DALLAS HAS BECOME, at last, a great restaurant town. Our flown-in-fresh seafood emporiums rival the best in Boston or Los Angeles. A soup?on of our French chefs rise to the top in both inventiveness and delivery. We’ve taken Tex-Mex and one-upped it with aromatic fajitas and snapper en papillote. And who can rival Uncle Tai for absolute devotion to the fiery flavors of Hunan?
Dining out in Dallas is wildly variable, infinitely stylish and a tad pricey. The level of sophistication is high-incredibly so to those who can remember even a few years back, when La Tunisia was about as far as you could go.
In fact, Dallas dining has become so distinguished that, ’beginning with this issue, D is instituting a rating system for all restaurants reviewed. We will honor the best in the city with (what else?) a great big D. The rating system is on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 the highest rating. Restaurants that have earned a rating of 7.5 or higher receive the D award for the next six months. After that the ratings will be re-examined and adjusted.
You will notice that there is a preponderance of fancy restaurants receiving the D award. Dallas loves the excitement of luxury-rich foods served in extravagantly decorated surroundings, with exotic flowers dotting the room. The luxury may be plushly conservative or New-Wave chic, but it has to have style, pizazz. This is the kind of place the city goes for, so most of the best restaurants (which tend to be ambitious in all areas, anyway) fall into this category.
Sadly, you’ll find few great Dallas restaurants that are also holes in the wall. In principle, there is nothing to prevent, say, a barbecue restaurant from being given the very highest rating if it’s as good a barbecue restaurant as we can imagine. It wouldn’t have to be one of those barbecue places that puts on airs and dresses up its waiters in tuxedos, either. It would just have to offer sublime hickory- or mesquite-smoked meat and perfect side dishes and be a very pleasant place to eat a bite. At least one barbecue establishment in town, Sonny Bryan’s, offers brisket and ribs that should go into anybody’s culinary hall of fame. These are some of Dallas’ most perfect (and, not coinciden-tally, most renowned) foods to eat. But Sonny Bryan’s side dishes are at best perfunctory, and the comfort and cleanliness factors at his place of business are rock-bottom. Thus, a rating of 6.5 and no D for the great master of Dallas barbecue.
As you can see, rating restaurants, like running them, is an art rather than a science. The editors judged that it would be futile to try to create a system in which a nice atmosphere earned a place a certain number of points, and pleasant help earned it a certain number more, and so on. With that system, very satisfactory ratings could be given to restaurants in which food is negligible. Instead, our ratings are basically judgments about the quality of the food-how true it is to its kind, how well it does what it tries to do-with some adjustments made if there are discrepancies in other departments such as ambiance and service.
Looking over the top restaurants in Dallas, we came to some shocking conclusions. So many places-including so many ambitious new ones-offer Italian food. Can it be that none of them ranks among the very best? La Tosca, for instance, is surely a very fine restaurant, with an imaginative menu and an enthusiastic clientele. If everything that came out of its kitchen were as good as its best, it would indeed be one of the 20 or so foremost restaurants in town. But every meal there is sufficiently uneven that it has to be docked a point or two in the ratings system.
The Mexican restaurant situation is similar and even more lamentable, given the healthy Mexican-American community in the city. If any place combined the qualities of Mario & Alberto, Chiquita, Café Rincon. and La Calle Doce, it would certainly rate whatever honor we could bestow on it. But imperfections in each establishment-and memories of great Mexican meals in other Texas cities-keep each just barely out of the top ranks.
Given the sudden flowering of Asian restaurants in Dallas in recent years, the comparative shortage of these at the very top is hard to explain, too. Certainly the overall level has advanced considerably as the number has grown, but when Dallas has had first-rate places like the now-defunct Yunnan Dynasty, it didn’t always support them with the vigor it would have expended on comparable places in the continental line. And the sale of the wonderful Siam of blessed memory-for some years my very favorite Dallas restaurant-has left a strong group of Thai establishments just below the cutoff line for our best restaurants.
For all the puzzlement we may feel about the sorts of restaurants Dallas doesn’t have, we have to rejoice in those that have made it such a wonderful city in which to dine out. (Fort Worth is a separate matter, which we will examine in a forthcoming issue.) Here is our fearless pick of the very top ones. The ratings are awarded by the editors of D. The criticisms are my own.
