No Reservation MENUS BY THE NUMBERS
Restaurateurs rely on demographics and trends for identity and success.
IT’S PERFECTLY EASY-A VIRTUAL piece of cake-to make yourself a fortune in the restaurant business. Just figure out exactly what people want to eat and serve it to them. It used to be easier than it is now, because everyone in the country seemed to want exactly the same thing.
But these days, American gustatory demands and demographics are more complicated. The search for a world-respectable national cuisine has resulted in a desperate culinary shopping spree, a frenzy of flash-in-the-pan fusions as chefs and restaurateurs struggle to identify themselves and their market (and diners often struggle to identify what’s on their plates). Chains are experimenting with variation-evolving into restaurant "groups" in which each store can cater to its individual market, a return to personal service via database. Even 7-11, the ultimate in cloned shopping, is figuring out that they’ll sell more if they sell more precisely. The marketing gurus call the philosophy "mass customization" and, like a lot of bright marketing ideas, this one can backfire.
DOOLITTLE’S DOESN’T DO MUCH (EXCEPT MAKE A SMOOTH MARTINI)
I was ruminating about this-the relationship between real estate and restaurants, a sense of place and a sense of taste-over a two-olive martini at Doolittle’s, an Addison restaurant owned by the same partnership that opened Deep EllumCafe 10 years ago.Mike Sakuta and Patrick Davis experimented with duplicating that downtown hot spot in a suburban location, but when someone wanted their real estate on Beltline, they were ready to move on to something else. Something, perhaps, more in tune with- more customized to-a suburban northern neighborhood. Doolittle’s is what they came up with.
Doolittle’s is a restaurant so slick the whole idea of it slips right past yon. From the anonymous name (dreamed up only because the double O allowed for the two-olive logo) to the clean-lined interior (nicely finished in birch and maple so smooth you don’t notice there is a decor), the trendy spot is an Olestra-coated concept. There’s a martini menu, a cigar selection, some single malts, some boutique beers. Live music. Thai iced coffee. Doolittle’s offers a shopping cartful of styles that cancels itself out. Like those architectural assemblages-a little bit Italianate, a little bit Georgian-dubbed "North Dallas Specials" that line the suburban streets where Doolittle’s diners live, this restaurant is a bland bundling together of crowd-pleasing elements.
I guess Doolittle’s does fit its demographics.
The bar flows into the dining room- confirming the double-olive clue that Doolittle’s is about drinking as much as eating. That first martini was a smooth, "build-your-own" drink made with Belvedere and roughened up with olive juice. The cocktail theme continued with our appetizer, a martini glass filled with chopped shrimp and just-diced avocado, embellished with sprigs of cilantro. Too bad the cocktail sauce that bathed it all was slushy and tasted canned. The second time I visited, a $2 price tag on margaritas lured me from martinis so I ordered a drink with no apparent tequila in it. Then, to continue the Southwestern theme, cunning cups of crisped wonton wrappers, filled with black beans, com, seen -but- untasted chicken shreds, and some gratings of cheese. They were darling, but perhaps untested, appetizers. If you bit into them, or cut them with a fork, they shattered everywhere.
Doolittle’s kitchen has kept the dishes that made the Deep Ellum Cafe famous: dill-scented chicken and dumplings, chicken-fried tenderloin, Vietnamese-style chicken salad. It’s been called "casual cuisine" and that’s the only theme that unifies the menu-it ranges from Cajun-inspired crawfish fettucini to "Tavern Style Pot Roast."
Airy croutons and rubbery cheese topped the inevitable Caesar salad-we know better now. Tuna steak, attractively coated in black and white sesame seeds and correctly cooked so the fish was just grayed on the outside, proved again the impossibility of improving substandard ingredients. Instead of the quivering, ruby translucence of rare tuna, this dull red meat was mushy and soft.
Details were sloppy: There was a long wait to be seated, even though the restaurant was nearly empty. The plastic-sleeved menu was unpleasantly sticky. Although the manager, John McCash, who used to be a salesman for Tarrant Distributors and knows his way around wine, has put together an interesting wine list-38 bottles and 17 by the glass-our waiter neglected to sell us on the "wine of the week" program.
McCash says that there was no real plan for Doolittle’s. A culinary chameleon that is whatever everyone wants it to be. The generic restaurant, customized to a clientele that doesn’t know what it wants. To that end, McCash says, there’s live music five nights a week-blues on Thursdays, jazz on weekends, and parrot-head sounds on Sundays. "We want people to say, ’I wonder what the heck is going on at Doolittle’s right now?’"
