Eyes beaming with genius from the likes of Samuel Beckett, Ornette Coleman and Jean Dubuffet still stare at you from the walls inside of the Explorers Club; otherwise, plenty has changed. On the cosmetic side, aligning with these evocative woodblock portraits by Jeb Loy Nichols is art gallery fare currently starring brash color photographs. On the more important edible-side of the ledger, the founding chef and co-proprietor of Explorers Club (Ricky Barnes) up and left his own restaurant. Instead of veering adrift though, frankly I think this place is cranking out better grub than it has in months.
After premiering a year ago to wide acclaim, I began hearing EC was sputtering through a rough patch around last spring. I poked in a few of times, and a couple marginally off-course dishes had me sorta agreeing. Fortunately, EC seems to have righted itself since new chef Dan Varga assumed the helm in late summer.
While maintaining old favorites, Varga’s been steering EC’s Caribbean-leaning cuisine in new and interesting directions. For example, he’s letting his roots show by offering a Hungarian dinner every third Wednesday of the month. There’s also a small, regularly changing, theme-exploring (e.g. Oktoberfest, vegan) supplemental menu that, along with daily specials, guarantees EC visits never feel completely routine. Actually, “routine” is about the last thing I’d call the flamboyant and borders-be-damned preparations I recently sampled.
The gigantic Grilled Marinated Vegetable Salad ($7.50) is a fine example of EC’s eccentric, vegetarian-friendly and easy-on-the-pocket ways. It was a chunky and never-boring “Mediterr-Asian” (I think I just coined that phrase) melange of grill-marked and chilled-down squashes, spinach and radicchio sprinkled with sesame seeds and daubed with goat cheese. Tying things together was a perky, lightly applied vinaigrette.
A pulpy puree, nightly special of Pumpkin and Habanero Soup ($4) showed-off an amusingly reckless side. See, that crazy stuff was should-come-with-a-warning-label spicy hot. While I enjoyed its fruity, nutty and vinegar-splashed flavors, I momentarily feared my tongue might disintegrate. Luckily, a sweet, punch-like Kombucha Margarita ($9) helped stanch the flames.
The heat got turned up again — but in more manageable fashion — with a knockout Chorizo Stuffed Chicken ($15), one of my new favorite casual-place dinners. Sandwiched between Cajun-y spiced, seared boneless breast slices was homemade, smoky and chili-fied Mexican sausage. On the side were killer collards (garlicky, spicy and vinegar-y) and the perfect foil of roasted large sweet potato cubes.
Arriving on a wonderfully crusty and chewy house baked bun was EC’s kitchen-sinker Mofongo Burger ($11.50), a verifiable and messy masterpiece. Piled up comically high on the artisan roll were a big, juicy and good-on-its-own burger, smoky pulled pork, mashed plantains, jack cheese plus a neat and zesty jalapeno slaw. Though the bountiful berserker came loaded with nice, grease-free sweet potato fries, I was feeling particularly hoggish, so I splurged on inspired sides of Mac-n-Cheese ($4; creamy, tangy, terrific) and Hungarian Slaw ($3; crisp sweet-tart pickled cabbage, carrots and red peppers aromatized by cloves and allspice).
Uncommon and delicious Sauerbraten Meatballs pocketed with raisins and served with top-notch homemade spaetzle cloaked in rich brown gravy ($12) from last month’s special Oktoberfest menu presented more Central /Eastern European influences. And a strong reason to eagerly anticipate digging into EC’s just-released, November-only vegan menu. See you there.