The hottest new restaurants in Dallas

The Riviera. (French Provencal) Most Dallas restaurants have been content to give a generalized view of international cuisines, while the marvelous idiosyncrasies that give character to the cooking of a particular region of a country have gone unexplored. But now there is the Riviera, which, as its name hints, largely concentrates on the specialties of the south of France. That region, Provence, is known for its flamboyant use of herbs, tomatoes and garlic. As the Riviera’s proprietor, Franco Bertolasi, explains to his customers, he wanted to get away from the sometimes excessively refined subtleties of nouvelle cuisine and feature dishes with assertive, identifiable tastes. Provencal cuisine, so naturally assertive, seemed a logical way to bring something new to the city.

The Riviera boasts a number of the famous specialties of the region. The modestly named lobster stew is a version of the fabled fish soups of the region (of which bouillabaisse is the best known) and includes lotte (a firm-textured fish), scallops and mussels along with a bounteous portion of lobster. The taste is beautifully balanced, and the bowl of rouille (a garlicky light mayonnaise, which is served on the side and can be stirred into the soup as desired or spread upon rounds of toast) is a reassuringly authentic touch. The veal chop, too, has the heady perfume of the south of France: The big, meaty chop is topped with rosemary butter and a sprig of fresh rosemary. One accompanying vegetable dish combined zucchini with peppers and onions (a ratatouille without the eggplant) and was cooked better than it is at anyplace else in town; another was a perfectly firm tomato Provencale, broiled with a topping of garlicky bread crumbs.

But not everything at the Riviera is so identifiably regional. There are fish, steak and lamb dishes of a much less pronounced individuality. There are also hints of nouvelle influence, as in the appetizers of tor-tellini with escargots and (our favorite) sliced fresh foie gras with apple in a tart dressing. The salad of scallops (served warm, with a hint of orange peel in the dressing) is a much more memorable dish than the appetizer of scallops Provencale (with a sauce of fresh tomato and garlic). Unfortunately, not all of the adventurous touches work well. On one visit, the tart of sweetbreads with spinach suffered from pastry that was soggy and scorched, and the filling was ho-hum. Desserts are generally attractive and tasty but not spectacular. The poached pears in pastry with ginger sauce would have been exquisite if the sauce hadn’t been so strongly flavored. The fresh blueberry tart and the crème brulée, lightly touched with Grand Marnier, were better choices.

The care that went into designing the Riviera-from the hardwood floors to the warm, not-too-formal decor-makes you feel as though you’re in an elegant country inn in the south of France. The welcome is designed to make everyone feel comfortable. About 25 percent of the male diners on our visits weren’t wearing jackets, and we even spotted a fairly small child. The management says it wants its patrons to feel free to drop in for an elaborate meal or an after-theater supper. If one chooses carefully, the Riviera can be a bargain (the wine list, for example, is rather modestly priced, although it has an ample number of choices). But if one orders four courses and chooses the more expensive specialties-such as the foie gras and the lobster stew, which are among the best offerings-prices climb quickly. Crowds discovered the Riviera from the time it opened, and it does seem a suitable anchor for the vision of the Lovers Lane/Inwood area as Dallas’ answer to Rodeo Drive. (7709 Inwood. 351-0094. Mon-Thur 6:30-10:30 p.m., Fri & Sat 6:30-11 p.m. Closed Sun. All credit cards. $$$$) 7.0

Chuggs. (Burgers) The motto of this unique Garland sandwich shop is “Love at first bite,” and truer words were never advertised. It’s clearly a labor of love for the Chicago family mat started the business because they missed being able to get decent hot dogs in Texas. Family members are all over the place: Dad’s out front, his left ear bedizened with earrings, entertaining customers with conversation; Daughter’s behind the counter, cheerfully taking orders; Mom’s behind the scenes turning out unbelievable homemade desserts. The atmosphere of the place is sunny, with high stools surrounding the counter eating areas inside and picnic tables outside. Photographs of family members, contractors and customers-all looking radiantly happy-are tacked up on the walls.