I’m still wondering.
Ml PIACI IS YOUR PIACI
Americans are always shopping for alternate realities, which they prefer to find- or construct-in their own backyard. If you can’t get away, get it to go. A smaller, more user-friendly New York City has been built in Las Vegas (coming soon: Paris!), while Disney’s California culture has rooted itself in Times Square.
Peter Mayle brought us Provence in a paperback, making it a household word, then a lifestyle, and finally, inevitably, a bore. The top spot on the foodies’ vacation reading list this year was Under (he Tuscan Sun, a personal account of the difficulties of remodeling in Italy. In the meandering narrative, the American author discovers that pine nuts (pignoli) come from pine trees, experiences the difficulty of buying bedsprings in a small Italian village, and attains a kind of enlightenment through pressing her own olive oil.
Now restaurateur Pino Luongo (owner of the Coco Pazzo restaurant group) is fanning the fascination with Tuscany, transplanting it first to Rockefeller Center, soon to the world. Tuscan Square, a Tuscan-themed marketplace, will cash in-in ;very conceivable way-on the trend.
Mi Piaci, Dallas’ most notable Italian restaurant, has begun trading on the Tuscan cachet, using the T-word in its press releases. Not i to worry. There’s no taint of quaintness at this restaurant, which still manages to be both relaxing and sophisti-cated. And good. The white-walled, light-filled rooms beyond the brick-floored entry (which remind me of the book’s riveting descriptions of finishing floors with" linseed oil) have a for-mal feel that’s natural in newish places. It’s that North Dallas gloss and it proves that any transplant takes on the qualities of the place you plant it. Rustica just can’t mean the same thing in Addison as it does in Montepulciano.
The service is serious and stands on ceremony. We watched our waiter deftly de-bone a Dover sole after soberly presenting it whole. When the kitchen errs, it’s on the side of subtlety, but most plates are near-perfect. A salad of arugula leaves wasn’t cupped in radicchio as described, but a lemon bath and shingles of sweet Parmigiana Reggiana pointed up their tartness. The oranges weren’t blood but they were roundly sweet and smoothed together the spicy fennel crescents and deep metallic taste of spinach. A special dish of gnocchi was topped with barely curled prawns in a fresh tomato sauce, Risotto was not perfectly cooked-only slightly weepy where it should have been creamy-but it was pretty close, and the flavors were (tor once) robust and assertive, the strong mea-tiness of pancetta and the deep sweetness of caramelized onions supported by the red wine used as broth, Osso buco wasn’t quite falling off the bone, but the rich, stewed sauce filled the mouth with the layers of flavor that come from long cooking, brightened with traditional gremolata (grated lemon peel and parsley garnish).
The Tuscany trend may come and go. (Next summer we all may be fascinated by the vicissitudes of housekeeping in Bora Bora.) Mi Piaci transcends the trend, remaining one of the only genuine Italian restaurants in Dallas, a place that captures the Italian genius for vivid, direct flavors and easy, elegant style-while still coating it in the suaveness this culture requires.
CAFE SOCIETY UNITED
Dallas’ little coffee company that could has been a success since it opened in Travis Walk, but its earnestly idealistic notion of creating not just a restaurant, but a kind of salon, was oddly at odds with the slick, mall-like atmosphere of a Park Cities shopping center. After all, this is a restaurant with a manifesto. Now, the cafe and the roasting factory (formerly on Hall Street) are housed together on Henry Street, between Commerce and Canton. It seems that Cafe Society has finally settled in its natural habitat.
From the industrial architecture to the secondhand chairs to the music on weekends, Cafe Society is an integrated whole.There’s still a bulletin board of local cultural affairs, patrons consist of a lot of pierced guys and women in sensible shoes, and the whole place has a welcoming, easy, alternative comfort that allows you to sip your tea or coffee for hours. The food is generally pretty fine, too, especially the baked goods. But the ingredients of a Caesar salad over tostados with corn and bean relish seemed as though they’d never been introduced to one another, and a portobello and goat cheese filling was overwhelmed by a thick whole wheat bun. I can’t stand the prison-issue tin plates-the sound of a fork scraping on the cheap metal is enough to provoke misbehavior. But the semi-self service works better here than it did in Travis Walk.
Very occasionally, a restaurant and its real estate mesh perfectly; the setting, service, and food are all clear manifestations of the same imagination. In its new home in Deep Ellum, Cafe Society has finally found the place that fits its philosophy. The earthiness and earnestness are refreshing, especially in Dallas, which is generally the provenance of pretension. It doesn’t hurt that the coffee is excellent.