RESTAURANTS Street Eats

As temperatures soar, Dallas heads outside to eat. Go figure. But sometimes, only a patio will do.

SAY “ALFRESCO DINING” TO ME, AND my mind flips back to the vintage New Yorker cartoon of a chic young mother at a sidewalk cafe table, admonishing her 6-year-old to “Eat your soup, dear, before it gets dirty. ” Which may be one reason it’s taken me so long to figure out why Dallas diners are such fools for alfresco. I mean, look around you-do we not live in a metropolis as technologically avant as any in our universe? Are not our restaurants cushioned by the miracle of air conditioning from the tyranny of changing seasons? We do, and they are. Yet where will you find smart, young, dining-out Dallas from the first peep of spring to summer’s last sweaty gasp?

I’ll tell you where: outdoors, “in the fresh, ” as the Italian term puts it with a loose charm that can mean anything from bleak curbside concrete to vine-shaded deck. Cruise the city’s restaurant rows, and you’ll see them, sweaty celebrants massed thick as grackles, sans shelter, sans soft seating, often sans even a token screen against traffic effluents, but happily oblivious to discomfort, reveling in-what?

Oddly, it took a San Francisco-rooted import to bring the answer home for me. Fog City Diner is about the last place you’d look to find poignance-the restaurant’s slick deco curves, sexy neon, and cheeky insouciance are too urbane to suggest folksy sentiment, So is its high-rent placement, affording an arresting view of the Crescent complex from an outdoor dining deck that is about the distance a front porch should be from the McKinney-Maple intersection.

And therein lies the key, of course, to what alfresco dining has become in our climate-controlled, burglar-alarmed, tell-it-to-my-voice-mail culture: a replacement tor the front porch nobody has anymore.

That’s my theory, and I’ll defend it. Admittedly, though, not a soul we encountered on this month’s search for recom-mendable outdoor eating places seemed to feel the least bit deprived or even wistful. Certainly not at Fog City-currently the hottest ticket in town, the restaurant was booked more than a day in advance for both lunch and dinner on the weekdays we chose to visit.

An aside here: While our mission’s main thrust was to check alfresco locales for this exercise, this might be a good time to mention Fog City’s interior features, too, lest you take the “Diner” in its name seriously. No way is this place kin to the plate lunch palaces of the past: Booths and beams wear a rich mahogany finish, claret-colored car-pets echo their hue; and light fixtures are prime examples of fine art deco design. The main room gets cozy and clubby, the room adjoining is welcomingly open, and the glassed-in space overlooking the lively dining deck contains the most intelligently conceived two-top tables I’ve ever seen. Instead of the usual skinny half-squares that put you too far from your partner to talk, these are triangular, allowing close conversation as well as shared visibility of the room.

As for food, lunch or dinner, inside or out, the menu is the same: a melange of moderate-priced listings, entirely a la carte and predictably Californian in concept, with a few curtsies to traditional diner dishes-chili dogs, hamburgers, and cheeseburgers appear in the sandwich column; root beer floats, milk shakes, and malts are among dessert offerings. One very un-din-erly (not to say shockingly un-Texan) departure: If you want bread with your meal, you order and pay for it, choosing from the handful that heads the menu. At $2. 95, a generous buttery leek and basil loaf was enough for two and well worth the price; a pair of sweetish Dutch Crunch rolls almost deserved their $2. 25 tab, but a gummy Cheddar cheese bun is best forgotten.

Generally, though, the bill of fare allows for some fairly generous flexing. Instead of starters and entrees, the menu lists small plates and large plates, along with soups, salads, and side orders in separate groups. Small plates run a snappy gamut of tapas-sized servings in the $5 to $8 range, roughly half the tab for large plates, which include vegetables with main-course quantities of the listed dish.

My lunch companion’s first-course crab-cakes were fall-apart plump and meaty, a pretty pair subtly spiked with sherry-cayenne mayonnaise. My own starter, billed as a side order, was a yummy pillow of golden polenta, sautéed with tomatoes, garlic, and asiago cheese.

