DINING OUT NEW RESTAURANT REVIEWS Cafe Express Brings a Wholesome Emphasis to Fast Food

Also: Reata and Cafe Izmir

CAFE EXPRESS

UNTIL RECENTLY, ROBERT Del Grande was known by Dallas cognoscenti mainly as a member of the derivatively dubbed “Gang of Five” who, not at all derivatively, were instrumental in putting Southwestern cuisine on the culinary map. With Dallas locals Stephan Pyles, Dean Fearing, Anne Lindsey Greer and Avner Samuel rounding out the original group, Del Grande would jaunt in from the Houston territory he had carved out at Cafe Annie and, later, the Rio Ranch Steakhouse to cook up the kind of creative storms that raised the national consciousness vis-à-vis Texas taste buds in general, ; and pepper versatility in particular.

That’s history. Del Grande I is now known around here for fast food, not Southwestern. Bur not commonplace fast food, either: The Cafe Express concept he’s developed with co-owner Candice Schiller won professional accolades even before it tiptoed up from Houston by way of Addison. More importantly, it has won instant popularity as well-from Day One, the McKinney Avenue Cafe Express, the biggest and most handsome yet, has drawn busy droves apparently eager to line up for counter-ordered quick meals that are fresh, health-conscious and budget-friendly.

Del Grande’s food fills the bill on all counts. The most;y Mediterranean menu skirts nutritional no-nos with a wholesome emphasis on salads, sandwiches, chicken and pastas-plus an intriguing bevy of burgers for lustier appetites and a bountiful display of desserts to tempt the weak. Sides and snacks are offered, too, but the tapenade taster we tried, to launch our first visit-chopped kalamata olives with garlic, herbs, capers and anchovies-was a disappointing version, its accompanying “garlic sourdough” toast strips leathery and bland.

Oh well, that was before we discovered the most delightful feature of this cafe, a centrally placed serve-yourself bar that alone could justify the concept’s popularity. Called the Oasis, the extra-goodies bar is laden with olives (four kinds: oil-cured Greek ones, dainty Nicoise, green ones, and pungent kala-matas), pickles (cornichons, artichoke hearts, capers, et al), freshly grated Reggiano Parmesan cheese, and a multitude of mustards, vinegars, oils and other condiments. The place is a grazer’s paradise; the paper cups supplied for sampling are tiny, but unlimited refill trips are allowed-indeed, may be needed to improve some of the menu’s blander offerings.

Four-cheese fettuccine, for example, needed a sprinkle of Parmesan to flesh out the scantily sauced pasta strands. A salad trio of Tuscany tuna, chicken and pasta pesto was huge and pleasant enough, but their bed of greens required a short, sharp shot of vinegar and oil to bring it to lite. A day’s-special shrimp and pasta salad (few shrimp, many pasta shells) suffered likewise-the enormous bowl held a colorful mélange of white beans, red cabbage, carrot, celery, red bell pepper and nubbins of goat cheese, but its lemon-olive oil dressing had been applied so sparingly, we had to ask for more in order to even taste it. Doctored up, though, all these dishes offered more whole-meal satisfaction than their low price suggested.

So did the soups, including a mild gazpa-cho, crunchy with minced carrots, and a black bean garnished with green onions, cilantro and rice. Of the various desserts displayed on the counter, our favorites were a chocolate pot de crème, smooth and sinful, and a lumpy looking apple tartlet that was truly wonderful.

Star turn of both visits, though, I’ve saved for last: In the midst of all that calorie counting, the cafe’s Danish blue cheese and bacon on a huge Black Angus beef burger was terrific enough to wipe any thought of caution from our minds. Try it; like everything else here, its available for takeout, although the cafe’s upscale Southwestern decor, full bar and warm ambience make for more comfortably casual eating-in than at many pricier places I could name. -Betty Cook

Cafe Express. 3230 McKinney Ave., 999-9444. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-midnight, Friday & Saturday. Inexpensive.



REATA

Reata-Spanish for ” rope,” and the name of the sprawling ranch in the film Giant-was not a real building but a facade evoking an image of a non-existent rich interior. Similarly, the Reata restaurant in downtown Fort Worth, though it’s been hailed as a success and praised by no less than Martha Stewart, offers more facade than substance. Its decor features dark wood paneling, mural-sized copies of famous paintings by Charles Russell and Frederic Remington, sculptures of James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor (the latter is in the ladies’ restroom), cowhide-cove red chairs, and enough saddles, chaps, cowboy hats, ropes and rusty ranching paraphernalia to evoke all sorts of images of rich but tough ranchers and the creature comforts they worked so hard to earn out of a hardscrabble land. But neither the food nor the service lives up to the expectations evoked by this decor.

Our first visit was for dinner. Despite having made a reservation for 9 p.m. on a week night, we were not seated until 9:30 p.m. Clutching the beeper we were given, we ordered drinks in the bar and, as our wait stretched out with no beep from the hostess, appetizers. My cornmeal crusted oysters came with a crisp but bland batter and a too mild horseradish sauce. My companion’s bacon-wrapped shrimp was tastier, but again, bland-ness rendered the accompanying three-onion marmalade a real shoulder-shrugger.

