact information for Neighborhood Services.