JOHN MARIANI ASKS: Is Dallas a GREAT RESTAURANT TOWN?

No man has ever come away unscathed by being honest with a woman who says, “I really want you to tell me what you love most and least about me.” So I feel a little queasy about telling my version of the truth when asked about the relative gastronomic strengths and weaknesses of a city I’ve come to love and respect over many years of eating around town.

It’s that word “relative” that causes all the problems. For it would be easy enough to list and praise my top 10 favorite restaurants in Dallas and be welcomed back to town with an embrace. But comparing Dallas’ restaurants to those in other American cities is what may get me ridden out of town on a rail.

For two decades now, I’ve come to Dallas once or twice a year, heading for the new places, assessing the old ones and always stopping by Sonny Bryan’s for a bag of barbecue to take home on the plane, I remember the days when the city’s image was one of steak, fried fish (both overcooked) and potatoes. But I also recall the great chili at Tolbert’s and the epiphany of moving a tray down the line at Gennie’s Bishop Grill and recognizing for the first time why chicken-fried steak deserves a place in the American culinary pantheon.

I was around for the first stirrings of New Texas Cuisine at Agnew’s, Nana Grill, The Mansion on Turtle Creek and Routh Street Cafe, and delighted in seeing chefs like Stephan Pyles and Dean Fearing build well-deserved national reputations. I was enchanted by the consummate grace and beautiful Mediterranean cuisine at The Riviera, and I cast a cool eye on the city’s frantic bid for Gallic respectability at Jean-Claude and Callaud and the frightfully hip hang-outs in Deep Ellum like The Oasis.

And I watched as weary institutions like the Old Warsaw faded and applauded the loosening of the grip country club dining rooms once had on the increasingly discerning palates of upper-crust Dallas.

Italian restaurants-once clichés of California-Italian trendi-ness-have improved measurably with the arrival of chef Kevin Ascolese at Mi Piaci and the opening of Joey’s. The city is rich in ethnic eateries, especially Mexican and Tex-Mex, and the Architecturally, Dallas has some stunning examples of modem restaurant design, from the genteel glamour of The Mansion to the serene Oriental beauty of Anzu and the witty western dazzle of Star Canyon.

I’ve found the service staffs at Dallas1 upscale restaurants are far more appealing and savvy than at restaurants in Washington, Miami or Denver, and far friendlier than in New York or Boston. And the “prole food” at Dallas barbecues, fish houses, cafeterias and cantinas is of a much higher level than that of St. Louis, Kansas City, Seattle or Portland.

Perhaps most important, Dallas has developed some fine culinary talent, chefs who have had a real impact on the way Americans cook today. Fearing and Pyles, along with Avner Samuel and Anne Lindsay Greer, have been as much teachers and gurus as they have been chefs, and their influence on American gastronomy has grown from a self-propelled, innovative way of taking the best traditions of Texas, western and Southwestern and refining them just enough to make even the most conservative connoisseur take notice. Indeed, Pyles’ food at Routh Street Cafe may have been too refined and precious-it was certainly too expensive-whereas at Star Canyon the balance of down-home taste, first-rate ingredients, generous portions and reasonable prices is much closer to the ideal of what New Texas Cuisine should be. And with its stunning cowboy motif and lively bar scene. Star Canyon is also a helluva lot more Architecturally, Dallas has some stunning examples of modem restaurant design, from the genteel glamour of The Mansion to the serene Oriental beauty of Anzu and the witty western dazzle of Star Canyon.

I’ve found the service staffs at Dallas1 upscale restaurants are far more appealing and savvy than at restaurants in Washington, Miami or Denver, and far friendlier than in New York or Boston. And the “prole food” at Dallas barbecues, fish houses, cafeterias and cantinas is of a much higher level than that of St. Louis, Kansas City, Seattle or Portland.