They’re undoubtedly all so happy because the food at Chuggs is sensational. The hot dogs-Vienna (a brand name) 100-percent kosher beef-are as good as the founding premise of the restaurant would lead you to expect. One detail does betray the non-Texas origins of the proprietors, however: The chili served on the chili dog is impossibly sweet and contains (horrors!) beans. We forgive the heresy because of the obvious good intentions and otherwise flawless execution, but this sort of thing really shouldn’t be allowed.

The burgers are even better than the franks. The sautéburger we tried, with “shrooms” (sautéed mushrooms), peppers, tomatoes and real cheddar, was unequaled by any hamburger in our previous experience. As it was being grilled, we were carefully asked, point by point, what we wanted on it. It was a mistake, though, to order the jumbo-size sandwich. It had two huge patties of meat, and with the rest of the makings it simply would not fit into our (for most purposes sufficiently capacious) mouths. We extracted one of the patties and used it as a chaser.

The Reuben was also a definitive sandwich. We’re not quite sure why it surpassed all other local examples, but, whereas most Reubens seem to be combinations of ingredients just thrown together, this one was a perfect synthesis.

The side dishes are good, although they’re not up to the level of the sandwiches. The potato skins with sour cream were our favorite. The most unusual side order is “Gribbiness,” finely slivered onions fried in chicken fat that are as rich and indigestible as they sound.

There’s no need to trumpet the praises of Chuggs’ desserts. They sit in full view of the customers, and members of the family are ready at all times to recommend their favorites. Our pick was the pecan and coconut pie, which had a wonderfully crisp crust. Also receiving votes, however, were the raspberry cheesecake, the apple cake and the Cho Cho Cho (triple chocolate cake). The homemade Italian ice (we had Pina Col-ada) and sundaes are also tops. It’s a good thing we don’t live closer to Chuggs. The food is so good and the prices so reasonable that we would outgrow all our clothes if it were convenient to drop in as often as the impulse hit us. (730 W. Centerville, Garland. 686-1500. Mon-Thur 11-11, Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-midnight; Sun 1-10 p.m. No credit cards; personal checks accepted. $) 6.5

Mistral. (French/Japanese) Somehow, we don’t think President Reagan will descend from his suite this month to try the interesting cuisine at Mistral (on the first floor of the Loews Anatole’s new addition). The chef, Japanese-born and French-trained Takashi Shiramizu, has had plenty of experience serving heads of state: He was the chef at Buckingham Palace for a while. But it’s hard to picture a president-or, for that matter, anyone else who’s grown-up enough to afford it-consuming a six-course meal in the environs of this trendy-looking disco.

A huge screen displays Duran Duran rock videos, and neon abounds (we counted seven shades of red and blue in the ceiling decoration alone). The restaurant section of the disco is set far enough back that there is some sense of decorum, but the noise is still intrusive. And how many $45-per-person prix fixe dinners have you eaten while seated upon plastic banquettes, looking at statues of swans lighted by rose-colored spotlights and being served by a hunk dressed punk-style with a single diamond stud piercing his left ear?

The food is excellent without being extraordinary. We started our meal with an appetizer of sliced rare beef filet in a peppery vinaigrette (the Japanese influence came, we guess, in the petallike arrangement of the slices). We then proceeded to a julienne of fish and lobster in a sauce flavored with potato, duck legs in a red wine sauce and beef (again) in a Madeira sauce. After this protein-heavy sequence, our salads were small relief. They were comprised of Boston lettuce and radicchio topped with very heavy-tasting smoked tuna shreds. The dessert was a raspberry mousse in a rather leathery crêpe, surrounded by a raspberry sauce. The coffee was coyly accompanied by little pots of shredded dark and white chocolate, slivers of orange zest and sticks of cinnamon.

Each of the dishes was precisely cooked, and one could detect a very Japanese sym metry to the meal (two beef dishes, fish at the end echoing fish at the beginning, vin aigrette to start and vinaigrette to finish). But we found the incongruity between the am bition of the cooking and the strangeness of the setting rather jarring. And we found the service, though earnest, to be a trifle gauche. (Loews Anatole, 2201 Stemmons Frwy. 760-9000. Tue-Sat 7-11:30 p.m. All credit cards. $$$$) 6.5

Pacific Express. (Nouvelle Lunch) New downtown restaurants are popping up as fast as skyscrapers. One of the best new places is Pacific Express, on Elm next door to the Majestic Theater (although its official address is on Pacific Street). You’ll never eat in a fancier restaurant where you have to carry your food on a tray-or carry a fancier tray, for that matter, with a paper placemat printed to match the purple shades in the airy, high-tech decor. The space is cannily subdivided into lots of inviting little niches that are presided over by a couple of large abstract canvases in showy romantic colors.

