NOW DON’T GET US WRONG. WE’RE NO apostles of dining doom and gloom. We’re not about to film An Revoir Bon Vivants in Dallas. But if we had to whip up an oxy-moronic tag to describe the current dining scene…try “cautious experimentalism.” The old standbys, with important exceptions, endure; the only really new restaurant to grace this collection is Actuelle, which barely nosed out the Mansion.
For trendwatchers, these are very slack times. The Cajun rage seems to have stopped somewhere short of blackened gopher; consumers continue to be health-conscious, meaning less heavy-style red meat and more artistry in creating new fish and chicken ideas; the newish Southwestern cuisine digs farther back to its roots, becoming more Southwestern and more Mexican. We may soon be grinding our own corn, right at the table.
So there are new blooms on the tree of our cuisine, but they are fewer and less flamboyant than we saw in the booming early years of the decade. The joyous art of gastronomy must make its peace with the dismal science of economics, and that means belt-tightening-both literal and figurative. With less discretionary income, diners insist more than ever on getting good weight for their money. Those who venture out less frequently may seek the time-tested and familiar, not the fleeting frissons of novelty.
But is this so bad? Not gone, but thankfully muted, is the drop-dead elegance of those halcyon days, when we gazed reverently at the menu of some dining shrine and wondered, awe-struck, if we ever could live up to the restaurant’s food and decor. Rodney Dangerfield jokes about ordering a wine so regal, so glorious, that It sent him back. We know the feeling. No Spuds McKenzie T-shirts, please, but it’s all right to relax, maybe joke with the maitre d’. After all, they need us as much as we need them.
BEST NEW AMERICAN
Actuelle. If an out-of-town visitor had time and money to try just one representative of the new Southwestern cuisine, I’d still suggest the Mansion on Turtle Creek. But the most innovative and consistently exciting cooking at any Dallas restaurant these days is taking place at Actuelle. Perhaps it’s because chef Victor Gielisse constantly supervises what comes out of the kitchen (whereas our other celebrity chefs scurry around writing cookbooks and promoting them and whatnot). Whatever the reason, the combination of New American ingredients and approaches with a sophisticated European sensibility at Actuelle is something very new and unparalleled. Everything on the menu here is an adventure, but be sure to try the fish. Gielisse has won two national contests in fish cooking, and the evidence can be found here in the likes of the grilled Norwegian salmon-light as a puff of smoke, crisp as an autumn day, sauced to perfection in a tomato vinaigrette with fresh marjoram. The pear poached in pinot noir and swathed in butterscotch sauce makes an equally glorious final touch to a meal.
Runner-up: The Mansion. Still the most glamorous dining spot in Dallas; Dean Fearing is tops when he’s there.
The Riviera. New Orleans restaurant critic Richard Collin uses the term “platonic” to describe what he calls the “best imaginable realization” of a dish. A good night at The Riviera, then, with Franco Bertolasi out front and David and Lori Holben in the kitchen, is a “platonic” dining experience. Everything, from Franco’s effusive, Italian-style greeting at the door, to the relaxed conviviality of the room (so different from a “serious” French restaurant, where the diners eat in hushed awe), to the sublime food and solicitous service, combines to make an evening at The Riviera not just a great dining experience but a good time as well. The menu focuses on the food of the south of France, the flavors are lighter and livelier than those in many French restaurants, and the room is country French formal, with fresh roses and candles on each table. The service is energetic but not rushed, and on a busy night, The Riviera has a feeling of enthusiasm entirely warranted by the food. Smoked red bell pepper soup with sun-dried tomatoes and bacon is a savory blend of smoke and sweet; corncob smoked quail with polenta, Gorgonzola, and red bell peppers is a gutsy balance of strong flavors. Salads are stellar, whether a simple mix of greens and fresh herbs with a lemon dressing, or a more substantial plate of yellowfin tuna, fanned avocado slices, and sesame vinaigrette. Entrées-we tried tenderloin of lamb with green pepper corn sauce, halibut with rich lobster sauce, and sautéed snapper fillets with smoked scallops in brown butter-are equally good, and desserts from the cart-orangy crème brulée and chocolate cake with almond meringue-make a happy ending.
Runner-up: Café Royal, with its great prix fixe dinner.
