What to expect: Imagine knocking the scratchy PA system and all of those pesky chalkboards out of your elementary school and adding a minimalist bar, Big Sur-style natural-wood details, and a garden patio with enough lighted trees to keep even a third-grader enchanted. Congratulations, you have just mind-melded with the folks behind Saint Ann, the circa-1927 elementary school redo on the corner of Harwood and Moody now open for nibbles, surprisingly unfussy meals, and cocktails.
The setup: The space’s high ceilings, original brick, glass room dividers (which kept the bar noise in the bar without sacrificing visibility), and accordion-folding walls opening to a sprawling, tiered patio attracted a mature, contented crowd. However, a few design flaws surfaced right off the bat: the complimentary valet stand is hard to spot, so much so that my date and I gave up after circling the block a couple times and self parked. The second issue, however, is not so easily resolved: last night’s drizzle rendered the entryway’s glass floor dangerously slippery. By 6:45, the management had set out orange cones, and the hostess was issuing cautionary warnings. I’m sure the management will come up with a solution, but until that time, be aware and step carefully in inclement weather.
On the menu: Printed on wide-ruled-notebook-paper stock with red-pen markups (clever touch), the menu is surprisingly straightforward with unfussy dishes and prices that fall far below what the leather seating, black chandeliers, and floor-length gauzy curtains would suggest. We started with the hummus delight, a traditional no-frills chick-pea puree made a touch more interesting by the addition of a lemon aioli, a touch of Crystal Louisiana Hot Sauce (imperceptible to me, but the waiter assured me it's in there), and deep fried pita chips (the menu says the pita comes toasted, but the frying adds the twist this dish requires). Second on the eating agenda: the baby iceberg wedge topped with Applewood smoked bacon, tomato, avocado, blue cheese dressing and crumble. The dressing disappointed with its thinness and lack of punch, but the avocado added a pleasant departure from the norm.
The evening took a significant uptick with the arrival of the seared scallops with poblano grits. Make no mistake: grits are a perennial challenge because every customer has his own gold standard against which he holds all other grits. I am no exception. These, however, blew my gold standard a fleeting kiss as they passed it by. Imagine a perfect balance of poblano heat with a cheesy undertone (I’m thinking Monterey Jack) with a consistency hearty enough to carry the dish on its shoulders. The scallops felt almost incidental by comparison; the grits were that good.
My date went with the club sammy – a densely packed, double-decker sandwich with fried bread atop Dr Pepper-braised ham, a mapley Applewood bacon, and a light schmear of wasabi green goddess dressing.
Drinks: After listening to an uninspiring listing of the bottled beer on hand (sadly, Saint Ann offers nothing on draft), I sent our server to ask the bartender what his hoppiest beer was; he returned with a Saint Arnold Texas Wheat – a beer with such a light hop profile that either a) our server just picked at random or b) the bartender doesn’t understand beer. My date’s Axis zinfandel, however, scored high on all counts and earned it a spot on his iPhone hit-list.
Who was there: A kicky assortment of 20-something Uptowners and 30-something upstarts in hats and chunky glasses alongside well-heeled 40 & 50-something couples enjoying wine by the bottle. The wood paneling and tables work together to dampen the ambient sounds, an important touch if conversation is central to your date.
Where to sit: Sitting against the far wall allows for a 180-degree view of the room, the lighted trees on the patio, and the action at the bar which, thanks to that glass wall, plays on mute.
Price: Surprisingly affordable. An appetizer, one salad, two entrees, and two drinks ran us $50, before tip. Sandwiches range from $7 (pulled pork sliders) to $10.50 (shaved rib eye), entrees run from $6.50 (Neapolitan pizza) to $20 (steak frites).
Nice detail: If you choose a sandwich, be sure to request the sweet potato fries. The natural sugars and absence of grease make them some of the finest I’ve had, and the mysterious hint of nutmeg caused me to steal more than my share from my date’s plate. Green bonus: your leftovers go home in a biodegradable container inside a reusable bag with a handle.
The takeaway: Given that Saint Ann is only in its second week of operation, I’m willing to bet that the aforementioned bumps will sort themselves out. Go on the earlier side of the dinner rush so that you are able to appreciate the beauty of the room before it fills. All things considered, the combination of ambience, price, and menu surprises earns Saint Ann a solid “A” in my grade book.
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