Beneath a row of copper skillets dangling conspicuously overhead, a genial waiter materializes, slaloming effortlessly through clumps of statement diners (pink hair, trucker caps, throwback tattoos) before gliding to our table at Nancy’s Hustle. “Would y’all like to discuss entrées?”
Because it’s a discussion now.
Oh, for the days when decisions about what one consumed in restaurants belonged exclusively to the persons consuming them. At present, ordering food at our finest establishments involves nothing less than a full consultation with the waitstaff, menus as impenetrable as the tax code, and a dramatic power shift from eater to server, if only because just one of you knows what blended sumac is, and that person is not you. Chefs’ increasing penchant for dishes of complex parentage is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but with it has come a wave of waiter-nerds less interested in order-taking than in performing mass spectrometry tableside. The good news: Today’s best servers—likely the smartest in the history of restauranting—are whizzes at spinning origin stories worthy of 23andMe. The bad: Eating out is a bit like reading Bloom’s critique of Hamlet before the Bard’s own version, an exercise in mirthless ass-backwardness.
Consider the aforementioned EaDo bistro, where two of the very best plates—no small thing, as the 19-item menu is an all-star collection—are called simply Nancy Cakes and Turkish Dumplings. Neither, however, may be appreciated without a proper introduction. The former are “essentially little-bitty, light and airy bread-and-butter starters,” explains the waiter. Also: “They’re house-made cornmeal, silver-dollar-size pancakes that we do with house-cultured butter to the side, honey, chives, and smoked trout roe right down the middle.”
Yum, replies the table. We’ll take them.
“They’re lightly sweet, lightly savory, and a touch smoky,” he continues.
“I think they’re the best springboard bread-and-butter to begin with.”
Then get them.
He does, and they’re spectacular. Pan-fried to a buttery crunch yet light on decadence, the little rounds offer ample hints of glory to come, not to mention hints of what Paula Deen’s hoecakes might have been sans Aunt Jemima mix. Of course, it’s unlikely either lady would ever pair three pancakes with a dollop of fish eggs atop whipped butter, but chef Jason Vaughan does, to devastating effect.
A few days later, over in the Warehouse District, we find ourselves in talks with another waitstaff over the Theodore Rex menu, specifically a section titled Small Plates Not As Great For Sharing. “The stracciatella soup is obviously the worst choice for sharing, but the others are great,” intones one server, “although with a couple of them, the chef just worries about the composition—like with the stewed beef cheek. He wants to make sure that you get all the elements together. … There’s the broth, which could possibly be problematic for sharing; there’s aged cheddar cheese; and then there’s the three portions of meat.” Suddenly doubting its sharing skills, our table eschews the beef cheek, opting instead for the Italian bread dumplings, about which a second T. Rex server is rhapsodic: “The simple gnocchi, not potato-filled, the lima beans cooked in a whey, the cottage cheese, the parmesan cheese, and my favorite part—the puffed rice on top.”
The advance raves continue until just before the dumplings themselves arrive, by which time it almost feels like we’ve eaten them already. One taste later, however, and our table is dead certain it has never, ever eaten them, nor anything else so ambrosial. Soon, like the rest of chef Justin Yu’s congregants, we find ourselves praise-singing the not-potato-filled gnocchi and the palate-stirring sauce it bathes in, discovering to our everlasting delight that here, in the tiny Erie City Iron Works space where Yu first exploded onto the scene with his landmark, career-defining Oxheart, lightning has struck again.
Back in EaDo, having laid waste to Nancy’s eponymous cakes, we move on to Vaughan’s own dumplings, which the waiter vows will be “like going into the deeper end of savory.” Our table, which knows only the shallow end of savory, is intrigued but wary of ordering yet a second plate of what are termed “essentially itty bitty” things—dime-sized morsels stuffed with seared lamb shoulder that “the chef then sets on top of chilled labneh with blended sumac, adds a drizzle of warm lamb jus, garlic chips, light pickled tomatoes, and a little dried mint over the top.” The diners receive this list quizzically, wondering if the kitchen has perhaps gone over the deep end of savory.