Chips. For a long time, the consensus seemed to be that the best burger was the biggest burger: restaurants boasted of heavyweight sandwiches with a half-pound or more of ground meat overflowing a bun. To others, the best burger is the fastest burger, hamburgers having been relegated along with fried chicken to that all-American gustatory wasteland of fast food. Big and fast are not, however, standards I use in looking for the best burger. Too much of a good thing does not make it best. Good things take time. You won’t wait long for a hamburger at Chips-just long enough to be sure it was cooked after you ordered it. The sandwich you retrieve at the bar when your name is called is not enormous-it’s a reasonable amount of beef for one person, grilled and garnished to your specification. Of course, the truth about burgers is that what goes on them and what comes with them are nearly as important as the beef and the bun. By way of adornments, Chips offers condiment combinations from chili and cheese to hickory smoke to jala-penos and bacon, and a choice of first-rate French fries or strings of skinny fried onions. There’s a selection of cold beer, or better yet, Chips makes honest-to-gosh, from-scratch milkshakes. Burgers are the big deal at Chips, but the menu also includes a good grilled chicken sandwich for non-beefeaters, a “pig sandwich” (shredded pork and relish on a bun) for kinkier tastes, and enormous taco salads for the health-conscious. The atmosphere at Chips is casual and not too collegiate; you can relax here and give your burger the time and attention it deserves.
Runner-up: Prince of Hamburgers on Lem-mon, for its old-fashioned atmosphere and the toastiest bun around.
Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse. In Texas, a barbecue place is rated by the quality of its sliced beef on a bun, and beef on a bun is why Sonny Bryan’s stays on top of the barbecue heap. Yes, there are those who love the ribs and those who, inexplicably, love the inch-thick, hard-crusted onion rings. And even the stuffiest Dallasite loves taking out-of-towners to Sonny’s for lunch, just for the feel of the place. The smoky shack, surrounded by businessmen leaning on their fenders while they picnic in the parking lot, and the rows of ramshackle school desks are all part of Sonny’s legend, and somehow prove to visitors that city-slick Dallas can be as wild and woolly as “foreigners” expect Texas to be. Still, the heart of the matter is the beef and Sonny’s beef is the best. Piled a couple of inches thick, the slices offer a study in good barbecue- from the charred outside to the bright red smoke band to the pink-brown interior; this beef is rich and tender and simple, all at once, Like most good things, though, it doesn’t last forever; when Sonny Bryan’s runs out of barbecue, they close the door for the day, no matter what time it is.
Runner-up: Angelo’s. In this category, to find a No. 2 you’ll have to go to Fort Worth.
BEST UPSCALE MEXICAN
Mario’s Chiquita. In hard times, experience pays off. Mario Leal’s Chiquita has been serving first-rate Mexican food to Dallas for nearly sixteen years; trendier restaurants may come and go, but Chiquita’s can always be counted on for excellent Mexican food. Both the Tex-Mex combinations (including remarkable tamales) and the specialties are dependably delicious. Chiquita doesn’t subscribe to the tacky/camp style of many Mexican restaurants-no tinsel or Christmas lights here. The rooms are colorful and filled with Leal’s signature paper flowers, but not chi-chi; the tables are properly covered with cloths, and the waiters are pros, friendly but efficient. This is one of the rare restaurants on which moving has had no adverse effects; the food is as good at the current Travis Walk location as it was on Congress, or before that, Oak Lawn. The carnitas a la tampiquena, strips of grilled pork sided by a cheese enchilada in ranchera sauce full of just-wilted pepper and onion strips, is stellar; the carne asada is almost worth ordering for the accompanying triangle of Linares cheese alone. Chiquita was one of the first restaurants in Dallas to offer tacos al carbon, a forerunner of the fajita; the tender chunks of steak enfolded in soft flour tortillas and sided by fresh pico de gallo and guacamole still make a winning dish.
Runner-up: Benito’s in Fort Worth, for its tacos desebradas, fried after they’re filled.