Entree-wise, my companion scored a clean win with grilled chicken breast, herb-spiced and flung with mellow pods of roasted garlic, succulent support for the moist meat and accompanying mashed potatoes. My roast leg of lamb sandwich, handsomely framed between slabs of mahogany-crusted bread, proved rather ordinary despite a lavish layering of watercress leaves; its tomato apricot chutney, an exotic-sounding condiment, tasted more sharply metallic than tartly fruity.

Actually, Fog City’s kitchen has a way to go before several of its trendier accents could be called refined. The homemade ketchup that came with a small plate’s onion rings, for example, was thin and sweet, a misbegotten insult to the honest, crunchy rings. Ditto the sugary “BBQ” sauce ladled over a large plate’s brace of roasted quail with pecan cornbread stuffing; with the sticky stuff scraped off, birds and stuffing were splendid, although little could be done to save the slender fresh green beans drowned alongside them. On the other hand, spice-cured pork tenderloin took quite nicely to its nest of caramelized onions, and a howl of mussel soup turned out to be the most divinely herbed dish of perfectly steamed mollusks I’ve sampled in years.

If I mention the diner’s signature dessert, I’ll have to tell you why I didn’t have it, so how about we focus on the ones we tried? Créme brulée was headily flavored with lemon and vanilla, its silken depths topped with a just-crisped shell of molten sugar, still warm and delectable. Pineapple carrot upside-down cake was the stuff of which legends are made, moist and fruity, not too sweet, strewn with candied walnuts, wonderful enough to kill for.

So what’s the signature thing? Oh, all right-it’s a warm chocolate chile tart with coffee ice cream. Since I’m still stubbornly resisting the notion that chile and chocolate are an acceptable culinary marriage, I’ll let you try it.

And tell you what-why don’t you have it on the deck?

2401 McKinney Avenue at Maple. Open Sun. Thurs. 11 a. m. 11 p. m.; Fri. -Sat. 11 a. m. -midnight. All major credit cards accepted. 214-220-2401.

More Alfresco Experiences

REGARDLESS OF WHAT’S ON THE plate, alfresco dining is in itself a kind of soul food for those who love it-and Dallas diners do, some so uncritically that they will contentedly endure bleak food, indifferent service and/or drastic discomfort to pursue the passion with others of their kind.

What we seek here, though, is a neater, sweeter selection of outdoor dining settings even pickier people would he happy to share. Dallas abounds in all kinds, of course, but this month’s exercise turned up several that are fairly new, as well as some that merit new notice or that you might not have thought of as alfresco spots at all.

One of the newest and most delightful is Breadwinners Cafe and Bakery, located on McKinney Avenue in the mellowed brick building that housed the original Andrew’s- It you liked the place then, you’ll love it now–its French Quarter-like inner courtyard is the most charming open-air spot I’ve seen in this city, with living greenery and wrought-iron accents casting lacy shadows. The out-front patio set back from the street is almost as inviting, and uncommonly sweet-tempered service underscores the ambience. Breadwinners opened some months ago for breakfast, lunch, and take-out bakery goodies only; such joys as Normandy French toast, Breadwinners Benedict, and San Antonio Tacos for breakfast, seguing to great soups, sandwiches, and quiches for lunch, built such a loyal repeat following that the restaurant recently expanded to include dinner Wednesdays through Saturdays. 3301 McKinney Avenue. 754-4940. Inexpensive to moderate.

