Nirvana: 1. Kurt Cobain’s claim to fame. 2. A state of perfect happiness.
Nerdvana: 1. A wide open space with neon pink and blue murals featuring famous games and characters, as pixelated as sugar grains. Exposed industrial ceilings, glossy white tables, clean, matching booths and metal high tables. Booths are equipped with vintage games and Nintendo controllers. The lounge area sports Super Smash Brothers (Wii U). The oval cocktail bar doubles as a gaming station with six screens for up to 12 players. 2. A state of perfect, nerdy happiness.
Nerdvana Coffee specializes in gourmet coffee served alongside vintage board games but next door is Nerdvana Food + Spirits, a newer, flashier themed fine-dining restaurant. Fine-dining and themed are not usually all that compatible; it’s the sad destiny of the Magic Time Machines of the world that when food and spectacle are served as one, someone is bound to drop the ball. It’s almost always the kitchen. Naturally, I worry that despite the trappings of fine-dining—the waitstaff clad in classy black, the craft beer, the scratch kitchen—the food will suck and Chef Mike Junio and partner Kristy Pitchford are hoping that video games will distract me. Spoiler: I’m half right. Kicking the computer’s shiny butt at Super Smash Bros almost makes me forget I’m even supposed to eat. But as for the rest of my assumptions, I’m dead wrong.
Most good video games launch with a hero rising from obscurity. Even Mario is a humble plumber before he rescues Princess Peach from Bowser, (for readers who aren’t gamers, Bowser is some sort of villainous dragon-turtle of terror). In the same vein, most good meals start off with a round of appetizers. Chef Mike’s opening gambit is Hadouken Beef, inspired by a Street Fighter battle move. Three medallions of seared filet mignon lay over pickled vegetables with a spicy ginger vinaigrette. The heat from the vinaigrette counters the tartness from the vegetables. It’s got a punchy, uncompromising charisma and though as an entree it would be too much, as an appetizer, it’s a knockout.
The menu leans towards New Orleans, as evidenced by Gumbo Deconstruction and Shrimp Diablo. Gumbo Deconstruction features grilled chicken, pan-seared shrimp, fried okra and fried green tomatoes with creole gumbo dipping sauce. It’s got all the makings and character of gumbo, but has been reimagined as dippable finger food. The Shrimp Diablo, three grilled jumbo shrimp in a surprisingly soupy diablo sauce, is a simple dish; what you see is what you get.
On the other hand, Crab Cakes are refreshing, plated with roasted red pepper relish, basil pesto and a squiggle of lemon aioli. On first bite, it’s mild but layered with harmony. The crab is the star; its accompaniments make it sing. Complex and artful, crab cakes win round one.
If you need it, revive yourself with a health potion from the bar where drinks range from strange to fabulous. The Elven Elixir with Botanist gin, wild berry puree, lemon juice and elderflower liqueur is sweet with a berry garnish. Then there’s Diamond Butt Stallion which I can guarantee you won’t find anywhere else: Luxardo limoncello, Smirnoff fluffed marshmallow vodka, cream and rainbow sugar rim.
Entrees are the big test, a lightning round pitting a pork chop against a bass against good ole’ chicken fried steak.
Pork chop is notoriously tricky. A double-bone chili-rubbed chop with dried cherry chutney, spicy Swiss chard and roasted fingerling potatoes is trickier. It’s either going to be amazing or too ambitious to hold up under its own weight. The Cherry Pork Chop cuts like butter, a favorable sign. The pork on its own is enjoyable: well-cooked and well-seasoned, but it isn’t spectacular. However, add in the chutney—go crazy and ask for extra on the side—and it’s transformed into something unique. They’re two strong flavors that balance each other out. It’s astounding.
For something rather different, Pan Seared Striped Bass is a breath of fresh air. A spoonful of yellow coconut curry sauce brightens up the Texas bass which is paired with an encore of Swiss chard, basmati rice and warm tomato salad. It’s cheery with its own sense of style. It’s a whimsical dish, Mario Party to the Pork Chop’s Mass Effect.
Chef Mike’s Chicken Fried Steak Medallions sprawl on top of mashed garlic potatoes with grilled corn-off-the-cob and a draping of pan gravy; southern comfort in a neat little package with a whole grilled jalapeño. The plate is about as pretty as chicken fried steak is ever going to be, but no one expects it to look like a million bucks as long as it tastes right. And it rocks. The medallions are little enough that tenderness is guaranteed and the pan gravy pays tribute to the gods of Southern cooking (primarily grandmothers). It’s indulgent and epic gaming food.
Speaking of indulgence, it’s time for a little bit of cheating.
The “cheat” menu includes such legends as Eternal Hot Chocolate, Claptrap’s Strawberry Shortcake, S’Mores Duval and Bad Ass Boss Monster. Eternal Hot Chocolate appears like the fountain of youth: sipping chocolate topped with espresso cake, chocolate ganache frosting and a white-chocolate straw. Chef Mike’s interpretation of Willy Wonka’s chocolate river, it’s richer than Bill Gates. Press down on the cake and chocolate melts out over the rim. This is what dreams are made off.
Claptrap’s Strawberry Shortcake and S’Mores Duval are two (slightly) lighter options. Claptrap’s sugar-dotted shortcake is clearly homemade, as is the tall staircase of vanilla cream which finishes it. As for S’Mores Duval, the chocolate mousse is an airy masterpiece under torched marshmallow cream. Dig to the bottom to unearth graham cracker gems or you’re missing out.
The finishing play is the Badass Boss Monster, a stratified shake with brownie chunks, chocolate and dipped strawberries which look like they’ve been dried with a fast wind, frozen in action. It’s hefty. Ally yourself with multiple players to take it down.
I owe themed restaurants everywhere an apology. I was wrong; a single restaurant can be a chef-driven fine-dining experience and a themed extravaganza that brings out your inner kid. It can be done—and done well. It’s a dangerous play but Nerdvana Food + Spirits pulls it off with an unpretentious, yet sleek style and technicolor flare.
Originally published in Plano Profile‘s March 2017 issue.