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DINING OUT NEW RESTAURANT REVIEWS One More Opus for Mr. Hollen, Cafe-Maker Extraordinaire

Also: Fish and Rooster
By D Magazine |

MEL HOLLEN’S BAR & FINE DINING

MEL HOLLEN, WHO HAS DE-signed and opened such well-loved Dallas eateries as Cafe Pacific, Atlantic Cafe, the Hard Rock Cafe and Jaxx Cafe, finally now has opened a place of his own, Mel Hollen’s. But a better name for this newest and grandest of Hollen’s mahogany-and-brass creations would be “the Best of Mel.”

Located in Addison, on a site that has seen three previous restaurants succumb to Chapter 11 (Lexi. Minx II, the Capitol), the undaunted Mr. Hollen has assembled a most magnificent-if slightly eccentric-bar and restaurant. To do this, he has x imported enough antiques i and architectural oddities 2 from around the world to § create an epicurean’s theme park. The only thing missing is a moose head. The revolving door originally graced New York’s Roosevelt Hotel circa 1920. Suspended from the ceiling are 14 ancient alabaster bowls, now electrified to radiate the soft, warm glow that nearly transports the whole scene to a grand saloon out of some Somerset Maugham story.

Mel’s main dining room is centered under a mural-covered dome that depicts a curious covey of cherubs, all wearing chef’s hats, participating in a number of strange acts. Mel got the idea from his friend, the late Vincent Price. Along the back wall, recalling Pullman train cars, are four private dining booths, each featuring a mirror and purple velvet curtains that can be closed for that all-important intimacy between diners and their food.

After taking our order, our waiter returned with a dish of olive oil for the sourdough bread (from La Madeleine, our waiter informed us) into which he ceremonially administered cracked pepper from afoot-long poivrier. Appetizers included Baked Oysters Bingo-six tasty Blue Points on the half-shell over a bed of creamed spinach, shallots, bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese-which retained their lightly salted ocean flavor in contrast to the surrounding bed of creamy greens. However, the King Crab Nantua was more Nantua than crab- its rich mushroom cream sauce totally obscuring the tiny morsels of flaked crab offering no particular flavor to hang onto.

Knowing Mel’s reputation for excellent seafood, my companion selected the day’s special, swordfish stuffed with shrimp on risotto, a beautiful inch-thick cut of swordfish with a dozen small shrimp sandwiched inside it, all atop a mound of creamy risotto, with soft green peppercorns sprinkled over the top. Unfortunately, the fish had spent too much time under the heat lamp, rendering it dry and tough, while too many shrimp produced an overpowering gumbo flavor that spoiled the risotto.

Pepper Steak arrived exactly as requested, medium rare. The fist-size filet, encrusted with cracked black peppercorns, was tender yet lean and chewy, full of flavor. But the accompanying cognac sauce lacked enough definition to present much of a complement to the powerful peppers. Mel’s entrées don’t come with veggies, so we split an order of creamed spinach, nutmeg-flavored and topped with Gruyère cheese, which was acceptable, but I suspect the spinach had originally been frozen.

Mel’s wine list is entirely American (except for one sake), and we ordered by the glass: a Mountain View Merlot and a Zabaco Chardonnay, the last of which had been poured from a bottle that had been open too long.

For dessert, we shared another special: angelica Frangelica, slivers of angel food cake soaked in Frangelica liquor, topped with sliced strawberries. If only the cake had spent a bit more time in the liquor, it might have been truly heavenly. Instead it lacked the hazelnut essence that could have united the flavors of cake and fruit.

We departed agreeing that Mel Hollen’s is a singular place to go for honest, if a bit pricey, food and drink. The place strives to please, and satisfy. -Mickey Stuart Mel Hollen’s Bar & Fine Dining. 15175 Quorum Dr., Addison, 972-233-6357.5-10:30p.m., Monday-Thursday; 5-U p.m., Friday & Saturday (Bar opens at 4:30 p.m.). Moderate to expensive.

FISH

AND YOU THOUGHT WE DIDN’T HAVE LEGAL gambling in Dallas. Wanna bet?

Oh sure, you can cross state lines east to the offshores or north to the reservations, even wing it west to Vegas if you want that kind of blatant blitz.

But that’s play-money stuff-we’ve got gutsier, more grown-up action right here in the inner city, where the game board is made of real city blocks instead of little numbered squares, and major players are wagering real dollars that Downtown D will be reborn as a thrilling place to live as well as work. That’s live, as in eat and sleep and hang out for fun-can it really happen?

It’s happening already. Back in midwinter, when my fax rolled out a menu for a new downtown restaurant called Fish, daring to style itself “an upscale seafood restaurant,” I’d have bet against its survival. Outside the tourist-dependent West End Historic District, no major eatery has opened downtown in ages.

I’d have lost the bet. Fish shows every sign of prospering, thronged to reservations-only capacity (on weekends especially) with Dallas diners hungry for sophisticated downtown night life. They’re finding it in the proudly renovated Paramount Hotel’s art deco decor.

