RESTAURANTS A Christmas Fantasy

The McKays gather at Nana Grill for a holiday feast high above Dallas.

IT WASN’T REALLY CHRISTMAS DINNER, but then you knew that: Christmas is yet to come. But we wanted you to experience it-as a family-at one of our local restaurants. We needed a restaurant and a family to play along with us, and we found them both at the Loews Anatole.

Janie McKay is an interior designer, so she knows about fantasy. But her family is very real, including husband Donald, a urologist, and their four daughters, ages 12 to 23. “Plus two female hunting dogs,” Donald adds, noting that he’s surrounded-no, overwhelmed-by females. He has, however, just gained a son-in-law, Ben Parker, who married eldest daughter Cristin November 5.

“You know,” Janie said, looking around the plush surroundings of the Anatole’s top-floor Nana Grill, “my girls love this place.” The McKay girls’ taste in restaurants leapfrogged past McDonald’s and Chuck E. Cheese’s when their grandmother began taking them on vacations and out to lunch. So the McKays agreed to “celebrate Christmas” at the Nana Grill, arriving in velvets and bows. A table for eight set in festive reds and golds, laden with candles and gilded fruit, created the perfect backdrop. We toasted the season with rich eggnog as a trio of violinists played “Good King Wenscelsclas” in the background.

Alex, our head waiter, appeared in a crisp white jacket and Nicole Miller bowtie and described our first course: butternut bisque with Granny Smith apple garnish. The soup was a rich, velvety purée of winter squash and cream, lightly scented with apple and spice and sprinkled with cracklings of fruit peel, sweetly intense with apple flavor. “Oh my, that’s wonderful,” Janie exclaimed, finishing it all despire 15-year-old Leigh’s observation that it’s “probably the most fattening thing on the menu.” “I don’t care,” said Lindsey, age 12, spooning up more of it.

As a Ferrari-Carano Reserve Fume Blanc 1993 Sonoma was served to the adults, the two younger girls sampled a variety of alcohol-free punches brought in from the bar. By now the sunset panorama had turned to night, and the city took on a magical quality, streetlights twinkling like strings of Christmas lights. As the violinists launched into the familiar “We Three Kings,” it became easy to imagine that this really was Christmas dinner and we were a reunited family catching up on the news. Janie told me how well the absent daughter, Jennifer, was doing in college and how much she would have enjoyed joining us. And I began to feel sorry, too, that Jennifer couldn’t be here. We played the dinner table game that all families play over holiday meals: “Remember when…”

The fish course, broiled Dover sole on a sauté of Swiss chard, pleased nearly everybody. It was garnished with artichokes and barely cooked oysters, on a pool of chervil Chardonnay sauce. “What was that?” Lindsey gulped, a surprised look on her face. “Remember when I went to Thailand with Grandmother?” 15-year-old Leigh asked, recalling her own previous experiences with new adventures in food. In Thailand, she said, she had pointed to what looked like a scribble on a menu, and then had waited for what seemed hours only to be at last presented with a whole incinerated creature impaled on a stick.

Next came the eagerly awaited venison chops-thick and lean, yet tender as prime rib, still pink in the middle. They were served with a cranberry mint relish, green and white asparagus, and a rosemary-scented marscapone risotto. The course was perfectly complemented by Robert Pecota Steven-Andre Vineyard Merlot 1992, Napa.

Again, the course sparked memories of family events past. “Remember when you smoked the venison sausage?” Cristin asked her father. The family laughed as they described how Dad had upended a tall cardboard wardrobe-the kind moving vans use. He placed the wardrobe over some smoldering coals and hung the sausages from the metal rack inside. “Well, it worked,” said Donald in his defense. “Those sausages were really good.”

We moved on to the next course, a salad of wild greens tossed with a raspberry vinaigrette topped with a toasted crouton spread with Roquefort. The salad was intense in flavor. The bitter greens, the licorice-like sweetness of fennel-a holiday tradition among Italian families-the pungency of the cheese, and the sharpness of the dressing made for a kind of cornucopia of sensations. Some of us loved it, some of us didn’t,

But everyone loved the desserts. The menu featured several choices, allowing each of us to try a unique treat. And, as families do, we immediately started looking around at each other’s booty. The solution: a kind of reverse buffet where the food went around the table for sampling.