Calluaud. This restaurant’s growth from a small shop to perhaps the establishment spot in the city has endeared it to many who have followed it as it grew. And there is no doubt that owner-chef Guy Calluaud’s success is deserved. When inspired, he is the match of any chef in town. Many of the traditional dishes, from paté to strawberry tart, cannot be bettered. The rather reserved elegance of the dining areas, also, is undeniable-salmon-colored roses often adorn every table. But there can be an occasional lack of attention to detail, as evidenced by a couple of recent luncheon entrées (veal meunière and red snapper and lobster mousse) that were clearly undistinguished. The welcome, too, may be less warm for those who aren’t among the more renowned regulars.
Enjolie. The main dining room of the Mandalay Four Seasons Hotel in Las Col-inas is the place to go when you want to feel pampered-and stuffed. Little delicacies are brought to the table at every turn, including what I believe is the only complimentary selection of fine cheeses in town (after the main course). The items to choose from are also splendid. The pheasant mousse with blueberry sauce, for instance, typifies the chefs skill at striking but still subtle combinations. Although the setting is lovely, this is probably the warmest and least pretentious of the top restaurants in town.
The French Room. Despite a discernible change in the style of the cooking (a change of chefs about a year ago), this elegant dining room in the Adolphus Hotel remains a memorable place for an extravagant evening. The French Room gives you haute cuisine at its haughtiest peaks. Truffles and foie gras, pheasant and lobster abound, wrapped in delicate pastries and surrounded by smooth sauces. The style of the place matches the food: ornate gold cornices and great swags of draperies, presided over by a staff you would expect to be selling stocks and bonds. The prices, too, are exalte.
Jean Claude. Owner-chef Jean Claude Prevot has returned to his kitchen, and that is good news. But, in truth, the consistency of his restaurant has been high whether he spends most of his time slaving over the highly visible stoves or greeting guests out front. There are always the wonderful specialties of sweetbreads and lamb, fish and lobster and duck in ginger sauce. There is also the excitement of being in a room just a mite too small, watching the assistant chefs in the open kitchen turning out salad after salad and soufflé after soufflé. We do take exception, however, to the rather inflexible rule of seatings at 6 and 9p.m. and to the exclusively French wine list.
Routh Street Café. When this house in the Oak Lawn district, refurbished in subtle shades of pearl gray and apricot, opened as a restaurant late last year, it was clear that it was an important new presence. The menu changes every night, but it always presents seasonal dishes made almost entirely from American ingredients. The prix fixe of $35 gets a diner five courses (including a highly imaginative salad and a choice of sorbet or ice in exotic flavors), plus little extras like muffins of hazelnut or zucchini. When Routh Street Café first opened, I thought chef Stephen Pyles’ reach slightly exceeded his grasp, that his novel ideas did not always taste as good as they sounded. But recent experience has proved that he has settled into a wonderful consistency. My last meal here was magnificently cooked, from the tart of wild mushrooms to a sliced loin of wild boar to a finale of goat-cheese-and-apricot pie and an intensely chocolate, creamy cake. It is harder to get a reservation here than at any other place in town, and for good reason. One cavil here is that the wine list (printed out by a computer every day) contains only American vintages. I don’t find this a bother, since the restaurant so resolutely features the new American cuisine, but others do.
Au Bon Gout. Chef Christian Gerber, who was at Old Warsaw and the Pyramid Room some years back and who then tried catering for a while, opened a gourmet-takeout spot with partner Carol Key Dignam late last year. After a few months, they added lunch, then dinner three nights a week. The food is marvelous-rather conservative and tending toward the elegantly simple, but executed with a sureness that makes you wish all chefs limited themselves to what they could turn out with the help of a couple of sidekicks. If you don’t mind sitting on wooden folding chairs and having no choice at all about what you’re having for dinner, you can have a wonderful meal here.
Blom’s. In some ways, this restaurant on the ground floor of the Westin Hotel at the Galleria has the most sophisticated menu in town. Its sense of inventiveness is exciting: A soup may have frog legs and shreds of lettuce floating in it; medallions of veal may be stuffed with smaller rounds of lobster. Everything is touched with imagination, down to the selection of sorbets wheeled to the table between courses, which always includes novelties such as passion fruit or tarragon. The unusual combinations never clash, as they do at some lesser places, but they don’t always create the magic that makes a great dish, either. And the waiters, who try very hard to please, do gush rather excessivel
exposure. This place’s reputation as a watering place for the beautiful people-and its somewhat odd, ever-changing looks-have rather obscured just how good the food is. The proprietors, always in evidence, are aggressively friendly, and not just to the cer-tifiably beautiful; part of their mission is to make exposure a kind of art gallery, with new paintings or photographs displayed every month. Some patrons were put off by the stark black-and-white photos on the wall during the opening weeks, but they might have been charmed a few months later by the romantic abstracts in shades of rose and gold, which gave a completely different feeling to the space. In any case, chef Bruce Auden turns out extraordinary creations that play havoc with tradition-everything from spring rolls and sate to crème brulée with fresh currants. There is an astoundingly reasonable pre-theater prix fixe dinner available, which includes a soup, salad, main course (superb duckling and fish), dessert and coffee for less than $20. Dinner prices are all reasonable, and if you order a la carte you can try Auden’s appetizers, which are among his best creations. And late-night breakfast is served.
