Not to sound peevish, but Isn’t there an unwritten law that those with the means are supposed to escape to Santa Fe or Provence or somewhere else cool during a particularly hellish Dallas summer? Ergo, when Toscana’s long-anticipated opening was pushed back from spring to heat-glazed late June, shouldn’t those of us trapped in town have been able to count on the consolation of getting the first uncrowded crack at this second offspring of the Riviera I (Meditertaneo being the first)?
It is to laugh. The moment the bartender stood poised to pour the first drink, haute hordes were waiting to swarm the place, with reserved moneyed types, casually upscale career couples and enough table-hop-ping, air-kissing, mane-tossing BPs to create wall-to-wall cacophony. Which made for great people-watching (in lieu of conversation) on both our dinner visits, but at the same time, left us longing to view the restaurant itself under less frenetic circumstances.
Near as I could tell, the setting would be serenely Mediterranean-deep arches and doorways create a thick-walled effect in dining areas that overlook a pretty covered patio bordered with flowering plants and vines. Lively prints and paintings add bursts of color to the interior’s cool cream. A splendidly provisioned bar off the entrance provides stools and minuscule tables Co accommodate those enjoying a cocktail or a last cigarette before being seated (smoking otherwise is limited to the fan-breezed patio).
The food, too, is Mediterranean, as might be expected from a triumvirate of owners who built on Riviera’s success to bring us Mediterraneo, Franco Bertolasi, the eternally ebullient brains behind both concepts, partnered here again with Michael Caolo Jr., calls Toscana’s fare “Cucina della Terra”-food from the earth. David Holben, executive chef of all three restaurants, terms it, like all his cooking, “food from the heart.” Whatever it’s called, as translated by chef de cuisine Gilberto Garza’s staff in his glass-framed kitchen, every dish we tried fairly sang of sunny creativity.
Including the few that fell a point or two short of expectations: A starter billed as crispy yellow-corn polenta arrived with the golden triangles gone soggy in their basil-tomato-red wine vinegar sauce; ravioli folded around sage-seasoned ricotta and sun-dried tomatoes in marinara sauce was a shade sharper than it should have been, the mild cheese eclipsed by its tart-tongued accompaniments.
But what are such small flaws among so much to praise, from lusty sourdough bread served with pesto-herbed olive oil for clipping to an hors d’oeuvre nibble of portobello mushroom in orange grappa sauce on creamy polenta? And beyond-the menu’s pizzas are bedded on golden lavosh. crackle-crisp and paper-thin; the one we shared played pancetta’s salty crunch and assertive gorgonzola against sweet ribbons of caramelized onions in an arugula chif-fonade. Salads delivered subtle surprises-shaved artichokes and sweet red onions tossed with mixed greens in romano-zipped basil vinaigrette were fairly conventional, as was a composition of tomato slices with cucumber and fennel in a gentle vinaigrette. But crisp nuggets of sweet dried dates, of all things, and salty pancetta added unexpected nuance to goat cheese and arugula in tomato-onion vinaigrette; and the bittersweet balance of whole young romaine heart leaves with earthy olives and toasted pecans in garlic dressing was outstanding.
So were our entrées, Sautéed trout was a palette-pretty arrangement of slender, silvery filets lifted cleanly from the bone, divinely delicate in lemon tarragon butter, sided with toasted orzo pasta to add a touch of texture. Grilled quail came with a red pepper cannelloni bean tart and mixed greens on a Chianti glaze that was nothing short of thrilling. Rounds of pork tenderloin boldly edged with herbs and cracked black pepper were gentled by their fruity orange grappa sauce. As memorable as these, though, was the day’s risotto, a purely tantalizing medley of al dente rice, chicken, porcini mushrooms and tomato with Gorgonzola cheese-superbly simple,
Desserts-well, desserts call for a confession. Sorbets were delectable on their baked meringue base, and a caramel-glazed ricotta custard apricot tart was melt-in-your-mouth tender and flaky-crusted. But something jaw-breakingly labeled tiramisu bread pudding with mascarpone cream, roasted hazelnuts and Frangelico sauce so far outshone the rest that I broke a prime reviewer’s rule and ordered it twice. Not sorry. Will again, If anything as wonderful has crossed my lips this decade, I can’t recall it.
And I can’t recall more polished service than Toscana’s staff accorded us, crowds notwithstanding. Franco Bertolasi is here in person only for quick visits, but his daughters, Tessa and Bianca, are at the door, manager Michael Costa is everywhere at once, and the same happy ambience that charms diners at the Riviera and Mediterraneo is evident in this newest venture. -Betty Cook
Toscana. 4900 McKinney, 521-2244. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2p.m., Monday-Friday; dinner: 6-9p.m., Sunday-Thursday; 6-10 p.m., Friday & Saturday. Moderate.
DADDY JACK’S WOOD GRILL
WHEN JACK CHAPLIN NAMED HIS LOWER Greenville seafood and lobster house Daddy Jack’s, he says he had no notion of applying the name to himself. Having sold rights to his own last name along with his first, more upscale, restaurant, he hit upon using his first name for the new place in brainstorming sessions with his children-the “Daddy” part actually referred to his father and grandfather, both Jack Chaplins before him.