Newport’s. Thanks to cholesterol-consciousness and the miracle of air freight, hardly any decent restaurant fails to do something swell with seafood for its menu-some, in fact, outdo anything offered by the seafood specialty houses here. Among the latter, though, Newport’s stands out as Dallas’s reigning all-seafood establishment. Among the first to bring us really fresh from-the-ocean fare, Jack Baum’s West End emporium is also among the few quality seafood restaurants to survive and prosper in its category (Ratcliffe’s is the most notable lamented example of one that did not). Not without creativity-Newport’s crab quesadillas rate right up there with the trendiest hot spots in town-the daily-changing menu shines brightest in its simpler broiled and grilled offerings, lightly sauced if at all. Wisely, these are sparely accompanied by only the freshest vegetables and salads, with a dessert list that is contrastingly indulgent (try the chocolate truffle pie, oh, yes). Service is as open and comfortable as the decor, which is vast and unadorned- shiplike, actually-but not unattractive.
Runner-up: With Ratcliffe’s gone, a tough choice. Make it Atlantic Cafe”, largely for the fine ceviche and the chefs many creative improvements.
Cantina Laredo. “Best,” applied to Mexican restaurants, usually refers to such a subjective judgment that “favorite” would be a more honest term. All Texans have their favorite Tex-Mex spot where they head for a regular dose of whatever their personal addiction happens to be: enchiladas, margaritas, fajitas, or just chips and hot sauce. A fan’s loyalty to a favorite Mexican restaurant is fierce, considering this is a flagrantly fickle town when it conies to eating out. There are many requirements for a favorite Mexican restaurant (Does it serve margaritas? How good are the chips and salsa?), but primary among them is proximity. Therefore, when trying to decide on the “best” Mexican restaurant, the inverse became a standard measure-as in “Which Mexican restaurant would I travel a long distance for?” The answer is Cantina Laredo. Owned by the pros who brought us El Chico, Cantina Laredo serves good margaritas (and a wide selection of tequilas), the chips and salsa are terrific, but it’s in Addison, which should be its downfall for a downtowner like me. However, Cantina Laredo is worth the trip. The square room with its concrete floor, high ceiling, and paned windows has the feel of old Mexico, even though the building is New North Dallas. The menu lists all the expected Tex-Mex combinations alongside the comida casera-home-style Mexican dishes not found on typical Tex-Mex menus. Start with a botanas platter for an across-the-board tasting-it includes grilled shrimp and beef, stuffed jalapenos, quesadillas, guacamole, and tacos al pastor, filled with marinated pork, onions, and cilantro. This is a great spot for first-timers to try barbacoa-barbecued baby goat; if you don’t want to commit yourself, order it on a mixed grilled platter. Even Cantina Laredo’s desserts are noteworthy-unusual, when choices so often are limited to pralines or flan. The apple pie, served on a sizzling fajita skillet with a melting dollop of cinnamon ice cream, is great, as are the freshly fried churros rolled in cinnamon sugar,
Runner-up: Mia’s, if the wait is less than thirty minutes.
Thai Lanna. We favor the northern outpost of this restaurant, the one in the southwest corner of Richardson. What it lacks in ethnic atmosphere, it makes up for in bright cheerfulness. And the food, if anything, seems more consistent than at the original East Dallas location. Thai Lanna does all the spicy, tangy Siamese specialties with pizazz, but it has a special way with vegetable dishes, such as eggplant, and noodle dishes. The soups, too, are terrific. The chicken and coconut milk soup, for instance, contains a potpourri of mysterious fresh herbs and aromatic roots-but be careful, because it’s hotter than any Mexican dish you are likely to get this side of Monterrey. Another plus for the Richardson Thai Lanna is the friendly and helpful service-by no means always the rule at Oriental restaurants.
Runner-up: Thai Soon, for its imaginative Thai treatments of seafood and vegetarian dishes.
India Palace. Dallas is wonderfully fortunate to have such a fine group of Indian restaurants these days. A number of them achieve a high plateau in their cooking of Northern Indian dishes; their results can be so uniformly satisfying that you sometimes fail to remember which one you have chosen to visit this time around. But one local Indian restaurant, India Palace, seems to consistently stand out among its distinguished confreres. Part of this excellence lies in ambition-India Palace has a somewhat larger, more adventuresome menu than its rivals. Part lies in attention to detail: curried dishes like a superb beef punjabi or baigan bhurta (eggplant puree) are garnished with a superfine julienne of ginger and red pepper. But finally the superiority lies in skill in the kitchen. A dessert like rasmalai (a kind of homemade cheese bathed in sweet cream) can be a heavy disaster elsewhere: at India Palace it is light and delicate and delicious. The dignified atmosphere and the attentive, intelligent service are also hallmarks of India Palace.
