Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
SpeakEasy, the new downtown bar and restaurant on Louisiana Street, fashions itself as a supper club. You know, a place where you might come for a drink, stay for dinner and finish with a show and a nightcap. And on a recent Monday night, even amidst dreary weather, a good 30 people were down for the program. Some hung at the bar. A big group with tall tables shoved together appeared to be drinking for dinner. And dozens sat in scattered roundtops — some eating, some not — with eyes trained on the small stage, where guitar and piano combos rotated on and off at an open mic.
The space, which most recently housed the gay nightclub the Factory, is big and open, with black everything — walls, ceiling, chairs, tablecloths, curtains across the old display window behind the stage. The carpet is an office gray. Aside from the well lit horseshoe-shaped bar and a grid of small spotlights, darkness is the main idea. At night, it gives the oversized room an intimate feel. With the curtains open, lunch is less a dreary prospect than you'd imagine — dusky, not dark — but still about as welcoming as a dim room during the day can be.
American-Continental-Cajun is how the owners of SpeakEasy described their cuisine just before opening. It's hard to get that sense from the entrees. They're more like American white-tablecloth-typical — steak, chicken, pot roast and shrimp scampi. The appetizer menu is a touch bolder, with picks like baked brie ($8) and caprese carpaccio (thinly sliced beef tenderloin in a balsamic marinade with cheese and tomato, $8) mixed in with fried mushrooms ($7.50), chicken skewers ($7) and Oysters Rockefeller ($8.50).
On our first visit, we were feeling only a little bold, so we started with the mushrooms and oysters. Maybe the shrimp cocktail was the way to go. It's hard to stifle that deep, satisfying umami flavor in portabellas, and the SpeakEasy didn't, but it didn't do the mushrooms any favors either. The “sherry wine breading” tasted mostly like flour. Their interpretation of Oysters Rockefeller substituted thick, buttery slices of toasted bread for breadcrumbs, and in turn, put the star of dish in the supporting cast.
For a salad, we couldn't resist the Bloody Mary ($7.50), a mishmash of carrots, cauliflower, celery, green olives, pepperoncini, pickled green beans and spring mix, with what's billed as Bloody Mary dressing (but tastes like nothing but Bloody Mary mix). We order Bloody Marys mainly for the garnish, love all things pickled and like the idea of substituting a cocktail for salad dressing, but we may be in the minority. Other salad options include a big Greek salad ($8), a shrimp Caesar ($9) and a club salad ($7.50).
We tried to run the gamut for the main course — with more mixed results. The peppercorn-encrusted filet ($19) was cooked to spec and tender, though the fig glaze was hard to detect. Billed as “jumbo,” the size of entree crab cakes ($17) underwhelmed, but tasted fine. Vegetable stroganoff ($13) was what other restaurants would call veggie alfredo over penne. It was swimming in sauce and over-salted. The pork loin ($14) was the star of the night. It came stuffed with spinach and herbed mozzarella and topped with an appealing (if not appealing-sounding) sweet bacon gravy. All but the vegetable dish came with the starch and veggie of the day, on our visit paltry servings of saffron rice and over-salted sauteed spinach.
Dessert, which rotates daily or thereabout, is a mixture of house-made and bought. We tried the lemon meringue pie, one of those made off-site, and it was tasty.
On a second visit for lunch, we tried to order the roast beef poboy ($8), only to be told it'd been 86ed that day. So we went with a sure-fire, the club ($7.50). It was everything you'd want a club to be save the bread, which was toasted but cold. The “house-fried” chips were cold, too, but crispy and appropriately greasy enough that it didn't matter much. A companion had no complaints about the make-your-own wrap ($8), which he filled to a bulging point. A warning about the Greek salad: It contains no lettuce, but is instead tossed tomatoes, feta and olives, served a little cool.
Service at each visit was friendly if occasionally inattentive and casual. At dinner, our server once tried to yell a question from below a small landing to our table — the distance of about five steps. And about that landing. It's just a single step up to one seating area, but it's bordered by a short railing, which tables and chairs below obscure. Just enough that on a return trip from the bathroom we ended up almost taking out our dining companions after tripping on the railing and falling face first. We're the first to admit we're naturally clumsy, but so are drunk people. In fact, after everyone in our section saw us take a fall, another person came near falling flat. Hey, liability!
Michael Henderson, late of Easy Street, is the general manager at SpeakEasy and he's brought the same entertainment sensibility to his new operation. There's a weekly schedule that you can find in our calendar that includes jazz, blues and open mic. Expect, too, to see theater and improv.
412 Louisiana St.
The food is a mixed bag, but SpeakEasy is just right for a quiet, low-key drink. There's a small, but well-conceived wine list, a full bar and plenty of room to spread out.
11 a.m. until 2 a.m. Monday through Friday, 3 p.m. (for happy hour drinks), 6 p.m. (for dinner) until 1 a.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. for brunch Sunday.
Credit cards except for American Express. Full bar.