The view, however, is great. Floor-to-ceiling windows in the bar look out over the bluff above the Trinity River; almost directly below are the twinkling lights of Sundance Square. We enjoyed watching it all as we waited, and waited, to be beeped. Finally, the hostess came and found us-apparently our cute little beeper wasn’t working.

The menu features chicken, lamb, enchiladas and pasta in addition to steaks. My Mesquite-grilled Texas T-bone was cooked more rare than I ordered, but by then it was so late I elected to eat it rather than send it back. It was tender and flavorful despite being too rare. The accompanying herbed cacciota enchilada was also good, but again, more bland than I expected. On the other hand, my companion’s pan-seared, pepper-crusted tenderloin with a port wine glaze was perfectly cooked.

On my second visit, with two other companions for lunch, we were seated promptly -no reservations are accepted for lunch- and handed menus by a frazzled-looking young woman. Once again a steak-a Mesquite-grilled rib-eye-arrived much more I are than ordered. It was sent back this time, md returned, rather ungraciously, much too overcooked. The pan-seared salmon didn’t look so much seared as exhausted. However, . club sandwich was good, and my “tumble-veed onion rings” were voted the best thing on any of our plates.

Desserts almost redeemed the day. The chocolate tone with blackberry sauce, the apple crisp with cajeta (caramel sauce) and the bunuelos (puff pastry) with raspberry Cointreau all were served with vanilla bean ice :ream and all were simply scrumptious, But das, lunch was not allowed to end on this sweet note. Our server, who had grown increasing-y surly as lunch wore on, began clearing the :able, slinging plates and flatware so violently hat a spoon spun out of her hand and hit the friend sitting next to me. By this time, we were simply glad it hadn’t been one of the huge steak knives Reata features.

If you are looking for a dning-out experience where ambience matters more than food, give Reata a try. But if you’re loo king for a good steak and consistently good service, try Cattlemen’s on the North Side. Its the real thing. -Katie Sherrod

Reata. Bank One Tower, 35th floor, 500 Throckmorton, downtown Tort Worth; 817-336-1009. lunch: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Monday-Saturday; dinner. 5:30-10 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 5:50- 10 p. m., Friday & Saturday. Bar hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-11 p.m., Monday-Saturday. Moderate to expensive.



CAFE IZMIR

FIRST THING YOU ASK FOR WHEN YOU’RE SEATed in a restaurant is a menu, right?

Not here. This spritzy, charmingly casual new entry on the Lower Greenville eat-out scene doesn’t have a menu. Doesn’t need one either-once you’ve picked your libation and declared yourself carnivore or vegetarian, you’ll eat what you’re served and like it,

I mean that literally. Nobody doesn’t like the delights Nazy Nazir whips up in Izmir’s busy kitchen-as you’ll see if you try to shoehorn yourself into the place anywhere near the usual dinner hour. The thing to do, even on weekdays, is to pop in early (sixish is a good time) and prime your palate with a glass of wine before the evening rush builds-which it does, daily. Begun with modest expectations, this family enterprise had to stop serving lunch when response to their fare stretched them too thin. Mother/chef Nazy rules the kitchen, sons/partners Beau and Ali and their cousin Mehran Rafian manage out front, and traffic between the wo points is as hectic at times as the after-dark street scene on Greenville itself.

Not surprisingly, when you consider that only a few trips from the kitchen to the table are involved in serving conventional courses, dinner at Izmir is a nonstop shuttle: The food here comes in a continuous parade of portions too big-and too Middle Eastern in character-to call tapas, but small enough to have almost finished when the next freshly heaped platter arrives. Loosely speaking, the sequence does move from appetizer-type dishes to main dishes and vegetables; collaborate with companions to combine meat and vegetarian orders, and you might start as we did, with a terrific lemon-zested tabbouleh and a hummus more silken than I’ve had anywhere else, plus Mediterranean cole slaw (carrots, green and red cabbage in lemony dressing) and a tex-tureless concoction of potatoes and minced chicken that Beau called Russian chicken salad, and I call rather bland. With these came excellent pita quarters for dipping or stuffing, as needed, which also made lovely tuck-ins for kabob-grilled tubes of ground beef and tender marinated chicken. Lamb wore its own wrap of a tortilla-like crepe, with minced green peppers that carried a neat little punch of piquancy. Cubed cucumber and tomato in lemon-olive oil dressing were a cooling touch; buttered saffron rice was fine, an enormous platter of grilled eggplant, squash and ripe tomato slices brought a bright counterpoint of flavors to the table. And have I mentioned that everything in this overlong paragraph was included in the cafe’s prix-fixe surprise package for $12 per person?

You’ll want to add wine to that, of course; if they have it, a scarce Greek red called Boutari Naoussa is as happy a find as I’ve stumbled across in years. Sweet Turkish coffee in fragile cups was as irresistible as the desserts we tried-a toasted slice of sponge cake drizzled with liqueur-scented syrup, and a particularly delectable new-that-night invention that filled flared leaves of puff pastry with nutty caramel. When she learned that pretty thing was yet unnamed, one member of our party suggested they call it Phyllo Vance, and I’m afraid they might. But order it anyway.

-B.C.

Cafe Izmir. 3711 Greenville Ave., 826-7788. 5:30-11 p.m., daily. Moderate.

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