For a couple months now, a guy named Jason Kosmas and I have been trying to find time to meet each other. A mutual friend had introduced us via e-mail. Jason was moving to Dallas from New York. He was a bartender. He was trying to get the lay of the land here, booze-wise. Finally, a few days ago, he sent me a note saying that he was working at Nick Badovinus’ new place, Neighborhood Services Tavern, and that I should stop by. So I told him I’d stop by yesterday.
“I’ll be the guy with the most badass mustache you’ve ever seen,” I told him.
“The second-most badass,” he wrote back.
It was only after meeting Jason last night — and being mightily impressed with his manly handlebar mustache — that I came to appreciate just who the fellow is. Calling him a bartender is like calling Da Vinci a tinkerer. Or calling Ghengis Khan “ambitious.” Hyperbolic? Perhaps. Am I still drunk from last night? Almost certainly. But it’s fair to say that Jason deserves some of the credit for this whole “cocktails are an art, too” national movement. Jason is the first bartender I’ve seen who mixes drinks with his nose, smelling the glass after adding each ingredient to ensure that he’s got the ratio right.
Me, I had a Thunderball (Zacapa 23-year-old run, tea-infused vermouth, lemon juice, ginger beer), a Bourbon and Bullets (Buffalo Trace, lemon juice, chai grenadine, Absinthe), and a few sips of my colleague’s New Fang (Sazerac rye whiskey, St. Germain, sugar, and orange bitters) and Griffon’s Gimlet (vodka (or gin or tequila) shaken with a housemade lime cordial). Also, I think I tried a little Pimm’s Cup (Pimm’s #1, Triplum, lime juice, cucumber, mint, ginger ale). All cocktails are $11.
Jason’s the kind of guy who can talk your ear off about mixology theory and tell you all about the special preparation of the various infusions he’s got going on behind the sticks — or just shut up and let you drink. Some guys try real hard to impress you with what they know about booze; Jason’s not one of those guys (which is why I didn’t fully appreciate who was making my drinks until I Googled him later). And, as mentioned, there’s the stache.
Which brings us to the food, a good portion of which wound up sticking to my own personal facial hair. Thing is, I hadn’t planned on eating. But Nick Badovinus was there last night, and he would not be denied.
Here’s the thing about Nick. I know him socially. We worked a charity event together once. But I don’t know him. And I’ve eaten at his Neighborhood Services, on Lovers, exactly once. I took my mom in for her birthday about a year ago. Yet last night, Nick walked up to me at the bar — golden locks flowing, eyes twinkling — and said, “Hey, Tim, how’s your mom doing?”
(As long as we’re talking about hair: you’ve seen Nick’s hair, right? I think I could hold my own in a “stache off” with Jason, mainly because of the novelty factor (mine’s red). But Nick’s hair is unparalleled. You’ve seen Inglourious Basterds? If I’d had a big ol’ hunting knife with me last night, I would have used it to scalp Nick and make the best toupee ever known to mankind. Nick, consider yourself warned.)
Okay, so Nick starts sending out food: meatballs, sausage, baby back ribs with spicy pickled veggies as a side, chicken wings with Point Reyes blue cheese dipping sauce, crackers and whipped chick pea spread (aka hummus, to you and me). It was all tasty and all presented delightfully. The chicken wings, made with something called Wang sauce, tasted to me almost like they had been dipped in a mole sauce. (I made this observation to Jason, and he was kind enough to correct me and not cut me off.) The sausage was my least favorite foodstuff we tried. Like everything else, it’s made in house, but it was too chewy.
The foregoing might lead you to believe that Neighborhood Services Tavern serves bar food. Yes and no. You’re familiar with the term “gastro pub”? More like that. For $14, you can get a Cleaver & Block Burger (ground chuck and brisket, cheddars, caramelized onions, frites). But there’s also seared scallops scampi ($19), glazed Fundy salmon ($20), and “The Schnitz” ($21, pounded veal saddle, black pepper spaetzle, beer-braised chard, pan jus). And the wine guy? He was a sommelier at Charlie Palmer before coming to NST. On the low end, you’ll find several bottles in the $30 range and only one topping $110 (an Andrew Will Cabernet Blend from Columbia Valley, Washington). Most bottles on the short list fall in the $50-to-$60 range.
If wine and cocktails aren’t your thing, NST serves Stella, New Belgium 1554, Boulevard Wheat, and Abita Pale Ale on tap. On ice behind the bar, displayed in all their glory, are cans of Schlitz, Lone Star, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. (“Heineken?! Eff that s—! Pabst! Blue! Ribbon!” Quick, name the movie.) Each will cost you $4. Did I forget to mention there’s also Mickey’s?
For some, a beer selection like that might be seen as a cutesy, cloying contrivance. There are other touches, too, that suggest their creators were up late, sampling their own drink recipes when they hit on them. There is a PA system in the men’s bathroom (I assume in the women’s loo, too). Last night, the Books On Tape version of Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger was playing over the speakers. (My colleague returned from relieving himself to report that he’d heard the section wherein Bond orders Pussy Galore to get into his bed.) When you receive your bill, it is delivered under the cover of a miniature hard-back volume of Funk & Wagnalls New Standard Encyclopedia (an idea perhaps borrowed from Neighborhood Services’ neighbor Shinsei, which similarly uses children’s books). And as with the Neighborhood Services location on Lovers, the staff wears a preppy uniform — though instead of white sweaters, here the servers don blue rugby shirts with the initial of their first names on one breast and the NST logo (a griffin) on the other. The bartenders are exempt from the uniform. So is the hostess, who last night was wearing a beautiful, sheer dress. I don’t know why the bartenders are exempt; I do know why the hostess is.
For me, the quirky touches are charming. They aren’t overdone. When they get in the way of service, they are abandoned. (When NST opened, the bills were delivered between playing cards, which wound up littering the place. It was a bad idea. Out went the playing cards, and in came the mini encyclopedias.)
Before I tell you that I think the place is worth a visit based on my experience, I am duty bound to reveal the “material connections,” as they are known the Federal Trade Commission. I did not pay the full price of that which I consumed. The check came to slightly more than $30. I did not look closely at it, but I’m guessing it included only the liquids and left out the comestibles — which included, right at the end, a chicken.
“Look, Nick, I’ve got to get going. I told my wife I’d pick up some dinner on the way home, and I’m already late.”
“Let me make you a chicken.”
“That’s too kind of you. I can’t accept a chicken.”
“Nonsense, let me pan-sear you a chicken. It’ll just take a second.” [blond mane disappears into kitchen]
Am I biased? It is impossible for me not to be, I supposed. But if biased is wrong, then I don’t want to be right. The place is worth a visit based on my experience.