Review: Cafe R&D

The prettiest dishes at Café R&D aren’t coming out of the busy open kitchen; they’re posing around the oval stretch of bar, or curled into the deep booths at martini time.

On a late spring evening, the kittens and cougars of the nearby Park Cities slink in before sundown to order cocktails and fork-fondle light fare at this newish oasis in Preston Center Plaza. The crowd is a mix of this neighborhood’s versions of Bravo’s “real housewives” and their men, who are a good decade or two into the good life. You can spot the second wives—tanned tennis-court calves, $100 blowouts, honking huge diamond rings. They’re big sisters to younger singletons doing the Choo-foot floogie with their backs against barstools. The guys here, many a little blue pill older than the babes they’re with, namedrop golf courses to each other and jump up to iPhone a biz partner from out on the sidewalk (no cell phones in the dining room).

It’s a scene all right, heavy on thin, blond 40-plus women who know they’re hot. Looking over the room from our booth in the elevated section above the bar, my dining companion, Roberto, offers a fierce description of the pack below: “Puma Thurmans.”


All the action in this place can be a distraction from the good, if not spectacular, food. Part of the Hillstone Restaurant Group that includes Houston’s (there’s one directly across the parking lot), Café R&D was launched in the ritzy Fashion Island shopping plaza in Newport Beach, California, where it’s still drawing Stepford-West cousins of our fellow diners. The University Park location is the second; a third opens in Santa Monica this summer.

Café R&D’s emphasis is on indoor-outdoor ambience and attentive service, supporting a seasonally changing menu that features just a few choices among the starter, salad, sandwich and sushi categories. A half-dozen or so heavier entrées, a few more at dinner than at lunch, include the usual fillets of fin, feather and fur. Right now there are only two desserts: hot fudge sundae and banana cream pie.

In two visits—come between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., or make a reservation to avoid a wait—we tried a little of everything, finding a couple of items worth repeating. At these prices, however, return visits will be special occasions. A light lunch for three, without alcohol or desserts, edges just past 80 bucks.

The best bites we found are in side dishes and appetizers. With an entrée of center-cut fillet, it’s the warm potato salad that gets our attention. Coarsely chopped spuds are stirred up with green peas, corn kernels, onions and warm bits of bacon. It’s like a loaded baked potato that’s shed its skin and gone shopping for accessories. The fillet is fine too, but without a sauce the little round mound of dry beef looks a mite lonely on its side of the big oval plate.

A potluck supper was the last time we tasted deviled eggs as creamy as the appetizer version here. Stirred into the yokes is a dollop of mustard and mayo, some salt and pepper, paprika and teeny-tiny bits of something crunchy, possibly celery or finely chopped scallions. Big yum.

Guacamole is a ubiquitous starter, but Café R&D’s has a sweetness that perks it right up. Chunks of the creamy fresh fruit sit nicely on warm tostada chips. Too bad the order comes with so few of those, only 10 small chips per, not nearly enough for proper sharing. We were hoping our server would drop a few extras our way. Instead, she cleared the unfinished plate, which still had lots of guac left on it.

Serving sizes here feel about right otherwise, but there can still be too much of a good thing. The Newporter salad sports a just-enough clump of spring greens. A few thin slices of chicken breast hide among julienned apples, cherry tomatoes, purple onion, bacon and cashews. The menu description doesn’t mention cheese, but the salad comes wearing a superfluous hood of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Plus chopped egg. Plus golden raisins. And besides the cashews there are fat walnuts and chopped almonds throughout. Fewer nuts, less cheese and egg, and more chicken might be nicer.

Roberto, our vegan diner, is happy with his no-tuna version of Café R&D’s seared tuna Mediterranean salad. Tossed into the greens are fat, sweet balls of fresh beets, cold fingerling potatoes, olives, yellow tomatoes, cucumbers and other crunchies. He also approves of the veggie sushi roll and is impressed that the server puts it on the table, then quickly removes it for fear some stray anchovy paste might have sneaked into the filling. She returns with assurances from the chef that the roll and its contents are completely creature-free.

Slices of California roll look lovely standing on end on their pristine saucer, but the filling is sopping with mayonnaise. Even a swipe of wasabi doesn’t cut the gooeyness. It’s a too-tame wasabi by half. Need that burn.

Our threesome shares a side of fries, but we wish we’d ordered more. They come in a loose knot of shoestring-cut potatoes, flash-fried in long shreds, then dusted with salt, pepper and parsley flakes. The tablespoon of pink dressing alongside isn’t enough for three and isn’t as good as fresh ketchup would be.

Fish specials vary day to day. We had the sliver-thin plank of pan-fried loup de mer, a Mediterranean sea bass that loses most of its flavor to a heavy brown nutty coating around it. A tiny ramekin of mayonnaise lurks, pretending to be fresh tartar sauce. The side for this is a winner, though: a tumble of long ribbons of crunchy red and green cabbage tossed in a cool citrus-y dressing.

The original Café R&D in So-Cal is famous for its carrot cake, but don’t look for it at the Dallas branch. “We used to have it,” our server tells us, “but they could never get it right, so they took it off the menu.”

Perhaps they’re over-thinking their desserts. How else to explain the banana cream pie? Within those three words lies an implicit promise that’s been badly broken here. Pie means pie, but Café R&D has deconstructed it into a loose, sloppy layering of ingredients that spill across an entire plate. At the bottom is a flat, greasy crust of chopped nuts and graham crackers. Over that is a layer of chocolate pieces. Over that, a sea of sticky vanilla-almond custard. Over that are fat slices of an entire fresh banana. And over those is a cloud of fresh whipped cream, then more chocolate and drizzles of caramel. It’s a mess. Too sweet, too heavy. Just too, too, too.

You’d think a hot fudge sundae (again, three words that promise something wonderful) would be nearly mistake-proof. But no, they’ve gone and fooled around with another good thing. The ice cream part is fine. It’s a baseball-size scoop of vanilla Blue Bell (we asked), marked up about 300 percent over the grocery store price. A fluffy but flavorless whipped cream topping is dotted with sugared walnut halves that beg to be removed and forgotten. In a separate silver gravy boat is the melted chocolate. We dip a spoon in to sample. Ick. Did someone forget to rinse out the gravy? This may be melted Belgian chocolate (we asked), but it tastes strongly of onions and beef. So wrong.

If the dishes aren’t consistent in quality, the service certainly is. The hostesses up front are chatty and helpful, offering ice water during our wait for a table. Servers are friendly but unobtrusive, always there when we need something, but not hovering. We especially appreciate the open attitude toward vegan options (the menu also asks for alerts about food allergies). Getting things right the first time saves time for diners and chefs.

About that iced tea thing, though. Instead of refilling the medium-sized tumblers from a pitcher, servers replace half-empty glasses with brand new ones. That gets annoying, what with the constant re-lemoning and re-Equaling for each new glass. Over one lunch the three of us probably go through five glasses apiece. “Hillstone policy,” explains the server.

How fitting for the location of this Café R&D. The Park Cities are all about “out with the old and in with the new.” Just sidle up to the bar and ask one of those Pumas.

8314 Preston Center Plaza Drive, 214-890-7900. Open 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sundays, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Mondays-Tuesdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. $$