So much for history. Restaurantwise, though, the title has come to fit the third-generation J.C. at least as well as the first and second-over the past months, the enterprising chef has spawned a specialized spin-off (the Raw Bar), a smokers’ haven (the Cigar Lounge), and now, a Deep Ellum sibling of Daddy Jack’s called Daddy Jack’s Wood Grill. (He’s also foster-fathered, you might say, an Addison clone called Lefty’s, but that’s another matter entirely.)
To no one’s surprise, the Wood Grill menu’s resemblance to the first D.J.’s is remarkable, but like every Chaplin venture, this one possesses a free-spirited character all its own, For one thing, Chaplin’s partners here, Bruno Mella and Tony Guercio, are doing the cooking. For another, they’re not doing it together, but dividing the duty: Guercio produces lunch, Mella takes over the kitchen at dinner, and everyone’s happy.
Particularly the customers. Rarely has a Deep Ell urn eatery been as quickly and ardently embraced; predecessor Buffalo Club and others before it failed to fill this corner space, but the Wood Grill is packing in patrons as fast as the red check-spread tables can turn through lunch and dinner. Thonet-styled brass chairs on both sides of the wall separate bar and smokers’ seating from the more sedate smoke-free dining area. The decor s plain-jane simple except for a couple of tongue-in-cheek touches-a speedboat prow erupting from the bar-side wall, schools of bright fish painted on the window. It’s the ambience that’s Daddy-Jack distinctive, conveying a mood-mellowing devotion to informal comfort along with lively service and food that manages to combine homey familiarity with twists of near-elegance, much as its parent establishment does.
Grilled red snapper, for instance, topped with shrimp and sauced with lobster brandy, could grace a much tonier table; here, though, it comes with a vast ear of barely steamed com-on-the-cob that demands to be eaten home-style, out of hand. Ditto our 10-ounce beef filet, grilled with apple bacon and crowned with roasted walnuts and Roquefort butter. (I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but the tangy cheese was really too lavishly applied; the steak was better with much of the topping scraped off.) Lobster Fra Diavolo, the menu’s priciest offering, was a challenging heap of in-the-shell lobster, mussels, clams and shrimp that required one bibbed companion’s attention for more than an hour; he seemed not to mind.
Starters that preceded that dinner’s entrées were also typical D.J. fare except for the lobster bisque, which was thinner and less rich in flavor than we expected. Not so the New England crab cake, meaty and marvelously crisp-skinned, or the house salad, a generous toss of many greens with radish and carrot coins in a creamy garlic vinaigrette.
A solo return visit for lunch found the place as popular midday as evening, and the food perhaps a shade more polished than our dinner’s. The day’s soup, a tomato and crab gaz-pacho, was so memorable I’d have been happy to settle for more of it and nothing else-until I tasted a thick cut of tuna anointed with fresh mango and avocado in a silken beurre blanc and resting on a wonderful wash of black bean-cilantro sauce. The entrée was sheer ambrosia, nicely complemented by a colorful cucumber-j?cama slaw in lime-sparked sour cream dressing, as well as a generous side of charred tomato rice.
Oddly, the one place the kitchen fell on its face was in a made-that-morning chocolate mousse that was grainy, rock-hard and almost inedible when we tried it at dinner, and exactly the same when I ordered it again at lunch another day. The other house-made dessert, though, was terrific-a Key lime pie of surpassing smoothness, light and refreshingly tart. Other desserts are made elsewhere for the restaurant.
As, in a way, was the Wood Grills overall concept and character. But while much of the menu reads like an echo of Daddy Jack’s, and the atmosphere’s casual ease duplicates the original’s, the fact that two different chefs are putting their own marks on the food here gives any day’s dishes a fillip of individuality that sets the new venture just far enough from the older establishment to add intrigue to familiarity. I can’t think of a more promising combination. -B.C.
Daddy Jack’s Wood Grill. 272 3 Elm St., 653-}949. Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Monday-Friday; dinner. 6-10 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday; 6-midnight, Friday & Saturday. Moderate.
Gourmet to Go
“Uncle Chow” is Joe Chow, owner of the very popular Chinese restaurant May Dragon on Belt Line in Addison. His brand-new, tiny Piano site (mainly for delivery and take-out, but with a few eat-in tables} continues to uphold the high quality of Chow’s food. The menu might be small, but the flavors all there, especially if you start with the pan-fried chicken dumplings, jam-packed with tender white meat. Both the won ton soup and the fried rice score higher culinary marks than those served in May Dragon-Chow, take note! Chow packs moo shu the sensible way-pancake wrappers separate from sauce, separate from fillers-allowing customers to serve themselves soggy-free food. Fried rice features chunks of shrimp; spring rolls offer plenty of both chicken and shrimp, and the appetizers can substitute as full meals. While Chow’s menu might be small, it covers anything you might want to eat, from soups to entrées.
Uncle Chow. 19021 Midway Rd. at Rosemeade, 306-CHOW 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Friday & Saturday. Inexpensive.