Chef David Bull’s stock takes a tumble in the newly refurbished Stoneleigh.
Several years ago, a powder-pink 1950s shirtwaist dress hanging in the window of an upscale vintage clothing store in New York City stopped me in my tracks. It had tiny pin tucks in the yoke of the bodice; the three-quarter-length skirt was box-pleated and full. At first glance, memories ran through my mind of my mother cinching the belt of a similar shimmering shirtwaist dress as she dressed for a night of dancing at the Cipango Club. I loved that dress, and I had to have it.
The dress was a size four. That would not stop me from trying to squeeze my Rubenesque body into the joyous emotion I now found spun into a form-fitting fabric. Even as I looked into the mirror and saw that the buttons and the buttonholes were six inches apart, I didn’t despair. I threw back the dressing room curtains and called for the tailor. He shook his head and said, “No way.”
Like that pink dress, I loved the idea of Bolla. I wanted it to work. Its home, the Stoneleigh Hotel, is etched into my childhood memories of the 1950s Dallas skyline. My grandfather lived there. In the ’70s and ’80s my male friends who divorced lived there. We all drank more than we should have at the Lion’s Den. But after four meals of modern Italian at Bolla, I’m afraid it just doesn’t work. Not yet.
There is little doubt that the crew behind the $50 million restoration of the Stoneleigh Hotel & Spa has worked hard to get the doors open. They gutted the historic 1923 hotel and restyled it from basement to penthouse. In addition to the hotel, spa, Bolla Restaurant, and Bolla Bar, the co-owners of the property, New York-based Apollo Real Estate Advisors and Dallas-based Prescott Realty Group, are building a 22-story luxury residential high-rise next door. The two entities will connect via underground tunnels. The man appointed to manage all of the madness is hotelier Jeff Trigger. From 1991 to 1999, he worked his hospitality magic as the managing director at the Mansion on Turtle Creek. When he vacated his post at the Mansion to take on the restoration of the Driskill Hotel in Austin, several key Mansion employees, including then sous chef David Bull, followed Trigger to Austin. When Trigger’s La Corsha Hospitality Group was approached to do the Stoneleigh project, he and a loyal staff of close to 30—salespeople, dishwashers, room attendants, wait staff, stewards—came to Dallas. Executive chef David Bull became partner/chef David Bull.
The grand scale of the chic art deco lobby certainly catches your attention. The color scheme—red, black, silver, green—screams “silver screen.” A 30-foot curved wooden bar swooshes from the back to the front of the room and is lit by a string of glistening crystal chandeliers. You can snuggle on a silver couch in the back of the bar or sit in the room’s most popular feature—a dramatic 6-by-10-foot blood red, diamond-tufted boxed banquette. Designer Amber Lewis, of Dallas-based Lewis Designs, watched “a lot of black-and-white movies for inspiration” in her quest to “embrace the past stars of the Stoneleigh with the future stars.” Hence, the hundreds of old head shots of famous guests such as Bob Hope and Andy Warhol that once lined the walls of the Lion’s Den have been edited down to just a few; frames filled with a generic silhouette await autographed pictures of stars to come.
The glitz spills across the hall to the restaurant, where high-backed booths covered in shiny polypropylene fabric sit next to espresso-colored wood tables with honey onyx inlays. Table groupings are divided by glimmering gold see-through curtains trimmed with fuchsia-colored satin. You’ll either love it or feel like you’re flashing back to Sunset Boulevard, and you’re sitting in Norma Desmond’s dressing room. Or both.
Especially given that setting, I was stunned that such a fine team of professionals was not better prepared to receive the public. Certainly the chef and the staff will call “soft opening foul” as I reprimand them for the inconsistent food quality and service I found on my four visits to Bolla. But once a restaurant opens and charges full price, I believe it is fair game for criticism. Usually a restaurant has only one chance to make a first good impression.
I’ll start with service, which ranged from average to downright laughable. One dinner took nearly four hours. The kitchen was so far behind that the server stalled and took 20 minutes to describe every offering on the menu. When he finished, an amuse bouche arrived. Thirty minutes later, he returned to take our order, and after he left, we were served another amuse bouche. We’d been there an hour and a half. When the table next to us left, they said, “We hope you like the breakfast menu.” On my last visit—a Monday night—the menus were stained with food and crumbs, which the server wiped off with fingers smudged with ink. The good news? We were in and out in two hours.
Next up, the food. The much-heralded chef Bull came out of the shoot with all kinds of pressure to perform new tricks. Now even he admits his initial menu was confusing to the diner. “It was just three pages of food that encouraged people to order across the board,” he says. “It was a nightmare for the kitchen.” Smartly, three weeks in, he rolled out a streamlined menu and added three-course, six-course, and nine-course prix fixe dinner options. “It took me eight years to perfect prix fixe at the Driskill,” Bull says. “I should have kept it the way I knew how to do it.”
But nothing could have saved the bronzini, the new “it” fish from the Mediterranean, that I was served on my first visit. A poke of the fork yielded the nasty odor of ammonia instead of the briny sea. The fish was well past its prime. Several weeks later, however, the dish was divine. Same story for a charred beef tenderloin covered with a delicious truffle-onion crumble—on one visit, delivered overcooked to boot leather; the next, served gorgeously medium rare. Overall, the food was as inconsistent as the service. Too much salt on the arugula salad at one sitting, too little on another. A 3-ounce pour of Pinot Grigio here, a 5-ounce there. (Yes, I travel with a measuring cup.)
Only once did chef Bull manage to pull together a complete, memorable meal: a three-course dinner that included a roasted beet salad, tender rabbit over cannellini beans, and a veal cheek piccata garnished with caper berries. And only once did I see Bull visit a table in the dining room.
Perhaps Bull’s talents have been spread too thin. Besides the menu at Bolla, he has designed, tasted, and tested menus for room service, banquets, the bar, and catering. Plus, the restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That makes for a big staff to manage. If anyone can make it all work, Jeff Trigger can. I only hope he does it soon. And when he does, I’ll be back in, wearing a pink dress.
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