"Self-confidence is the first requisite to great undertakings,” said London media bad boy Samuel Johnson back in the day. Sammy, baby, it’s a pity you’re not here now to see your wisdom in action, as embodied by Tim Love, the supremely confident chef of Fort Worth’s Lonesome Dove and now Duce, too.
Dr. J would surely dig Love’s web site, www.lovestyleinc.com, which says the chef embodies “a timeless American ideal” with “unparalleled talent and dogged ambition” who’s reached the “very top of the culinary arena.” As for Duce, his new (so-called) modern European creation, it has acquired “an almost mythic reputation, prior to even opening its doors.”
Mythic reputation. Huh. Who knew? But, hey, if you don’t believe in yourself, who else will? Cocky’s okay as long as the food is good, which it definitely is at Duce, one of the more smashing spots in the area to open this year. It has style. It has charisma. It makes you feel like you’re in the right place at the right time, eating food that’s as satisfying as Love is confident, with provocative, sensual flavors that hover in your consciousness for days.
Especially the gnudi, Duce’s signature dish. A cousin to gnocchi, gnudi is made with ricotta cheese instead of mashed potato. Formed into plump, luscious dumplings, they had an irresistibly squishy, sexy chew, made more luxurious by their sauce of brown butter with sage.
Gnudi is a hot-hot trend in New York, served at the Spotted Pig and most famously at Falai, where they’re also sauced with butter and sage. Wait. Does that mean Love isn’t “clearing a pathway towards originality,” as his web site claims? What does it matter? He’s the first around here to serve gnudi.
The gnudi fall under Duce’s “small food,” like tapas. The category dominates the menu, and that’s good, given how much imagination is at play in the ingredients and combinations. Ravioli with rabbit and manchego cheese, lobster and red grapefruit ceviche, smoked crawfish salad—these stimulate the mind as well as the stomach.
Love has his version of a “shooter,” a mouthful of food served in a shot glass, which he calls “little sips of heaven.” It’s often a vegetable essence, intensely flavored, such as beet, which came with a slice of beet, dried until paper-thin and nearly chewy, perched atop the shot glass.
The kitchen’s attention to detail could be seen in the bite-size empanadas, filled with wild boar and boasting an unusually flaky crust, achieved by using a fatty chicken stock in the pastry dough. (Fat makes flaky.) Goat cheese and jamón (Spanish ham), wrapped snuggly tight in a grape leaf, resembled a sushi roll, its edge sliced so sharply that it looked like it might cut your lip.
Salads ranked as some of the most sophisticated around. (“What is fri-see?” asked an older fellow nearby, wearing classy wool slacks with ostrich cowboy boots. Imagine the chortling later among my smug foodie friends and me. Of course, this was only after we’d figured out what the heck gnudi was.) One fine salad paired arugula and watercress with candied walnuts and Meyer lemon; another topped a snarl of frisée with crackles of bacon lardon and a jiggly poached egg, ready to be pierced and ooze its yolk all over.
As for the entrées—halibut with pommes frites, southern-fried buttermilk game hen, “a big burger run through the garden” with garlic sweet fries—all appealed, and how often does that happen? But all-day braised shank of pork with bits of spaetzle was oversold. In truth, it wasn’t quite that tender.
Thumbs up to the Uruguayan tenderloin, so selected because beef from Uruguay is grass-fed and hormone-free. The filet lived up to the tenderloin ideal, with a charred crust and violet red center. It came with arugula and a delectable potato pancake with its own blackened crust, made of bread crumbs and grated Asiago cheese. The potatoes picked up that cheesy flavor, tasting damn near like cheesecake.
Desserts didn’t show much in the way of pastry skills, as they were mostly fruit dressed this way or that. Blueberry and dumplings were a sloppy mess, like blueberry soup with mushy wet clumps. I should have tried the custard three ways: pot de crème, rhubarb brûlée, and lavender panna cotta. But everyone at Duce seems to finish off with a shot of Tuaca, so we did that, too.
At least half of the charm of Duce (which, by the way, is a deliberately misspelled version of “deuce,” done to “create conversation,” says Love) is its interior design. Located in a new center in an entertainment zone west of downtown Fort Worth, it’s a warm but cool combination of brushed aluminum and tan woods, including savvy use of plywood, and poured concrete floor. A boisterous patio, with bar and dining area, gets its comforting sshhhhh from a tiled waterfall wall. Love collaborated on the design with his architect, Michael Malone. Is there nothing the cocksure chef can’t do? No need to ask him. You already know his answer.
Update: Duce has closed.