Nope, the dumplings are lovely, as are the perfectly caramelized sweet potatoes with chipotle. Nearly every starter, it appears, evinces a winning combination of velvety and brittle, sour and sweet, the clash being something of a Vaughan signature, although pastry chef Julia Doran notches several assists every evening—Nancy’s Hustle, like T. Rex, is open only for dinner—with an array of sweets, crackers, and especially a sourdough bread every bit as meltingly superb as you’ve heard. Together with a generous wedge of Délice de Bourgogne, it anchors a house cheese plate much in need of one—it boasts no fewer than 12 more foodstuffs present besides.
If you haven’t guessed, there is a busyness to all things Nancy, its lovingly renovated 1949 building humming and buzzing in ways it hasn’t since the days of Old Chinatown. Among the establishment’s more prominent features is a long counter bar that extends along one wall of the shotgun dining room, both handsomely appointed with wood sourced from the late, great Palace Lanes bowling alley. A large reel-to-reel tape player at the bar presides over a chorus line of drinkers and diners, serious eaters and serious posers, an always-lively show that pulses to beats by Apollo Brown and company. The music is a nice touch, unobtrusive yet loud enough to cover the inane crosstalk typical of hipster hangouts, something that Nancy’s has unavoidably become.
So popular is the 28-seat T. Rex among the same vaunted set, reservations are accepted nearly two months in advance, the bistro imposing a stiff $30 penalty on diners who no-show for a menu subject to change because of “availability, quality, or boredom.” But patrons expecting similar insouciance from a T. Rex dinner will be disappointed, as Yu has created something truly special, a jovial neighborhood hangout that just happens to be the hottest restaurant in town. Its unassuming nature is disarming and finally arresting, a description that applies equally well to several of the appetizers, among the best in town.
In one, toasted pain de mie is (per the server) “soaked in a little green tomato water, so the texture is very unusual. It’s topped with a little tomato fondant, fresh cherry tomatoes from Wood Duck Farm,” etc., etc. For its part, T. Rex’s menu says “Tomato Toast” and leaves it at that, a description perhaps more in line with Yu’s straightforward scrumptiousness. A similar modesty is detectable in the rice and beans starter—comfort food has never been so comforting—and also T. Rex’s entrées, from Wagyu beef with turnip strips to the pan-roasted chicken breast dressed with an egg. “Most people think there’s an egg right on top,” laughs a T. Rexer bussing our table, “but what the chef does is use an egg yolk as a dressing for the lettuces, which along with the preserved green garlic broth that—”
—Just eat it, it’s great.
Meanwhile, our entrée discussion at Nancy’s proves extended but fruitful. And how could it be otherwise, given a kitchen only capable of the delectable? Not surprisingly, most mains feature unusual pairings and complicated preparation, even as the pleasures induced are simple in the extreme. Vaughan’s sourdough tagliatelle is the pasta dish of your dreams, its creamy burrata quickly erasing any doubts you might have about the pistachios and Brussels sprouts. On the long list of things that might make one fall in love with beets again, roasted snapper would seem to be at or near the bottom, and yet there it is, enlivening the root with every bite. A fine cut of sirloin can’t be made even finer by an anchovy sauce, can it? Oh, but it can. And if by some chance you think Vaughan’s half-chicken will save you from the thrill of the exotic, think again. Basque chili and an exquisite grilling technique combine to propel the earthbound fowl into flight.
As for our table, well, having been floored by the food and bombarded by rhetoric, we find ourselves powerless to resist either Nancy’s or Theodore’s desserts. Without a second thought, we stab into the former’s parmesan cheesecake and chocolate tart with grapefruit whipped cream—more delights from Doran—and attack with similar vengeance Yu’s stunning flavor additions to chocolate ice cream (apple butter) and a Paris-Brest (Swiss cheese-flavored cream).
And with that we depart, bidding sad adieu to the scholars at both establishments, vowing to return. I still believe didactic dining to be among the more unsavory additions to today’s restaurant scene. Still, there are nights when the tedium feels worth it and the food earns its pedagogy, taking us to the deep end of savory, and beyond.