Wednesday , 20 September 2017

Chow Hound: Downtown McKinney’s Sauce Leaves Room for Improvement

By Jason Gatsby, TSB's Chow Hound

Chef Tim Bevins arrived in McKinney in the fall of 2012, acquiring the position as Executive Chef at Rick’s Chophouse and its neighboring sister restaurant, Sauce on the Square. Top Chef host Tom Colicchio’s restaurant, Craft at the W Hotel, closed its doors allowing Rick’s owner Rick Wells to snatch up the talented Bevins before he got away. Bevins’ first move as Executive Chef was the appointment of his Sous Chef at Craft, Andrea Rowland, to help run Sauce. Rowland is a graduate of Southern Methodist University and is acting Chef at Sauce, dubbed the “Italian home kitchen” and located in the heart of downtown McKinney.

Unfortunately, Rick’s has lost another talented Chef as Bevins moves on to another hotel gig at the Lumen, a Kimpton Hotel, as the Chef of The Front Room, less than eight months after his arrival in McKinney. Wells was quoted by Leslie Brenner of the The Dallas Morning News as saying, “At the end of the day Tim felt like The Front Room suited his style much better than our restaurant.” Rick’s has been a revolving door for chefs, but according to Sauce’s website and staff, Rowland remains at the helm of Well’s Italian kitchen.

Ensconced in one of the storefronts on the Square, Sauce’s entrance is reminiscent of a European side street, but the space is larger than its initial perception. The quaint patio is perfect for dining outside, but upon entering the restaurant the faux Mediterranean feel is more kitsch than warm and inviting. The depth of the restaurant went beyond my imagination, as the space is indicative of a banquet hall, at times turning the restaurant acoustics into something of a mild din of conversation. 

Sauce’s first impression started off on a positive note with their friendly, yet pleasant, service. The hostess greeted us with a smile and quickly led us to a quiet table outside on the patio. Dining rather late, the restaurant was slowing down for the evening, allowing for an intimate meal with little ambient noise. Our server was just as jovial as the hostess, but not overly zealous. She didn’t hesitate to spark up a conversation and expound on her knowledge about the menu.

As the summer sun begins to glare down overhead, it seemed only fitting to start the meal with a refreshing cocktail. The Fresh Berry Mojito ($10) is composed of rum, mint, lime, agave nectar, fresh berries, and soda. The cocktail was identified as a diner favorite, but the flavor profile ran flat on the palate. The overabundance of soda left a bland taste in my mouth and the muddled berries made it difficult to consume a reasonable amount of liquid through the straw without seeds flooding my mouth. The Kentucky Pecan ($10), made up of house infused pecan bourbon, Berentzen apple liquor, and simple syrup came with a side of candied pecans and was supplemented with single large ice cube, which is my favorite accompaniment to bourbon as it slowly melts, smoothing out the smoky bourbon flavor. (A dash of bitters and an orange twist would have balanced the cocktail out and put it over the top.)

The safest bet for most diners is the customary Bellini, a famous Venetian cocktail of peach nectar, peach schnapps, champagne, and rum. Sauce’s version comes refreshingly frozen and with the possibility of an additional pomegranate or Cabernet “swirl.” The swirl wasn’t much of a swirl, more of a pool of cheap red wine at the bottom of the glass. Do yourself a favor and don’t waste your money on the addition to the regular Bellini.

The small, yet efficient, wine list was created by Sommelier, Robert F. Darden. Darden was nowhere to be found during our visit so knowledge about the wine by the staff was fair to middling. Don’t expect much help if you’re looking for something to pair with your meal. The list doesn’t offer an extensive amount of varietals but has an abundance of Chardonnays and Cabs. The majority of the wines are from California, but if you’re looking for something earthier, Sauce does offer a handful of Tuscan reds including the well-known Chianti, which is medium bodied and predominantly made from the Sangiovese grape. Sangiovese is known for its high acidity levels, which balances nicely with dishes that are tomato based, i.e. pizza and tomato sauces.