The Mansion on Turtle Creek. This is the real surprise on the Dallas restaurant scene in recent months. Since its opening, The Mansion has been one of the most exquisite places to dine in the city-and one of the most chic and most expensive. But for the first few years of its existence, the Mansion did not do a spectacular job with the food. That held true even after Los Angeles restaurateur Wolfgang Puck became a consultant-the expected sparks just didn’t fly. But lately, the Californian’s Puckish influence has really been felt. The Mansion’s menu is chock-full of innovative dishes such as salads of smoked tuna and asparagus char-broiled on the grill. Dishes that have been offered all along, such as green fettuc-cine with medallions of lobster, now have new finesse and pizazz. On my last visit, even the service was helpful rather than supercilious, as it had been in the past. Prices, though, have soared at a commensurate rate-a three-course lunch for two can set you back $100 here, to say nothing of the prices at dinner.
Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan. This is one of the best Chinese restaurants in America. Although the oponymous Uncle Tai shares his time between this and his Houston establishment, the standards he established in making his name in New York prevail in his Dallas kitchen. The spicy Hunan dishes are cooked with an authority and panache that make their counterparts in most other Dallas Chinese restaurants look thrown together. The most famous of these are Uncle Tai’s Beef and Duck with Young Ginger, but many others worth discovering dot the menu. Since the service here has in the past months lost the slightly hostile edge that sadly seemed to migrate from New York along with the fabulous food, Uncle Tai’s comes close to being in our highest category. Our only reservation is that both the menu and the servers offer little help in composing a meal with a fine balance of flavors- although the spicy dishes have plenty of variety among themselves, it’s hard to find lighter, more delicately flavored dishes to complement them.
Atlantic Café. Another new seafood restaurant that’s fancier (and less friendly) than Newport’s-with higher peaks in the cooking but a bit more unevenness-Atlantic Café is the sort of place you may have to wait an hour to get into unless somebody knows you. The sophisticated feel of the place partly comes from the marble floors and shiny dark wood, but is created even more from dishes like a definitive ceviche, fried calamari. pasta with seafood, sautéed scallops and broiled salmon. There are beautiful salads and a heavenly custard dessert and a sizable selection of meat dishes for those not in the mood for fish.
Café Royal. This most cosmopolitan of hotel dining rooms-copied from a French restaurant in London and manned by a polyglot staff headed by German-speaking people-seems to be struggling to find its niche. It set the tone for nouvelle-inspired cooking in Dallas when it opened four years ago, but its identity has never quite jelled. It has tried various approaches such as offering a menu dégustation of a number of different courses, a pre-theater special and bringing in guest chefs from famous hotel restaurants in Europe. The menu dégustation is one innovation that has worked well. It is really more of a prix fixe dinner than an assemblage of small servings of main dishes, but the selections (such as broiled turbot and veal steaks in truffle sauce) can be marvelous, often better than a much more expensive meal a la carte. At its best, the food at Café Royal is glorious, but there always seem to be small slips here and there.
L’Ambiance. This must rank as one of my favorite restaurants, if “favorite” means something one favors even beyond its (very considerable) merits. Obvious complaints can be lodged: The room is crowded and still shows traces of its origin as a Shell station; occasionally, a dish such as the green pasta with fresh tomato sauce is bland and soggy: and the menu stays pretty much with the tried-and-true specialties of the house. But L’Ambiance serves many dishes I can’t resist: the watercress salad with goat cheese and bacon, the veal smothered in duxelles of mushrooms, the floating island and the Concorde cake. When I am eating these, I’m sure I’m in the best restaurant in Dallas.