Perhaps most important, Dallas has developed some fine culinary talent, chefs who have had a real impact on the way Americans cook today. Fearing and Pyles, along with Avner Samuel and Anne Lindsay Greer, have been as much teachers and gurus as they have been chefs, and their influence on American gastronomy has grown from a self-propelled, innovative way of taking the best traditions of Texas, western and Southwestern and refining them just enough to make even the most conservative connoisseur take notice. Indeed, Pyles’ food at Routh Street Cafe may have been too refined and precious-it was certainly too expensive-whereas at Star Canyon the balance of down-home taste, first-rate ingredients, generous portions and reasonable prices is much closer to the ideal of what New Texas Cuisine should be. And with its stunning cowboy motif and lively bar scene. Star Canyon is also a helluva lot more fun than Routh Street Cafe ever came close to being.

So, too. Fearing has come to define what fine dining Dallas-style is and should be-not a fusion of East-West, French-Texas and Mediterranean elements, but a very natural style of cooking that sublimates the flavors of the west, served up with panache in a dining room of daunting beauty (even if smokers seem to be favored).

The heat generated by New Texas Cuisine was immediate and irresistible. At least for a while. So celebrated did Pyles and Fearing become as the godfathers of New Texas Cuisine that the demand for their presence at culinary festivals, cooking demos.TV shows, book signings and charity events caused them to be away from their stoves for unconscionable periods of time. So much so that Dallasites have come to say of The Mansion. “It’s the best food in Texas…when Dean’s cooking.”

Open any issue of industry magazines like Nation’s Restaurant News or Food Arts, and you’re likely to see Fearing’s and Pyles’ photos at a celebrity chefs’ event in Hawaii or Chicago, along with other peripatetic stars like Houston’s Robert del Grande, L.A.’s Wolfgang Puck, New Orleans’ Emeril La-gasse. New York’s Larry Forgione and Chicago’s Rick Bayless, among others for whom the limelight has become addictive.

But book a table at Lutece in New York, and you’ll find chef Eberhardt Mueller at the stove. Make a reservation at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, and Charlie Trotter {who was once a circuit rider) is back there whisking the sauce. Fantasize about a grand tasting menu at Tony Clark’s in Philadelphia, and Tony Clark will create it for you himself. So when a city like Dallas has only a handful of top-ranking chefs, it’s a shame that they don’t spend as much time cooking in Dallas as they should.

It may also be one reason New Texas Cuisine has petered out. What once seemed like a movement destined to become an indigenous gastronomy has lost its momentum in the face of a wave of Mediterranean bistros, Tuscan grills, Spago-like clones and East-West fusion labs. The sad fact is. the mamas and papas of Dallas” New Texas Cuisine have not spawned a second generation of cooks to carry it further, or even to carry it on.

Not for a moment am I suggesting Dallas chefs should all be cooking up new variations of grits soufflés and tortilla soup, but it strikes me as odd that a movement that once packed such wind has pretty much blown itself out. A city like Dallas has to have good Mediterranean. French, Italian and Asian restaurants to earn it any real culinary status, and any city would be proud to call restaurants like The Riviera, The French Room, Mi Piaci, Mediterraneo, Toscana, Joey’s and Cafe Pacific their own. By this time I would have expected Dallas to be the crucible lor Texas and Southwestern innovation. But it isn’t, any more than Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Santa Fe, Tucson or Phoenix is.

I’m also baffled as to why, except for Cafe Pacific and the recent emergence of Fish, Dallas has had no first-rate seafood restaurants. Good oysters at Aw Shucks, sure; fried catfish at Landry’s, yes (though that’s part of a Houston-based chain). Where is Dallas’ peer to Le Bernardin, Oceana and the Sea Grill in New York, Aqua in San Francisco, Ray’s Boathouse in Seattle, the Palace Cafe in New Orleans, the Atlanta Fish Market in Atlanta and Shaw’s Crab House in Chicago? Availability of good seafood is not the problem, nor is there a paucity of talent that knows how to cook fish. Could it be that Dallasites still cling to some outmoded idea that seafood is best fried until brittle and dry? Or is it the citizenry’s refusal to pay $28 fora piece offish- even though first-quality seafood never comes cheap? If it does, it was probably frozen.

And why does a Texas city like Dallas-which, granted, was never a cattle town-have to import its best steakhouses? Although some swear by Bob’s Steak & Chop House, most of Dallas’ finest are from elsewhere: The Palm is from New York, Morton’s is from Chicago and Ruth’s Chris is from New Orleans.

