Wednesday night I attended the star-studded re-opening party at the renovated French Room in the Adolphus Hotel. I’d seen pictures of the modernized space. In the September issue, D Magazine ran scads of beautiful photographs and an exhaustive history of the opulent hotel that debuted in 1912. The French Room has remained the most revered dining room in Dallas.
I wasn’t around for the grand opening or the times when the hotel featured big bands, illegal whiskey, and an ice rink. However, during the late ’50s and early ’60s, my late grandfather used to treat me to dinner there once a year.
The night before my big date with Grampa Nichols, my mother rolled my hair around pink Spoolies hair curlers and laid out a white lace dress with a pink ribbon sash. This was a tough job for my mom. I spent my days as a tomboy roaming the limestone-walled creeks in North Dallas shooting snakes and riding horses. She had to wrestle me into that dress. Once I was properly attired and by my grandfather’s side, I drank bottomless Shirley Temples and ate rare Prime rib. I remember feeling small in the French Room. My feet didn’t touch the ground when I sat in the chair.
During the ’70s and ’80s, the French Room was the place for expense account dining, marriage proposals, and celebrations. I know I dined there many times, but my only memory when I met met famous chef Jean Banchet in the early ’80s in a hallway outside the kitchen. I’d taken a wrong turn on my way to the ladies’ room and literally bumped into Banchet.
He flashed a devilish smile that stopped my heart. He wore a three-foot toque atop his thick curly hair. His apron was splattered with blood and parsley stains. He was drinking a cup of coffee and muttered something in French. I wish I could tell you what he said, but I was too star-struck to remember, not to mention the fact I don’t speak French. I later learned he was a big-deal chef at Le Francais in Chicago who consulted at the French Room. He flew to Dallas to train chefs in traditional French cooking.
Fifteen years later, I visited the French Room as a dining critic. It was the late ’90s, and everything about the French Room was perfect. The low-lit chandeliers hung below the cherubic murals on the ceiling. The tablecloths were white and formally set. It was an ambiance that demanded you begin your voyage with a flute of expensive Champagne and end with a snifter of Grand Marnier. I don’t remember much about the food except it was moving away from strictly French dishes. However, I clearly recall the passionate team responsible for the execution of the details of the restaurant: chef William Koval, server Connie Frances Forbin, and maitre d’ James Donohue. These are some of the finest people I’ve met over the 21 years I’ve been writing about restaurants in Dallas.
Koval left in 2005. As far as I know Forbin, a server for almost 30 years, was at the French Room until they closed for the recent renovations. I have tried to locate Donohue, but with no luck. Dallas servers could use Donohue today. He produced a “Quality Service Training” manual full of rules, lists, cartoons, quizzes, and quotes to inspire his staff. I cherish the copy he gave me.
Koval was replaced by chef Jason Weaver who smartly realized Dallas’ appetite for French food was waning, so he steered the food toward the trendy New American category, a distinction I used to sarcastically refer to New Continental.
Weaver left in 2009. So did the healthy U.S. economy. Restaurants all over Dallas were struggling. Still, one could visit the glamorous French Room for a long hug, a chance to forget the chaos and watch the lights twinkle off the crystal stemware.
In early 2013, I wrote:
This opulent restaurant clings to the fine-dining standards of old. They still have a dress code—no jeans, no tennis shoes. Tables are set formally with crystal wine glasses, china, and knife rests. I recognized most of the people working the floor; our server has been working there for 28 years. Ask for a glass of Champagne and the sommelier appears. He delivers the order and describes how the glass is etched to induce the lovely bubbles to form a single line to the top. The temperature is 47 degrees, cool enough to quench but warm enough to take in the yeasty qualities of the wine. In early March, there were three dining options: a three-course option with a seasonal slant ($55), a three-course menu from their list of classics ($80), and a five-course tasting ($110). However, the menu options change frequently. We found all of the menus uninspired, almost dated, compared to what is going on in other kitchens in town.
But it’s the French Room, and I let the thought pass. I couldn’t, however, rationalize the worn edges I experienced. There were several holes in the linen tablecloth. More than half of the wine list has been slashed, and the remaining pages are still in the original plastic book; the hardware once inserted to hold them now dangled sadly. Most of the food was top-notch: the signature 2-inch crab cake was solid meat. A generous slab of salmon was tender and moist and served with a butternut squash risotto. But sous vide pork tenderloin ordered medium rare was dry and medium. The desserts are stunning, though. The Grand Marnier soufflé is world-class, and a crunchy chocolate hazelnut torte served with salted caramel ice cream restored my faith that, with a little facelift, this Dallas icon will remain the grandest dining experience in Dallas.
Wednesday, I witnessed the facelift. I knew the cherubic murals were gone. I wasn’t happy about it. The older I get, the harder it is for me to accept change. As I entered the new French Room, I looked up and braced myself for disappointment. The peach, blue, and yellow murals lay somewhere beneath a fresh layer of white Venetian plaster. It was a startling effect.
I moved to a window and watched people react to the space. They didn’t seem to care. Many of them had been involved in the project; the rest of the crowd was media. They were all intent on scoring a portion of caviar that executive chef Michael Ehlert and his sous chef David Gomez were spooning off an ice block set on a table in the middle of the room.
I sipped from my glass of Ruinart Blanc de Blanc and took in the scene. I wondered what Koval, Forbin, and Donohue would think. I knew they were professionals and would embrace the elegance. I wished they could be there to share their thoughts with me. I also hoped Jean Banchet would magically appear and refill my glass.
I watched Ehlert, small in stature, but enormously talented in the kitchen. This night was a big moment in Dallas dining history. The French Room has been reborn. Time moves forward, and the past takes a back seat to watch the show. I plan to be front row center.