La Vieille Varsovie (The Old Warsaw). We seem to change our minds about exactly how good this doyenne of Dallas restaurants is every time we go back. One time it seems superb, in the very top ranks; the next it seems like a grand lady relying too much on her makeup and couture to keep her glamorous. The violinist and pianist playing the latest hits from Paris (circa 1890), the pink, green and black flamingos on the walls, the pontifical wine steward can all be a bit much, especially if one spends too much time waiting in the bar, looking at the old photographs of Maria Callas visiting the place eons ago. The clientele, too. has a taste for the grande luxe: One evening I saw three bottles of an old vintage of Haut Brion brought to a table for three. Amid all this, how much can it matter that on one visit the salmon and spinach in feuilleté is fabulous, the next marred by pastry requiring a hacksaw?
Newport’s. Seafood keeps getting better and better in Dallas-a miracle this far from saltwater. Among the restaurants contributing to the phenomenon is this new one in the Brewery, a renovated building at the northwest corner of downtown. Newport’s mostly keeps to simple preparations. The impeccably fresh fish and shellfish are broiled over wood, sautéed, even fried with admirable lightness and crispness. A few sauces, including basil or buerre blanc, may be chosen to top it. The accompaniments are likewise beyond reproach, especially the french fries, which are the best in town. The ambiance is unpretentiously dramatic and elegant, with tiers of tables descending to the edge of a huge old cistern.
Restaurant Silvano. Also a new place in downtown’s booming West End, Silvano is mostly French in an unobtrusively nouvelle mode. The food can be outstanding, especially the fish and beef. Some of the recipes, however, such as the veal in a sauce with blue cheese, don’t quite work. And the room, although it looks beautiful with its artfully lit archways and its masses of flowers, can be shockingly noisy when full. Silvano has the potential of being one of Dallas’ best restaurants if its food and service would always attain their highest levels.
Rolf’s. One of the few consistently excellent restaurants in town that is neither French nor American nouvelle (which still, after all, is basically French in technique and inspiration), Rolfs does at least adhere to the Dallas preference of being elegant and continental in preparing its version of German cooking. The music is by Johann Strauss and Mozart, and along with the lovely treatments of seafood and veal come such things as ethereal liver dumplings and pork cooked with a kind of attention that nobody else in town gives it.
Jennivine. How would you feel if one of your best dates went out and got made over-new haircut, new makeup, a whole new outlook on life? Confused, I’ll bet, and that’s how I feel about this cozy little place on McKinney Avenue. It’s not really the exterior things about Jennivine that have changed, though, but the soul. It used to be a kind of wine bar, with wonderful patés and cheeses and delectably simple versions of things such as broiled fish with side dishes of mashed potatoes and carrots. Well, the patés and cheeses are still available, but now Jennivine’s menu sports all kinds of gussied-up dishes such as salmon in fancy sauces and quail and such. The garnishes are cute little nouvelle vegetables. The food is still excellent, mind you. But we wonder what has become of the old Jennivine. We don’t think that yet another selection of snowpeas and underdone green beans can compensate for the memories of mashed potatoes in ex-celsis.
Kebab ’N’ Kurry. The closest thing to a dive on this list is this unpretentious little Indian restaurant, now found in two locations. It’s perfectly clean and cheerful, and both locations are in presentable enough commercial neighborhoods, but it’s a long way from fancy. The food, however, is wonderful. The buffet of Indian foods, by now rather a cliché, is available on weekends only. At lunch during the week there are specials featuring the shish kebabs and curries the restaurant is named after and all are excellent. And in the evenings, the whole array of Northern Indian cuisine is available: creamy kormas, fowl and bread cooked in the clay tandoor ovens and luscious desserts. A combination of these is the most reasonably priced great meal you can find in Dallas.
L’Ancestral In some ways, this is the most authentically French restaurant in town-at least it goes back more faithfully to the roots of French provincial cooking that are hinted at in the restaurant’s name. Among the very typical things you find here and not elsewhere are unusual salades composés of lentil or corn, grilled tiny sardines and (in this case not very satisfactory) clafoutis of cherries. LAncestral is run by a very French couple (he’s in the kitchen, she’s out front). Its austere, rather formal style seems a bit out of place so far down on funky Lower Greenville.
Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. Ironically, the best place in Dallas for steak is franchised out of New Orleans. (And you thought beef and cattle were proprietary trademarks of Texas!) The prime beef is of surpassing quality and is cooked to perfection. The side dishes and atmosphere are nothing to write home about-unless you have a thing about looking at oil company logos or have a need to keep up with the latest stock quotations or sports scores as they roll by on an electronic ticker tape. The prices are stiff, but your money is going into the meat, not into the extras. When we are in a carnivorous mood, that’s okay by us.
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