It’s been a year since I wrote about the opening of Asador, the restaurant in the Dallas Renaissance Hotel. The report announced the arrival of chef/proprietor Dean Max and, a young, talented and energetic chef with a focus on farm-to-table (or “farm-to-fire” as Asador would rather term it) principles. Ditto for onsite chef David Trubenbach. I also noted Marriott corporation’s commitment to a destination restaurant in the Dallas Renaissance Hotel, a promise they backed up with an extensive Tequila collection. As downtown Dallas restaurants convert, seemingly like flies, to steak houses, I decided to check-in, so to speak, at Asador to see if they are staying true to their original mission. Here is what I found.
I attended a media event this week which included the presence of Chef Max. After tasting the creations, I can confirm Asador is doing very nicely. Robust hotel bookings are the backbone of solid numbers at lunch and in the evening. The concept of corporate chef Dean James Max has actually expanded and deepened the restaurant’s commitment to preparing dishes in-house and using artisanal suppliers. The tequila collection has evolved into a full mixology program and includes an expanded beer list which currently boasts 35 selections, including eight from Texas.
The one puzzle, to me, is that Asador is still relatively unknown and not patronized by Dallasites seeking a destination restaurant. Here’s what those folks are missing:
The philosophy described above translates to a menu that is printed on pretty flimsy card stock. That’s good, because the reason is that Asador Chef David Trubenbach changes one or two items every day. The result is a constantly evolving expression of seasonal freshness backed up by a commitment to let the ingredients speak for themselves. Since my report last year, he has spent a lot of time exploring local producers and has been quite brutal dealing with any producers whose quality or ethics do not fit his ideals. He grew up close to the coast (in Florida) and has had an overall positive experience sourcing in the very different climate of Texas.
He thinks cheese is a strong suit here. He’s uses Gouda from Dave Eagle at Eagle Mountain Farmhouse Cheese and several cheeses from Paula Lambert at The Mozzarella Company. He is currently looking for a really good Texas cheddar-style cheese. Fresh produce comes from a number of farms including Rocco Tassione’s Tassione Farm in Stephenville and Chef’s Produce, an unusual produce merchant in that it requires that all of its sales representatives to be qualified chefs. The biggest challenge has been seafood, due partly to the move inland from Florida and partly to the problems in the Gulf during 2011. He has, however, made up the supply difficulties with some interesting preparations. For example, he smokes salmon (which he sources from the Bay of Fundy) and other ‘oily’ fish. He uses grass-fed beef ground up in burgers or braised but recognizes that most customers prefer corn-fed steak. So if a steak is really what you want, there is no need to leave the hotel.
The new items I mentioned above take various forms. The ‘Taco Tuesdays’ program I cited last time is flourishing. Each Tuesday at 4:30pm you can order two tacos and a taste of tequila for $6. You can add a $15 Tequila Family Flight (three tequilas) or a $6 margarita as well. Mondays are ‘Reverse Happy Hour’ from 9pm until 11pm, and every day is Happy Hour from 4pm until 7pm. On Thursdays, select wines from the list are half-off. Friday’s menu offers alternating Chef’s Table dinners. Wine, beer, and tequila rotate on consecutive weeks as the beverage that is paired with a three-or four-course menu (plus amuse) for $45 + t & t. The meal is served at a 12-place chef’s table and Trubenbach introduces the dishes and interacts with the guests.
Asador now has a selection of specialty cocktails prepared by Tyler Lott the, ahem, hottest Mixologist I have seen. She is self-taught, but hasn’t missed a thing. The cocktails I tasted were carefully conceived and impeccably executed. The Bloody Maria is especially recommended.
One thing I would like them to revisit is their wine list. They need to carry over the local element of the food to to the list. There is not a single Texas wine on the list. This is at the very time in Texas wine history at which there is least justification for such an omission. I suspect that it happened because the list is sourced from ‘central listing’ and, rather like the case at the similarly focused Central 214, the local people need to bring the issue to the attention of the powers that be. If Hunter Hammett at The Pyramid Restaurant can sell Texas wine, then so can others. Also, the markup on the list is three times that of retail price (e.g. 2009 The Prisoner Zinfandel $89, 2010 Pascual Toso Malbec $35). That kind of mark-up is common in Dallas restaurants, but it is a big disincentive to order wine. That being said, this list shows good geographical coverage for its size, and there are over 20 wines by the glass and several available in half bottles. Perhaps the solution here is a dedicated sommelier?
Another welcome change is the ‘welcome.’ The large area that the restaurant occupies used to feel like an airport lounge. In particular, it wasn’t clear how you indicated you wanted a table after you arrived in the hotel lobby. Now the restaurant area is roped off and a maître’d stand learly marks the entrance.
The Chef’s Table menu I sampled recently illustrated what the food at Asador is all about. We started with an amuse of Seafood Texas Cigar : lump crab, gulf rock shrimp, cilantro, poblano pepper, and lemon aioli in a wrapper of feuilles de brick).
The salad course was Grilled Calamari Salad (corn, mâche, avocado, bacon, lardoons). What a creative change from the standard house salad. This dish did not just have the buttery-ness of avocado and crunchy saltiness of bacon, but the squid was presented in a way that did not make it seem like it had been swimming around the core of Fukushima reactor #3 at the wrong time.
Next, we had a choice of either surf or scratch, so to speak. The scratch was grilled chicken and the surf a grilled mahi mahi. Both were served with succotash of onions, plantains, haricot vert, and black bean purée. Both were covered with a mole sauce. Interestingly, the recipe for the mole sauce came from the mother of a former supervisor on the kitchen line. To accompany this, we had a smoked margarita which was uncannily smoky.
Next Fried Gouda with Guava Purée and Spicy Arugula was like a warm cheese course.
Finally, the dessert was Warm Chocolate Chipotle Cake with Dulce de Leche Ice Cream. All made in-house and accompanied by Jalisco Espresso, a cocktail with more coffee intensity than many real coffees.
The Chef’s Table is an excellent way to sample the kind of food served by Asador and an excellent value. In addition, the hotel has ample free parking and valet if preferred. Over the last year, Asador continues to expand the scope of its food and beverage programs. Get out of your comfort zone and give it a try.