Keith Hicks, chef at the new Westside eatery-watering hole-music spot, Buttons, is a man with a vision. On the restaurant’s web site, he describes the place as “a house of love where people can come, relax, and allow us to feed their soul in two ways, both with food and with music.”
Over the past few years, Hicks has pursued that vision through stints at the Worthington Hotel, Gunsmoke Grill off West Berry Street, the Chop House downtown, Cachonga’s in Arlington Heights, and, most famously, at Ovation in the Ridglea area. With each move, he’s gained greater control over the menu and vibe. With the opening of Buttons – Hicks’ childhood nickname; I’ve seen pictures, and if you wanna experience “shock and awww,” ask him to show them to you sometime – that vision appears poised to achieve its final fruition.
Located in the space formerly occupied by 29 Degree Tavern (in the northwest corner of the Chapel Hill Shopping Center at I-30 and Hulen Street), Buttons presents a warm and welcoming appearance. The kitchen is open, probably to allow foodies with a voyeuristic bent and fans of The Restaurant to observe the behind-the-scenes action, and the dining area includes a stage. A partition divides the space, accommodating customers who prefer their dinner music in the background.
We visited Buttons near closing time early in the workweek, so the bandstand was empty, but our conversation was punctuated by snatches of early-’80s R&B jams by Rick James and Teena Marie, making me wax nostalgic for a time when high-top fades and genie pants still seemed like viable fashion choices. And there’s plenty of space around the bar for a crowd to make the room thump and pop.
Our server, Gary, has been with Hicks “since the Worthington, with the exception of about four months,” and offered to serve as a “tie-breaker” if anyone at our table was having trouble deciding between two dishes. We started off with a couple of appetizers: the fried green tomatoes and flash-fried shrimp. My sweetie and I were still recovering from our annual gastronomic excess, and the tomatoes were almost a miniature version of the full English breakfast that she serves on Christmas morning: thick slices of the succulent green version of the fruit, breaded and served with an over-easy egg and slices of andouille sausage. The sweet, ever-so-slightly spicy breading offset any trace of acidity from the tomato. The freshness of the Gulf shrimp was enhanced by the contrast between the heat from serrano peppers, the smokiness of bacon, and the tang from the cranberry chipotle vinaigrette.
The fried catfish arrived encased in the same sweet-and-spicy breading as the tomatoes and at the foot of a mountain of julienne sweet potato fries – as valuable for their novel texture as for their flavor – and a Hicks signature, collard greens that are full-bodied without the pungency often associated with them.
The cowboy steak, a 16-ounce rib-eye, was melt-in-mouth tender, complemented by the creamy texture of the goat cheese mashed potatoes. And, of course, one diner in our party had to have the chicken and waffles, another signature Hicks dish. Suffice to say that with Hicks’ berry compote and a little powdered sugar, the waffles provide a nice contrast with the heartiness of the golden battered, lightly seasoned chicken.
The revelation of the evening, however, was the chicken and noodles. I expect Keith Hicks to astonish me with big, bold, brazen tastes, but the medley of flavors in this dish – a blend of herbs, mushrooms, and onions – was surprisingly delicate and subtle, making it a very mellow take on “comfort food.” Tossing fresh baby spinach with the linguini was a nicely health-conscious touch.
The desserts are still works in progress. The big brownie a la mode was resplendent with chocolatey goodness but had a custard-like texture, lacking the chewiness you’d expect from a really good brownie – our server admitted that maybe the recipe needed to be “tweaked a bit.” The apple pie, on the other hand, was top-notch, an exemplary execution of a classic: big, sweet chunks of Granny Smiths in a flaky crust.
Will the crowd that made Keith such a success at Ovation follow him to Buttons? The food’s a given. The location – easily accessible from the highway, in the same shopping center as Central Market and Borders – is already a stomping ground for the upscale crowd Buttons wants to attract, and the music calendar is heavy on easy listening and party R&B. For now, the restaurant’s open for dinner only, seven days a week. Expanded hours, to include a lunch and a Sunday gospel brunch, are in the works. Chicken and waffles and gospel music? It’s almost enough to cause an old reprobate like this writer to get churched up.