Sauce’s menu embraces Italian starch, as pastas and pizzas make up the brunt of the menu. Classic Italian favorites are present, but “Texanized” pizzas are available: the Lone Star ($14) that includes chipotle sauce, smoked brisket, jalapeno, roasted red onion, cilantro, mozzarella, and cheddar cheese; the Texas Sausage ($14) with pizza sauce, jalapeno sausage, roasted red pepper, roasted red onion, mozzarella; and the Smoked Chicken ($14) with barbeque sauce, roasted red onion, corn, black beans, mozzarella, cheddar. The Texas style pizzas are an ambitious effort to accommodate southern taste buds, but sticking to the classics or building your own pie is the best option. The Smoked Chicken pizza was dry and exceedingly dense as the dough could barely hold up to all the ingredients. Overall, the wood-stone pizzas are better than your average take-out, with the dense dough providing a distinctive chew, but there are better pizza options available in McKinney.
 
Traditional dishes of Chicken Parmesan ($15), Spaghetti and Meatballs ($13), and Fettuccini Alfredo ($12) are present on the menu for conservative diners, but the menu does include other options with familiar flavors that don’t skimp on cream and butter: pastas of Chicken Gorgonzola and a penne Carbonara that includes bacon, egg yolks and a butter sauce will leave you satiated for days. 

Sauce’s website states, “Our menu is created using farm raised ingredients for the ultimate flavor.” Umm, are we talking industrialized farms or has Sauce embraced the concept of supporting local farmers? If the latter, please keep up with the trend and inform the diners of the farms that Sauce uses on the menu or on the publicly displayed blackboard.

Family and friends dining together are the focal point of the experience with exuberant dishes that are meant for sharing. Parties of four or more will have the opportunity to try different facets of the menu, but if it’s date night, a pizza or pasta will suffice. Fortunately salads are offered in two different sizes, all of which are either $6 or $11.

We started off our meal with Portobello Fries and the Bruschetta (right) tasting. The base of the bruschetta was a grilled baguette that was only grilled on one side. The charred flavor was tasty, but the raw bread was disappointingly soggy. Out of the four bruschetta options available, the most flavorful was the Sausage and Mushroom Melt ($6), with Italian sausage, mushrooms, Fontina cheese, and balsamic vinegar. The Portobello Fries with a Pesto Alfredo sauce were light and crispy, a perfect appetizer to start off your meal, but the Pesto Alfredo Sauce was boring. I’d like to see Chef Rowland try her hand at a Calabrian chili Aioli or a Basil Aioli — something to differentiate Sauce form other Italian restaurants.  

The Portobello Fries arrived appearing like shapeless, breaded blobs in a basket. On previous visits, the mushrooms were cut to resemble actual fries. The mushrooms were still piping hot, but could have used a a bit more salt or seasoning in the light batter. 

Unlike many McKinney Italian eateries, Sauce makes three homemade pastas. The Crab & Cavatelli ($17) was the standout of the three and the favorite dish of the evening. Cavatelli is a traditional Southern Italian pasta shape that is about an inch in length with a distinctive chew. The pasta water could have been salted heavier, to help season the pasta, but the ricotta and crab in a tasty, rich cream sauce with truffle oil was bold enough to overcome the bland pasta. 

Sauce opened in 2009. After opening chef Paul Peterson’s exit, and with the entrance of Rowland and Bevins, I think McKinney was anticipating intriguing gastronomical changes. Rowland has yet to make her impression on the menu, but now that Bevins is gone, maybe she can put her own flair on the menu. As of now, the menu lacks depth and passion. Dishes exit the kitchen bland and lacking execution. Downtown McKinney was recently recognized by The Dallas Morning News as one of the 10 best neighborhoods for food lovers and McKinney residents should expect more from Sauce. Perhaps, like myself, some feel that Sauce has yet to live up to its expectation. 

Over All: 2 stars  **

Food:  **
Beverages: **
Service: ***
Atmosphere: **
Price $$

RATINGS KEY
FOUR STARS = Extraordinary; THREE STARS = Excellent; TWO STARS = Good; ONE STAR = Fair; NO STARS = Poor

$ = Inexpensive: entrees $10 and under; $$ = Moderate: $11-$17; $$$ = Expensive: $18-$24; $$$$ = Very Expensive: more than $25

Top photo:  The Crab & Cavatelli

Middle photo:  Bruschetta

Bottom photo:  Portobello Fries

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