Runner-up: Kebab ’N’ Curry on North Central Expressway. Excellent cooking, but small and somewhat cramped.
Arcadia Bar. This is the only bona fide dive on this list-walking in off lowest Greenville, you might not expect the food to be safe, let alone superior. But the Cajun dishes in this funky little bar equal a lot of the best versions in Louisiana itself. (And, come to think of it, a lot of the top cooking in New Orleans is to be found in no-’count hangouts like this.) The light-colored gumbo is unorthodox but terrific, as are the red beans and rice. The fried oysters are large and perfectly crisp, and the barbecued shrimp are better than those served these days at Pascal’s Manale in New Orleans, the restaurant that invented this spicy, buttery dish. Even the garlic bread, dripping with pungently herbed butter, is outstanding here. Every city needs cheap, relaxed places with great cooking, and Dallas is lucky to have one in the Arcadia Bar.
Hofstetter’s. Sit with your back to the Bachman Plaza entrance of this skinny little boite, and you can easily pretend you’re in a neighborhood café in Europe. On the wall before you, a few crisp-linened tables away, hangs the day’s bill of fare, neatly printed in colored chalk. Off to your left beyond it, windows overlook an outdoor dining deck shaded by bright umbrellas. To the right, behind a refrigerated display of seductive desserts (sacher torte, Black Forest cake, stemmed glasses of white chocolate mousse), the kitchen stands with its door hospitably open, issuing busy sounds. A more pleasant, sunnier place would be hard to imagine.
And the food is equally pleasant, equally sunny. Dismiss any notions you may have had that Germanic food has to be heavy or slablike-Hofstetter’s half-dozen appetizers and seventeen entrées run a daily-changing gamut of fresh creativity applied to traditional dishes, most of them Austrian, but some straying definitely Frenchward. You might start with a heaped bowl of steamed mussels, bathed in a bracing tarragon-Dijon sauce, then proceed to rosy slices of duck breast, crisp-skinned and sided with walnuts in thyme-scented cassis sauce, with a Zinfandel-poached pear finishing off the plate. On the more traditional side, pork tenderloin medallions dolloped with Montrachet cheese in port sauce are partnered with delectably tender spaetzle, the classic little German noodles, and a marinated cucumber salad. Excellent espresso can help you withstand the lure of desserts, if you’re determined, and empathetic service will ease you through the whole adventure more elegantly than you’d expect from a place this comfortably casual.
Runner-up: Franki’s Li’l Europe. It’s hard to beat the sheer freshness of the food and the infectious exuberance of the staff.
Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan. People in Dallas seem to have forgotten about our local branch of the restaurant the great Chinese chef, formerly a star in New York, set up in Texas. Can it be that Dallasites just don’t want to pay the admittedly steep prices, no matter how fine the food? There can be a few slip-ups here (some crab in a seafood dish tasted a mite fishy). And the portions are smallish despite the high cost. But make no mistake: Uncle Tai’s beef is soaked in brine so that it is almost like ham, deep-fried and then stir-fried with hot peppers, and the results are spectacular. Appetizers like crispy quail and grilled salmon with hot oil are also outstanding.
Runner-up: May Dragon. The best of the midpriced Chinese restaurants.
Del Frisco’s. Under its new management, Del Frisco’s seems to be better than ever. The best steak you can buy in Dallas-if you can stand beef so laden with cholesterol and if you have the money-is Del Frisco’s ribeye. It’s lush and perfectly aged and likely to be perfectly cooked. Another plus in Del Frisco’s favor is that the side dishes are much tastier than those usually found even in high-priced steakhouses. The shrimp remoulade, the au gratin potatoes, and the rich desserts are all worth ordering. The one drawback about the new regime here is that Del Frisco’s is more expensive than ever, now drawing abreast of the Palm and Ruth’s Chris. The prices of the steak haven’t gone up, but now you don’t get a potato unless you pay extra-only marvelously crusty French bread and a salad are included in the basic price.