But perhaps most of all, they’re finding it in food as compelling as followers of chef Chris Svalesen’s career (from his own much-missed Scott’s Seafood on Mc-Kinney to Yellow, Ristorante Savino, Accolades, et al.) would have laid odds it would be, On our visits, appetizers were poetry on the plate-house-smoked salmon, trout, oysters and shrimp (a mini-banquet) with red onion confit; a pan-fried Dungeness crab cake, fall-apart tender and fresh-flavored; swordfish escabeche, toothsome bites of firm flesh in a red-wine marinade spiked wiTh ciLantro, chilis and citrus tartness- A day’s special lobster and shrimp terrine was our sole disappointment. Maine lobster bisque, though, was a triumph of distilled flavor essence, and steamed East Coast mussels were fine in their bath of garlicky vermouth.

Unlike most restaurants, this one’s main courses are as wonderful as its starters. Pepper-crusted yellow-fin tuna came as three noisettes, barely crisped outside rosy-rare hearts in a red-wine demi-glace. Pan-fried rainbow trout were whisper-delicate in a roasted corn crust alongside crawfish tails in lusty Cajun beurre blanc. One dish I’ll go back for again and again-and don’t ask to share it-was a satin sextet of jumbo sea scallops wearing a crust of ground black sesame seeds; I’ve never tasted better. Sides are no slouches, either-lobster-studded mashed potatoes and jasmine rice were outstanding, and a sauteed “salad” of wild mushrooms was ample enough for two and terrific enough to regret having to split.

A delectable warm apple tart stands out in memory as the most repeatable dessert. The memory of Fish’s service lingers likewise as correct and warmly friendly. And Fish bids strongly to endure as one of this city’s most rewarding dining destinations. You can bet on it. -Betty Cook Fish. 302 S. Houston St., 214-747-FISH. Lunch: II a.m.~2 p.m., Monday-Friday; dinner: 5:30-10p.m., Monday-Thursday; 5:30-11 p.m., Friday & Saturday; 5:30-10 p.m., Sunday; brunch: 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Sunday. Late menu, 10 p.m.-2 a.m. nightly. Moderate to expensive.



ROOSTER

In the perpetually shifting, SEE-AND-BE-seen clamor for the new and exotic that characterizes much of the Dallas restaurant scene, it’s all but financially masochistic to launch an upscale eatery based on vittles from the old South.

Actually, before the Civil War dramatically altered its social structure, the South was home to a rich culinary heritage born of English cookery and fresh ingredients woven with French and West Indian influences and the expressive touch of skilled African cooks. It’s through these roots that David Burdette-former chef at The Grape-has drawn inspiration for Rooster, named not only for what this bird symbolizes in France (good food) and England (warm, comfortable establishment), but also for Burdette’s and partner Cameron Morris’ personal collection of rooster art, which speckles the dining room like a dusting of freshly chopped sage.

Located in an old house that was once the home of Messina’s, Rooster has the scent of an old, smoky living room. It’s clean and elegant yet understated, with rich, rustic wood furniture and earth tones splashed with colonial reds. For relaxed viewing of the culinary action, Rooster has a private room with a long pine-plank table that seats 12 in front of large beveled windows framing the kitchen.

Burdette dubs this action “new American Southern cuisine,” which is actually a disciplined orchestration of traditional influences and imaginative diversions coupled with a deftly assembled wine list. The menu moves from fried green tomatoes {listless and bland) with Dallas mozzarella, to Coca Cola-marinated venison loin (the Coke extracts gaminess while it adds richness) to roasted double breast of chicken with Pontchartrain crab-meat stuffing. There’s enough here to dazzle the achingly refined epicure as well as satiate the growlingly famished.

Rooster will continually emphasize seasonal game on its menu, so we sampled the braised wild pheasant, which-settled in a bowl of dark, rich hunters sauce with Southern Comfort-glazed baby onions, cracklings (pork fat) and shiitake mushrooms-was moist, sweet, chewy and very hearty. The menu also harbors the obligatory catfish, a stubborn aquatic beast that always seems to contribute mud-oozing essence no matter how it’s dressed. But Rooster’s molasses pecan-encrusted catfish is delicate, flavorful and void of any hint of the fish’s past.

While the service was adequate, it lacked the pleasant, suffusively sincere attentive-ness this Southern setting demands. Plus, our servers’ knowledge of the menu was jittery at best. And although the core ingredients of hominess and comfort connote an overbearingly hospitable aunt, Rooster in fact is more like the engaging, nurturing cousin who unobtrusively relaxes just by their presence. -Mark Stuertz Rooster. Oak Grove and Lemmon avenues, 214-521-1234. Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday-Saturday ; dinner: 5:30-10 p.m., Sunday-Thursday; 5:30-11 p.m., Friday & Saturday; brunch: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Sunday. Moderate to expensive.

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