During a time of dramatic change in so many arenas, it seems that one of Fort Worth’s dining institutions — the Mercury Chop House — intends on being a bastion of comforting continuity.
Familiarity certainly was driving Chop House’s irrepressibly genial owner, Zack Moutaouakil, as he engineered last year’s seamless move from its 16-year perch on Main Street to the ground floor of the Tower condominium building.
That’s quite a gambit for Moutaouakil, as this corner of the Tower has a chilling track record of being the site where such previous tenants as Vivo 53 and the Vault went to die.
Undaunted, the 56-year-old Moutaouakil took five weeks and spent $300,000 to remodel the 4,300-square-foot Tower space. He installed a curvaceous granite-topped bar, fronting the old Vivo 53’s pizza oven, and in place of the former restaurant’s side-bar, Moutaouakil retained his loyal piano player, Danny Burgess, to croon such standards as Night and Day and Unforgettable — conjuring up the kind of throwback atmosphere where I half expected Mad Men’s Don Draper to glide up to the bar and order a Brandy Alexander.
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Even more cleverly, Moutaouakil paneled mahogany-hued wood on the Tower’s ever-challenging maze of slanted support columns. Instead of awkwardly dissecting the room, the beams now create discreet dining alcoves.
Most of the restaurant’s signature dishes, such as fried calamari with tomato risotto, sides of truffle Parmesan fries, and a roster of seafood, chicken and, of course, steaks (New York strip, bone-in rib eye and filet mignon), all made the trip to the new location.
To broaden Chop House’s appeal, Moutaouakil introduced a more affordable bar menu where fish tacos and fried oysters can be enjoyed for $8, while $9 will get you a plate of mini-sliders, calamari or ahi tuna tartare.
Since this is not Chop House’s first review, I was determined to sample dishes for which it is not immediately associated — to put its clearly adroit kitchen to an extra test.
Owing to Moutaouakil’s proud Moroccan heritage, I eagerly sampled the Moroccan beef cigars ($15). These six triangular North African spring rolls were chock-full of sautéed ground beef carefully blended with a house mix of cumin, cilantro, parsley, salt and pepper, with the amalgam deep-fried to crackling goodness.
Yes, we’re all familiar with the moniker “steaks and chops,” and how often we ignore the “chop” side of the equation. Well, Chop House’s grilled double-cut pork chops ($29) will persuade many to alter that bias. Purchased from Chicago’s famous Allen Brothers meat purveyors, these chops were carved from a whole rack and dry-rubbed with a blend of Cajun seasoning, paprika, garlic, salt and pepper before being roasted to an ideal medium-rare. The chops achieved that combination of crisscrossed grill marks — the ultimate tattoo of expert charring — while still yielding a welcome border of fat and a succulent interior.
Another diamond in the rough from the Chop House menu was the wild mushroom truffle risotto ($24). A transcendent risotto dish often separates a mediocre from a magnificent Italian restaurant, but you rarely find a steakhouse with the temerity to serve it. Chop House’s version combines the earthiness of portobello and button mushrooms, and carefully melds them into a risotto (showered with grated Parmesan) that defines that idyllic cooking contradiction of creamy yet al dente.
It’s by now typical of the Chop House kitchen that the seemingly humble shortcake ($8) should receive the same cossetting treatment as its “colossal cheesecake.” Indeed, the cake starts as a simple yellow sheet cake, interlaced with cream and strawberries, before being transformed into a refined roulade, a belle of the ball topped with a layer of sour-cream icing.
Bursting taste housed in a refined yet simple dessert is, in some ways, symbolic of how Mercury Chop House 2.0 wants to present itself to its loyal customer base, in addition to its hoped-for new fans: Tower residents who are just an elevator ride away from a place where, as long as Zack Moutaouakil is in charge, everyone will know your name.