Runner-up: Morton’s. The meat is always top quality and cooked accurately.
TravisWalk Lombardi’s. When do you reckon local critics (both paid and self-appointed) are going to stop whining that there’s no real Italian food in Dallas? Didn’t Alberto Lombardi spend months sponging up authenticity in Italy before setting the West End on its ear with his scaled-down (prophetically, as it turns out) bistro menu? Isn’t Momo’s bill of fare a line-for-line import of regional specialties from the Old Country? Doesn’t Efisio Farris cling so closely to his Sardinian roots that most of the products in his new Pomodoro’s kitchen are either special imports from Italy or custom-contracted to his exacting specifications?
And isn’t Italian the comfort cuisine of choice for most Dallasites? I can name you half a dozen Italian restaurants here that, rigidly authentic or not, are among this city’s most pleasant places to dine. But if the object is to single one out for across-the-board bestness, Travis Walk Lombardi’s deserves first mention. Suave and soothing as its downtown sibling, 311 Lombardi’s, never was, this refuge serves from the same menu, but with more élan. The foccacia bread is a rosemary-scented miracle. The gnocchi sauces are sublime. Veal, chicken, and rabbit specialties are consummately prepared. And the stylish service and ambience of this place hold their own with those of higher-priced establishments.
Runners-up: Alessio’s and La Tosca. Too close to call; both are lovely in service and ambience, their food consistently excellent.
Sakura Japanese Restaurant. Premise One: I’ve never met a Japanese restaurant I didn’t like. Premise Two: Every Japanese restaurant I’ve visited in Dallas offers something that sets it apart from all the others. The pepper-fired bean sprouts served as a lagniappe relish with Sapporo beer at Mr. Sushi. The quail egg-spiked oyster shot at Hana Japanese Restaurant and Bar. The exquisite fresh salad that comes with dinner at little Inaka Inn. So it goes. But for sheer grace of service and ambience along with exemplary Japanese food, Sakura cannot go unmentioned.
Launched on Maple Avenue twenty-four years ago (and claiming to be the oldest Japanese restaurant in Texas, let alone Dallas), Sakura is now a multilevel sprawl of a building in Old Vickery Park on Upper Greenville. Its decor is suave, its atmosphere unflappable, its options too many: private and public tatami rooms, hibachi tables, and American-style seating are all hidden away in different areas of the restaurant.
Years ago, when I dined at its original location, Sakura was the first restaurant where I’d ever been asked to take off my shoes before entering. This time, we dined to live piano music in a Western lounge furnished with cushioned rattan. The tempura-fried shrimp were almost as light and lacy as I remembered them; Shabu-Shabu, thin-sliced beef cooked quickly at table with fresh vegetables, was almost as delightful. The assortment of sushi we ordered as appetizers was impeccably fresh-tuna, jumbo clam, octopus, a salmon-and-egg standout marvelously sauced with a single quail egg broken over it. Our kimono-clad servers could not have been more attenlive, and on the whole I can’t think when I’ve felt more sweetly cosseted.
Runner-up: Mr. Sushi, largely for its unfailingly happy ambience.
Saigon. Never the largest Vietnamese restaurant in town, and no longer quite the prettiest (newcomer East Wind, in Deep Ellum, takes that laurel), Saigon still holds its eminence as the reigning star in this category. Even setting aside the grilled shrimp-wrapped sugar cane sticks that left me addicted to this sunny-spirited establishment, the menu offers nothing that lacks distinction: chicken in lemon grass, chili-spiked, is a slow-burning thrill; hot and sour seafood soup in a hot pot is a succulent banquet of al dente vegetables with virginally fresh seafood in ambrosial broth. Cilantro, mint, cucumber, and carrots, garnish-sized in servings elsewhere, are prodigally provided here by a management and staff who enrich the meaning of the word hospitality. Some of the most amazing people hang out here, by the way-I know of at least one five-star French chef who’s a lunchtime regular, cheek by jowl with a growing contingent of Lowest Greenville denizens of every stripe and persuasion-Saigon’s that democratic. And that good.
Runner-up: La Pagode on Bryan Street was first to bring this slice of the Far East to East Dallas, and its grilled catfish remains a memorable feast.