Unquestionably, the most breathtaking view boasted by any Dallas outdoor dining facility can be found at the Green Room, one of Deep Ellum’s most outstanding recent additions. Talk about attitude: This place identifies itself sign-wise with the single word ROOM, in green neon-get it? Its alfresco space is a rooftop deck high enough to bring the downtown skyline close and clear enough to make you feel you could reach out and touch it. Plans are to roof the rooftop itself one day without dimming the view; but frankly, the setting’s so gorgeous as is, I’d hate to see it changed: ship-like railings, airy round tables, and sleek plastic armchairs set a romantic scene, and the breezy aerie has its own full bar. One limitation: the space is open only at night, and the only food served is pizza. Not to feel deprived-the pizzas here are wondrous creations (try sweet corn, crawfish, and oven-dried tomato with grilled tomato pesto and provolone cheese, for instance), so creative and delicious you couldn’t possibly want anything else. Unless, that is, you happened to see the main room’s main menu, which reads like a glimpse of French-Creole heaven. 2715 Elm. 748-7666. Moderate.

I know, I know, you know all about Star Canyon and Stephan Pyles’ purification of regional cookery to define New Texas cuisine. But had you thought of this stunning place as a rather splendid backdrop for quiet alfresco dining? I refer, of course, to the atrium area at the inner heart of the Centrum, the Oak Lawn building that houses Star Canyon. Sheltered, serene, and quieter than the restaurant’s inner dining areas, the space serves equally well as a power lunch or private tete-à-téte site. Start with chicken-mango quesadillas with guajillo-corn salsa or a simple salad of every baby Texas field green known to mankind; follow with chicken-fried veal steak and the best mashed potatoes you’ve ever tasted, washed with country corn gravy; or order Stephan’s blue cornmeal fried catfish on Texas hopping john with tomatillo chow-chow. End with a slice of signature Heaven and Hell cake if you’ve got room. 3102 Oak Lawn Avenue. 520-STAR(7827). Moderate to expensive.

Caffe Paparazzi is another known favorite seldom thought of in alfresco terms. The popular North Dallas neighborhood establishment does, however, boast a trim row of sidewalk tables along-side its entrance-nothing fancy, but the seating is sheltered, and if the Italians don’t know how to handle alfresco-loving diners, who on earth should? Warm service sets the scene here, along with superior Northern Italian dishes: Thin-shaved carpaccio comes to you chilled and flavor-splashed with vinaigrette; crema di funghi is a perfect smooth summer evening soup; spaghettiputtanesca strikes exactly the right hearty note with its rich sauce of olives, capers, onions, and tomato. The caffe does marvelous things with veal, too-the point is, you eat as well out as in here, although reservations are recommended. 8989 Forest. 644-1323. Moderate.

Among the most comfortable as well as attractive outdoor dining patios in the city is Blue Mesa Grill’s, a vine-grown arbor that somehow catches a breeze on the most stifling day. I can’t think of many more pleasant places to while away a few weekend afternoon-into-evening hours. New Mexico-style Southwestern cuisine still reigns, as agreeably as ever: A tequila-roasted duck quesadilla with Jack cheese, green onions, and a candied-pepper relish on the side boasted fine flavor with guacamole and peerlessly fresh pico de gallo. What with the arbor’s birds, the food, and everybody in jeans, we might almost have been just outside Santa Fe. 5100 Belt Line Road, Village on the Parkway. 934-0/65. Inexpensive to moderate.

I’ve saved Aransas Pass until last, because of all the places visited, this Henderson Avenue restaurant is the only one with a true alfresco setting that is workable all year round. Year-round patio use is made possible by a windowed canvas tent arrangement that can be completely or partially closed or rolled up and away. The beauty part is that a really charmingly landscaped side yard is overlooked from the patio, in season or out. That feeling of openness on an inner-city street is almost as rare as the creativity that marks Aransas Pass’ decor as well as its food-striking ceramics and seaport-fresh colors suggest the Gulf Coast origins that influence the admirably creative Southwestern menu. On an alfresco-bound evening when light fare sounds friendlier than heavy, I recommend a soup, say, of fresh com and roasted eggplant, floating a raft of piquant croutons, chopped tomato, scallion, and Parmesan shreds. Add steamed mussels bathed in herbed Chardonnay, finish off with the indescribably delectable signature dessert (ask for Beeville Honey), and you’ve got my kind of go-there, do-that outdoor summer meal. 2912 North Henderson. 827-8650. Moderate.

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