The food might be characterized as “New Wave tearoom.” There are salads, sandwiches and desserts, plus suitable accompaniments such as fresh-squeezed orange juice and several vintages of wine by the glass. But the assortment of salads and sandwiches is far more exotic than in the usual tearoom (and the elaborateness of the menu descriptions will make you think you’re at Enjolie). The meat in the chicken salad has been smoked, and it’s coated with shallot-vermouth mayonnaise. Fresh pasta salad comes with peas, cherry tomatoes, goat cheese and pesto sauce. There’s also a wild rice salad with pecans and apples and a corn salad with avocados, peppered jack cheese and green chili dressing (which is rather seriously spicy). These can be ordered separately or in combination. Sandwiches-on a choice of five different kinds of bread-are made while you wait. Among the sandwich selections are rosy slices of beef tenderloin liberally sprinkled with pepper.

The sandwich of sliced chicken breast, ba con and avocado with jalapeno chutney may onnaise on whole-wheat bread is heavenly. So are the desserts: hot peach cobbler, cheesecake studded with chocolate drops and walnut pie. Not all the dishes are quite as wonderful as the rhapsodic descriptions make them sound, but the quality is gener ally very high. For now, Pacific Express is open only on weekdays for lunch, but it’s scheduled to eventually be open for break fast and after-theater suppers. That will make the place doubly valuable, because the one thing Dallas needs more than new lunch spots downtown is more places open after the theater. (1910 Pacific, Suite 103. 969- 7447. Lunch: Mon-Fri 11-2. No credit cards. $$) 5.5

China Terrace. (Chinese) This new restaurant in the northwestern reaches of Las Colinas is among the more ambitious Chinese establishments in the Metroplex. The appointments are attractive-two antique-looking Chinese costumes are displayed in the middle of the dining areas-and the service is especially professional and friendly. (One waiter heard the subject of opera mentioned at the table and politely contributed his impressions of the Dallas cultural scene, which is a welcome departure from the icy reserve one often encounters in better Chinese restaurants, not to mention those places where simple communication is a problem.)

The food is mostly agreeable. The hors d’oeuvres include delicate spring rolls and an assorted cold plate featuring excellent chicken with sesame sauce. The pot stickers (fried dumplings) are seasoned with lots of scallion. The main dishes include an inter esting assortment of specialties, more than half of them hot and spicy. The China Ter race prawns, for example, show how serious the kitchen is about its Szechuan cuisine; we counted nearly three dozen toasted hot pep pers among the well-cooked shrimp and peanuts. Among the most unusual dishes was the fresh spinach with garlic and sesame seeds-it’s a delightful way to eat your green vegetables. Our only major disappointment in the food was with the shredded pork with bean sauce, which was served in pancakes like moo shi pork. It tasted far too strongly of canned bean sauce. If you’re feeling extravagant, the most delightful dessert is the Empress Fruit Sculpture, which is served for a minimum of four people. Gothic spires made of apples surround carved oranges, honeydew and chunks of banana to make a healthy and entertaining dish to close a meal. (5435 N. MacArthur, Irving. 258-1113. Daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. All credit cards. $$) 5.5

Café Maria. (Mexican) This Mexican restaurant in Southeast Garland is a puzzler. It looks more like a barbecue joint, and the personnel seems anything but ethnically authentic. But someone is obviously trying hard to turn out unusual and authentic Mex ican specialties. Dishes such as guiso (Mex ican stew) are served in very few places out side Mexican neighborhoods. But maybe somebody is trying too hard. The menu is so long that not everything could be cooked well, let alone authentically. And sure enough, the guiso turned out to be sautéed rather than stewed-more or less like the fa- jitas, only smothered in a gravy with pep pers and onions. The ordinary Tex-Mex isn’t bad here, but it’s hard to adjust one’s expec tations, aroused by the appealing description of the dishes on the menu, with the prosaic realities on the table. (6541 Duck Creek, Garland. 271-8456. Mon-Thur 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri & Sat 11 a.m.-lOp.m. Closed Sun. All credit cards. $$) 4.5