The sweets ranged from the sublime to the suicidal: three poached pear halves, each in a different liqueur, versus a triple chocolate rum anglaise layer cake that tasted more like a pound of chocolate truffles (easily the calorie sweepstakes winner). Other offerings included plum pudding with hard sauce, a chocolate-frosted buche de Noel, bourbon pecan pie, and a chunky fudge brownie with butterscotch ice cream. Despite earlier vows to pass on desserts, we managed to clear our plates.

We lingered over coffee and after-d inner drinks, reluctant to leave despite the late hour, undone homework, and the reality that tomorrow was just another Tuesday, not really Christmas Day. We all agreed: It had been a truly wonderful fantasy.

the experience

Decor: You’ll begin at the bar. Rich woods, brass and glass, small tables, usually packed. Your first view will be the floor-to-ceiling windows…and Dallas! At dusk the sky is rosy orange-purple; the sunset reflects off the downtown skyscrapers. Later, the city’s vastness is defined in necklaces of lights, usually under a beautiful moon.

When you turn around, the scene is dominated by the priceless painting, nine feet wide: Nana, reclining, full and round the way women used to look, follows you with her eyes. Art dominates the restaurant, too, with lush and sensuous paintings from Trammell Crow’s private collection.

Sound and Music: A trio of violinists moves almost imperceptibly around the room, remaining in the background, as much a part of the visual experience as the aural. In the bar, a pianist sets the mood for happy hour and late-night rendezvous, tickling the ivories with appropriate nostalgia…”These funny things, remind me of you…”

Cuisine: A polished mix of traditional with New American, deftly spiced by-regional influences. (Nana Grill was one of the first to update classic dishes with Southwestern flair and Texas tastes: venison, antelope, wild turkey, wild boar, elk, and other game.)

Dress Code: Holidays and weekend nights, locals tend to dress up- Lunch is mainly business people in office wear. Weekdays after hours, it’s upscale casual.

Who Goes There: Holidays draw a generational mix of Dallasites. Otherwise it’s hotel guests and locals, people on business, couples and families marking special occasions, plus celebrities and foreign visitors.

Prices: A la carte dinners average $35 per person, excluding wine, Nana Grill’s wine list is one of the best in the city and includes hard-to-find boutique wines and an excellent selection of mer-lots, fine cognacs, and ports.

Best Seating: Here’s where a window table really means something, though the panoramic view can be enjoyed from all tables. The 200-seat restaurant also offers lots of little out-of-the way tables. Five private dining rooms are also available for special occasions.

What’s New: Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Nana Grill has a new manager, Paul Pinnell, formerly of J Pinnell’s Restaurant, a new chef, and a new look. The heavy draperies have been swept away, and the deep-toned carpet replaced with a lighter neutral. The tables are set with new Tiffany-designed serving plates, oversized, patterned in muted mauves and rich burgundy for a lighter feel.

Work was still underway on the remodeling of the showcase chefs’ kitchen. Patrons will see and smell fresh bread being baked to order, watch soufflés of every kind emerge from the ovens, and see artists intently creating pastries.

The Christmas menus are created by new Nana chef Scott Blackerby, as well as other Anatole chefs including executive chef Thomas Welther, sous chef Michael Wahl, and pastry chef Henri Mahler.

Address/Hours: 27th floor of Loews Anatole Hotel, 2201 Stemmons Freeway at Market Center in Dallas. Lunch weekday, dinner every night, brunch on Sunday. Phone: 214-761-7479 or 214-761-7470.

the menu

Christmas Eve Dinner: Order from the à la carte menu that features venison, Dover sole, breast of duckling in port sauce with cherries, rib-eye with roasted shallots and garlic mashed potatoes, and wood-fired filet mignon. Traditional desserts including buche de noel, plum pudding with whiskey hard sauce, triple chocolate mousse, and maple crème brulée. Reservations necessary.

Christmas Day Brunch: A bounty of choices: pepper crusted Ozark ham with Jack Daniel’s pecan glaze, Australian lamb with apple cranberry relish, oyster and cornbread-stuffed wild turkey, roasted pork loin with Andouille sausage, fresh and smoked fish and seafood, pastas, salads, Eggs Benedict, and holiday desserts. $29 for adults, $14.50 for children, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Reservations necessary.


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