Now here comes the kicker: I’d be the first to say that no American city should tie its gastronomic reputation to posh French restaurants-certainly New Orleans, Boston, Washington and Los Angeles do not-but an American city with the size, power and sophistication of Dallas should surely count two or three French restaurants among the best the city has to offer.

Ah. yes, there is The French Room at the Adolphus-a splendiferous, overwrought paean to excess that, upon reopening in 1981, was designed to put Dallas on the culinary map. The French Room was supposed to epitomize the opulent grandeur of Michelin-star restaurants in a style that reeked of the rococo, with a menu so pretentiously, so extravagantly nouvelle that one didn’t know whether to eat the food or ask it to dance.

Curiously enough, Dallasites who bragged about blowing $500 for a meal at New York’s Le Cirque or Paris’s Taillevant don’t much have the stomach for The French Room’s prices, and the room has rarely played to overflow crowds.

Not that the management hasn’t done everything to make it work. Over two decades, The French Room has tried on a slew of culinary fashions before settling down, after its 1993 refurbishing, to a fine balance of classicism and modernism. Chef Brent Wuest, who deserves a much better national reputation than he now has, certainly has helped.

When you add it all up, Dallas certainly ranks in the top 10 cities in America when it comes to dining out (see box below), -or a city’s gastronomy is not simplistically gauged by the number of fine dining, white-tablecloth restaurants it has. Nor should it rest too comfortably on its indigenous down-home cooking. A city’s restaurants express as much about its spirit as do its history, architecture and industry and should draw to it the best national and international talent while breeding its own year after year. The spirit of Dallas may be as palpable in a plush dining room like The Mansion as it is in the smoky shack of Sonny Bryan’s, but it can’t live off those laurels decade after decade.

Now, with the city recovered from the recession and as vibrant and forward-looking as at any time in its history, Dallas must focus its culinary energies, take more pride in its indigenous food culture, and Dallasites must patronize the kinds of restaurants that can go head-to-head with the best anywhere in the nation. Given the strength of talent already here, it shouldn’t be difficult to catapult Dallas into third or fourth place among America’s great restaurant cities.

AMERICA’S BEST RESTAURANT CITIES



1. NEW YORK: With more than 16,000 restaurants, an international clientele that thinks its restaurants are a bargain, expense accounts back at pre-1987 levels, a hot core of media, fashion and finance, with access to the widest array of ingredients and chefs who compete at the very highest wire, it’s no wonder NYC takes the top position. And people live above and across the street from their favorite restaurants, which guarantees consistent patronage every day of the week. NYC still gets the best seafood and the best beef because people are willing to pay for it, and chefs do not recycle ideas here; they come up with new ones other cities’ chefs copy.



2. SAN FRANCISCO: A true foodies’ town, passionate about every ingredient, savvy about wine, discerning in its tastes and unwilling to be gouged, San Francisco is a small city with proud neighborhoods, a fascinating Orientai quotient and some of the world’s greatest vineyards within an hour’s drive. Young chefs come here to pay homage to heroes like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and Jeremiah Tower of Stars, who have indeed bred a new generation of chefs in their kitchens.



3. CHICAGO: Brash but good-natured, Chicagoans don’t want fussy when simple good taste will do. The city is always pumping, sports events bring in the free-spenders, taverns and bars are hopping, and a constant flow of conventioneers packs every restaurant in town, from terrific little lunch places in the Loop to temples of haute cuisine like Charlie Trotter’s. No city has better hotel dining rooms, and no city is more committed to fine architecture.



4. LOS ANGELES: Used to be No. 2, even No. 1 in the days when chefs like Wolfgang Puck, Joachim Splichal and Michel Richard re-invented cuisine about every 30 days. But the L.A. chefs have dissipated their energies only to reproduce earlier concepts around the country, and the city’s economy is only now struggling back to what it was before the quakes, mudslides, fires and riots. A great Asian influx has meant that you can find superb Asian food of every kind. Even so, the best restaurants, like Valentino and Michael’s, are actually over in Santa Monica.

