Who wants to eat outside this time of year? You’re basically torturing your guests. I was invited to a friend’s place for dinner last weekend, and she looked around at her so-called friends and actually said, “It’s such a beautiful evening, why don’t we eat outside?” All I heard was, “I want you to stroke out while my 400 pet mosquitoes feed on your sweat-soaked flesh.” Thanks for the invite!
I feel the same when my lunch/dinner companions get suckered in by cool-looking restaurant patios. When the hostess asks, “Inside or outside?,” I don’t politely wait for the committee’s response. I take control, like when my lunch guest saw the many fans and misters on the massive, dog-friendly party patio at America Gardens (2829 Morton St, 817-439-9660), the new West 7th area bar/restaurant owned by Dallas’ Syn Group (The Social House, Side Bar, Don Chingon). I didn’t care if the place had igloos set up outside, I wasn’t doing it.
That’s not a knock on the patio, by the way. It looked like a lot of fun, with various bar sports, around 40 tables, brightly colored chairs, an attractive deck, and a giant red barn bar. Inside was more my speed: There are low ceilings with exposed air ducts, brick walls, 20 or so bar tables, and five or six televisions.
I’m not sure what to call the décor or concept. It looks like the owners have taken elements of other West 7th bars (the Capital Bar, Fred’s Texas Café) and improved on them. Sort of. The effect is cool but kind of unremarkable, like a focus group made most of the decisions. And it definitely feels more like a bar than a restaurant. Still, the food coming out of the scratch kitchen on both of my visits was great –– though don’t go in expecting bar-food prices.
I’m a sucker for a good lobster roll ($18.95), and America Gardens’ version was outstanding. Too many kitchens get cute with lobster rolls and try and add sauces, veggies, and all kinds of other gimmicky clutter. But the AG lobster roll was a tender, sweet mix of knuckle, claw, and tail poached in tarragon butter, served in a split-top bun, and accompanied by draw butter. I’m not sure there’s a better roll in town, though the $19 tag struck me as quite high.
The Louisiana catfish-and-shrimp étouffée ($14.95) was every bit as good. The cornmeal-encrusted bottom-feeder was superbly crispy and flaky, and the sauce added a depth of spice and creaminess. I could have said the same thing about the Louisiana spicy remoulade sauce slathered on the shrimp po’boy ($14.95). Also breaded in cornmeal, the shrimp were fresh tasting, perfectly fried, and so plump and big they plummeted off the soft roll on every bite. The accompanying tomatoes and lettuce were brightly colored, unlike the lifeless, pre-cut versions at so many other eateries.
I also owe the kitchen a compliment on its treatment of the Philly cheesesteak ($14.95). Aside from the tender, silken rib-eye meat and sautéed onions, bell peppers, and jalapeños, the meatwich was drenched in an authentic, melted Cheez Whiz-like sauce that was true to the original version of the dish. The only near miss was the herb-garlic grilled chicken sandwich ($12.95), with salty apple-smoked bacon, a roasted garlic mayo, fresh veggies, and a beautiful looking yet scandalously overcooked bird sitting between a buttery brioche bun.
The young people can have that patio until September. I’ll be watching them through the large bay windows inside, where both the AC and classic rock are on bla