By Jason Gatsby, TSB's Chow Hound
The arrival of the new year brings back TSB’s restaurant reviews. Although we most definitely will be visiting McKinney restaurants, we know that McKinney residents also venture outside our fair city to feed their gastronomic indulgences. That said, I, your Chow Hound, will be hitting a variety of eateries around the metroplex as well.
I recently visited a new smokin’ spot in Plano to begin the journey within the local foodscape.
Pepper Smash, a cocktail kitchen, opened in June of 2012. The concept is a modern restaurant where cocktails come first and food, mostly prepared in an open kitchen, comes second. Upon arriving at the Shops of Legacy restaurant, I already knew what I was getting into – a trendy restaurant that epitomizes the crowd that consumes the busy streets in the vicinity on a Friday or Saturday night.
Greeted by three lovely hostesses, I was enamored by the restaurant design. Sleek high top tables equipped with stools are reminiscent of a cocktail lounge. The bar is the focal point as it stretches along the entire room, while the open kitchen sits unobtrusively in the back. The booths along one wall cozily invite small groups for conversation, or couples who are looking for a bit of reprieve from the typical bar with loud music and equally loud patrons.
Walking to my table, I noticed lively customers anxiously awaiting their unique cocktails. The mixologist uses a diverse variety of ingredients to conjure up an array of unique cocktails. The drink menu read as though a mad scientist had had a few too many, listing cocktails that are “cooked to order,” “smoked,” “and infused.” They even have “skinny” cocktails for all of us trying to watch our weight during the holiday season.
The front of the house was charming, insightful and well versed in the both the bar and food menu. Our server answered our questions with detail and a smile. Knowing I could only handle a few cocktails, my partner and I limited ourselves to sampling two apiece.
Being partial to Bourbon, my personal favorite was “The Maker’s Mule.” The Mule is an American take on the Moscow Mule, exchanging Makers Mark Bourbon for Vodka. Consisting of house-made ginger syrup, ginger beer, garnished with mint, the bourbon was forward complimented with a sweet spice of ginger. Need I say more?
The house specialty cocktail is the Pepper Smash ($10), pictured above, or as our waitress described it, “pizza in a glass.” Think Bloody Mary sans tomato juice. A garden concoction of red bell peppers, sweet onions, jalapenos and basil mixed with lime juice, steeped in Tito’s vodka and served in a glass with a chile salt rim, the Pepper Smash awakens the taste buds with the spicy, hot under notes, although the pervasive flavor that emerges is the bell peppers.
Try the Eden’s Garden ($9) – my guest’s favorite – if you are a fan of gin. It’s a deliciously fresh and deceiving light muddled cucumber, basil, mint and and jalapeno combined with the gin, St. Germaine and lime juice, which goes down oh so smoothly, it could quite conceivably be way too simple to drink oneself into oblivion.
Executive Chef Vijay Sadhu uses a mixture of cultural cuisines to create an expansive menu. Although the concept is appealing, it can be difficult to master modern American, Mediterranean, Southwestern, and Moroccan (to name a few) all in the same menu.
The restaurant is fairly new – it opened in June – and is still working out the kinks and perfecting their ambitious menu. We were told that the restaurant had already gone through two sous chefs.
I decided on assortment appetizers, consisting of PEI (Prince Edward Island) mussels in coconut broth ($10), hummus & olives ($8), blistered shisito peppers ($8), butternut squash soup, and pork belly ($10). (Did I mention I can eat a lot?) I was quite pleased to see the use of seasonal ingredients to complement their dishes, including brussels sprouts, an apple cinnamon puree, squash, collard greens and pears.
The humus was rich and smooth, accompanied by warm, homemade naan bread. The mussels were tasty and tender, and do ask for extra house made naan to soak up the sweet coconut and lemon grass broth. Unfortunately, the shishito peppers were not consistently blistered, as stated on the menu, and could have used a little more salt and lemon juice to brighten them up and give it more balance.
The flatbreads are perfect for sharing and use the naan bread as the base. The homemade lamb sausage with spiced tomato jam, feta, and basil was heavy but the sweetness of the jam and the fresh basil tried to lighten it up a bit.
After consuming the rich, crispy pork belly enhanced with the flavor of warm cinnamon, I ordered the arugula salad with pear and citrus ($8). Sweet seasonal pears cut the richness of fried cream cheese as the citrus vinaigrette draped the arugula perfectly without wilting the delicate green leaves.
The theme was consistent as I moved on to entrees. Hearty dishes like hanger steak ($21), short ribs ($20), “Texas Burger” ($11), and shrimp & grits ($21).
While the burger was over-cooked and a bit dry, the hanger steak with fenugreek mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts and chimichurri sauce was cooked to medium-rare but left a burnt crust on the outside, which makes me wonder when the last time the grill was scraped clean. The Spiced Shrimp with Smoked Gouda Jalapeno Grits was a rich and well balanced dish with a hint of spice.
I couldn’t resist ordering the mac n’ cheese with white truffle drizzle and a panko crust ($7). Heavy on the truffle oil, I couldn’t eat it fast enough – the ultimate comfort food during these chilly winter days. My dining companion felt the truffle was a bit abrasive, but also ended up eating the entire serving.
With three deserts on the menu, “southern apple crisp” ($7), “chocolate pumpkin cheesecake” ($8), and crème brulee ($8) I decide to sample all three. The crème brulee which featured a hint of cardamom, was very lemon forward. The delicious apple crisp was seasonal and reminiscent of homemade apple pie, but my favorite had to be the pumpkin and chocolate cheesecake. Adorned with delicious house-made chocolate pistachio toffee, the juxtaposition of the smooth and creamy pumpkin and chocolate cheesecake sated my need for chocolate, surprisingly combining it with a seasonal staple.
While Pepper Smash is a work in progress, if you’re in need of unique and “kickass” cocktails, then maybe this is the spot for you. The Shops at Legacy is filled with restaurants and if you’re searching for food my first stop wouldn’t be Pepper Smash. The chef may need to emphasize smaller plates that can be shared, rather than the nine entrees. I will be back for drinks and a small plate or two, the mac n’ cheese, and if I’m in need of some bliss – the cheesecake.
Overall: 2 and a half stars
Food: two stars
Cocktails: three stars
Service: two stars
Atmoshpere: three stars
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
TSB’s Chow Hound attended culinary school in San Francisco, one of the most influential food cities in the U.S.., where food and wine are idolized and border on an obsession that comes close to a cult following. While there, he worked in a number of award winning kitchens, which are nationally known amongst well-versed foodies.