5. BOSTON: History-driven, tourist-rich, with plenty of Old Money around, Boston has bounced back, and bustling restaurants are the first sign of a booming economy. At the very top level, Boston has at least a half-dozen deluxe dining rooms that rank with the finest in the country, such as L’Espalier, Rialto and Aujord’hui. In addition, innovators like Lydia Shire at Biba, Todd English at Olives and Stan Frankenthaler at Salamander have had national impact. There’s a very active Chinatown, and the Cambridge scene has always been a hotbed of exciting new eateries.



6. NEW ORLEANS: Even though New Orleans hasn’t anything like the breadth of restaurants other top cities have-you could starve before you found a good Italian restaurant-its Creole traditions and Cajun influences along with its unending party atmosphere make food taste better, richer and more sinful here than anywhere else. The town is full of great wine lists, and the populace is eager to spend as much of their disposable income as possible to eat well.



7. HOUSTON: Sorry. Dallas, but Houston has a very solid, across-the-board restaurant scene, led by ab-fab society eateries like Tony’s (whose scion launched Joey’s) and stunning innovators like Americas right down to the funky Daily Review Cafe and a remarkably vibrant Vietnamese sector. Still, the city seems stuck and running out of fuel and has lost the edge it once had by recycling old ideas endlessly. Houstonians are also a bit tight with the dining-out dollar.



8. DALLAS: Superb talent at every level and a dozen restaurants as good as any outside of New York. But the thrill of discovery is gone, and too many restaurants are selling concept rather than authenticity. Like Houstonians. Dallasites seem reluctant to spend a lot of money for great cuisine. But the diversity of its restaurants has broadened in the last couple of years as the city’s economy has rebounded. Dallas seems on the brink of breakout that could push it up several notches by the year 2000.



9. PHILADELPHIA: Not even in the top 20 five years ago, Philly has gone far beyond cheesesteaks and soft pretzels and broken into the top 10 with an impressive and stunning array of modern restaurants like Striped Bass, Rococo, Chanterelles, Brasserie Perrier, Vega Grill and Tony Clark’s. Add to that a base of better-than-ever classics like Le Bec Fin, the Fountain and Susannah Foo, and you could eat around Philly for a week and still miss a few high spots.

10. WASHINGTON, D.C.: Once a real con tender, but the city itself is now a disaster, and few restaurateurs have been able to buck the downward trend. The once- influential French restaurants Le Pavillon and Jean-Louis are gone for lack of busi ness, and the local critics are appalled at any entree over $25. The powerbrokers would still rather be seen dining next to Larry King and Rush Limbaugh at a steakhouse than be caught dead ordering Cristal and caviar at the wonderful new Lespinasse. DC”s restaurant business is driven by auditors, not gourmets.



Also Rans:

11. ATLANTA: Despite first-rate restaurants like Chops for steaks, the Atlanta Fish Market for seafood, the Horseradish Grill for southern fare and Brasserie LeCoze for French cooking, Atlanta’s run out of steam, so that the city’s been inundated with T.G.I.Fridays, Cheesecake Factorys and other national chains, while independent operators try to compete for a much smaller gourmet market.



12. PHOENIX: A surge in the early ’90s has settled down to a low simmer, and although the city has expanded incredibly, the restaurant scene is pretty flat, despite the presence of powerhouses like Vincent’s on Camelback. Tarbell’s, Christopher’s and Mary Elaine’s. Sometimes it’s just too hot to eat out.



13. SEATTLE: Lots of bustle, though perhaps more style than substance, Seattle has its own mind about food and draws on an extraordinary waterfront for its seafood. Laid back but increasingly sophisticated, the city is enjoying itself with a thin edge of very good, rarely great, restaurants.



14. MIAMI: The Big Fizzle, a strong case of style over substance and trendiness over commitment. The city now has only two or three restaurants even worth considering for a fine meal. The rest flare brightly for a single season, change hands and chefs, and cater to a crowd that wants its pasta in three colors, its drinks the texture of slush and its service staff only half dressed. Even Little Havana’s become predictable.-J.M.

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