Stockyards Hotel Restaurant. (Steak) If there’s such a thing as “cowboy kitsch,” it’s on display at the refurbished Stockyards Hotel in Fort Worth. The stately three-story hotel dates back to 1907, when it was a live ly center during the cowboy boomtown days. It has now been dusted off and reopened to attract the throngs of tourists that regularly invade the historical stockyards area. There are just 52 rooms in the hotel, so the restau rant is rather small (it seats only 50). The restaurant is an open area that backs up to the saloon, an Eighties version of Gun-smoke’s Longhorn (one almost expects to see Miss Kitty, Festus and the rest of the gang). Except for the fact that urban cowpokes must belly up to the bar astride stationary saddles (which are too high up and too far away from the bar to be truly serviceable), the restaurant is part Cattlemen’s and part country café. Once the obvious is accept ed-namely, that this is a novelty hotel and restaurant-then it’s easy to like the haute cowboy decor of the hotel and the attempts at rustic ambiance in the saloon/restaurant. Although the kitchen can turn out a basic steak, our rib eye had a bit too much gristle, and the T-bone was overdone. The real treats were the delicious beans and the homemade cornbread and jalapeno bread. We have just one question: How do ladies sit sidesaddle at the bar? (109 E. Exchange, Fort Worth. (817) 625-6427. Daily 6:30 a.m.-l a.m. MC, V, AE. $$) 4.0

Texas Connection. (Continental) The sign is clearly visible from the eastern approach to Fort Worth on Interstate 30. For some time, we weren’t sure whether this neon billboardlike proclamation heralded a nightclub, a country club or some kind of arcade. Finally, we were heartened to learn that this was a restaurant and that it was finally open for business. But maybe they should have waited just a bit longer. On a recent visit, we waited more than an hour before any sign of food came our way. We could understand the wait if the restaurant had been packed, but it was already fairly late when we arrived, not to mention the fact that we had a reservation. And once the food did arrive, it didn’t prove worth the wait. The artichoke appetizer was smothered with Parmesan, and the chicken and veal dishes were just so-so. The only true standout of our meal was the Italian Wedding soup. Light but filling, with lots of fresh pasta and herbs and a homemade taste, it could have made a meal in itself.

But the owners of the Texas Connection shouldn’t give up yet. They have all the makings of a good, if not unique, restaurant/bar on their hands. First, this Far East Side establishment is set back in the woods on a small bluff overlooking 1-30. Although there’s an apartment complex nearby, it doesn’t interfere with this somewhat country-looking setting. The restaurant, which is located in a large Thirties rock house above the terraced lawns, looks as though it would be more comfortable on a back lot of MGM than on a hill in Fort Worth. Maybe that’s because its history resembles a B movie script. It was originally built in 1932 by O.D. Stevens with $150,000 netted in the largest train robbery in Fort Worth’s (and Texas’) history. The restaurant’s theme is Twenties and Thirties gangsters. Outside, there’s a gazebolike building that shows vintage gangster films.

The Texas Connection has unmistakable charm; it just needs to channel it in the need ed areas: food and service. (1408 Morrison, Fort Worth. (817) 496-3666. Sun 5-10 p.m., Tue-Thur 5-11 p.m., Fri & Sat 5 p.m.-mid- night; Sun brunch: 11-2:30. All credit cards. $$$)4.5

Autumn Moon. (Chinese) With typical decor and standard but unremarkable dishes, the East Side’s Autumn Moon estab lishes itself in the middle of the slender ranks of Oriental restaurants in Fort Worth. Our advice: Stick to the basics. The shred ded pork with garlic sauce, for example, was fairly spicy and well worth our investment, and the shrimp with snow peas was equally good, but rather basic. Ordering exotic drinks, however, may be risky: On a recent visit, the bartender didn’t appear to under stand a word of English, and all attempts for a special rum drink resulted in rum and pineapple juice. (5516 Brentwood Stair, Fort Worth. (817) 496-6633. Sun-Thur 11 a.m.- 10:30 p.m., Fri & Sat 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m. All credit cards. $$) 3.5


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