EVERYONE KNOWS THERE ARE SEVEN continents. But gourmands know that, once upon a time, there were eight. “’Continental” cuisine, the epitome of white tablecloth dining for several generations, was actually an amalgam of French, Belgian, and Italian cuisine, but it belonged to what we only now have the vocabulary to describe as a “virtual continent.” Apprentice-trained European chefs (and on the eighth continent, all chefs were European) rose from onion-chopper to garde manger to rotisseur to saucier to sous chef to chef (arduously, under duress, laboring hard under autocratic executives) in the hotel, cruise line, and resort kitchens of the world- kitchens which constituted their own separate civilization.
You leave an airport, fly a thousand miles, deplane, and you can’t tell you’ve gone anywhere because airport culture is the same, wherever the airport is situated. (The only discernible difference between D/FW and Narita is the Japanese translation of Tom Clancy.) Hotel and resort dining rooms were once much the same. In fine restaurants from London to Honolulu, you could count on veal marsala, steak Diane, and chicken cordon bleu (with a side of turned potatoes, a sprig of parsley, and a stuffed tomato garnish) anchoring the menu.
Continental cuisine defined white tablecloth dining entirely in markets like Dallas until a decade or so ago when chefs discovered New America. Then the eighth continent sank like Atlantis, and for the last several years, Ewald Scholz has been its last remaining inhabitant. Now even Scholz’s island is being infiltrated by the New Americans. Recently, the venerable chef has begun training a replacement. Rick Robbins, 23, who has been out of culinary school not quite four years.
In a city where so many restaurants that open in a given year fail, Ewald Scholz is an anomaly. Scholz worked in his parents’ bakery in Germany in 1945 right after the war. Then he apprenticed to a cook in Switzerland. Cooking, he says, offered him an opportunity to see the world-or the eighth continent, anyway. He still lights up when he talks about the travel opportunities, working in hotels and on cruise ships. He came to Dallas in 1961 to open the Cabana Motor Hotel. (Where the Beatles stayed, remember? It’s now the Decker Detention Center.) In 1968, Scholz opened his restaurant on Lovers Lane near Inwood Road, known at the time as “restaurant row” because those blocks housed the only fine dining in Dallas: Ewald’s, Mr. Peppe’s. Marcel’s, and Dominique’s, all continental dining rooms run, owned, and cooked for by European chefs.
The Lovers Lane space had been a bank, and Scholz decided not to spend the money necessary to close its interior plate glass window. At that time, culinary innovation sprang from economy, not ennui. Inadvertently, Scholz created the first “open” kitchen in the city, a novelty that lingers in the memory of Dallas diners as vividly as his signature fried parsley and spaetzle. In 1986, after the demise of all his neighbors’ establishments, and undoubtedly the culling of his clientele who, parsley or not, followed the rising stats (not the constant ones), Scholz moved his restaurant to the old Stoneleigh Hotel dining room. He took with him some faithful regulars, several waiters (Alex has been a waiter at Ewald’s for28 years; others have worked with Scholz dearly as long), the parsley. and an undiminished dedication to continental food.
In many cities, hotel kitchens are at the bottom of the restaurant food chain, but Dallas has a tradition of fine hotel dining, e.g. The Fairmont and The Mansion. The Stoneleigh, like the Adolphus, would seem to be a perfect candidate for a culinary facelift. Old is news here, and Ewald’s old-fashioned proportions have a grace unusual even in expensively designed new spaces. Its makeover included soft terra cotta and washed-gold walls the color of weathered stucco end a pale, cloud-painted ceiling. Six-pointed stars shine on the pillars, and then: are dim oil paintings on the wall.
Restaurant:; are returning to white tablecloth dining, reinstituting tableside service and ether diner-coddling features-serving, actually, the kind of food Scholz has always presented. “We still do chateaubriand, debone the Dover sole at the table. And if it’s not on the menu and a regular customer wants one of the regular dishes, we make that for him,” he says. His restaurant is still fishing, however, for the younger, hipper, and noisier crowd, which explains Rick Robbins, who had been working at The Stoneleigh ’s sister hi >tel in Indiana before coming to Dallas.
When Robbins came, he took the tuxes off the waiters and dressed them down. While he acknowledges the popularity of casualness, he’s committed to fine dining. Young, soft-faced, and soft-spoken, Robbins seems to realize he’s still a student, deferring to his elder, Scholz, who actually looks younger than one might expect and exudes more energy than a man on the verge of semi-retirement should. His love of his business is the fuel. “I’ve been in business for 30 years, and I want to slow down a little,” he says. “’But as long as my name is on the door, I want to be in charge, as far as quality goes.”
Scholz is anxious to promote Robbins, for Robbins to promote himself. He’s been there, done that-including cooking on the Culinary Olympic Team-so when they call for someone to do a cooking demonstration or make an appearance, it’s Robbins’ show. There’s no jealousy, no rivalry on Scholz’s part-just concern for his good name. He says consistency is what’s crucial and he’s right. “When you came to Ewald’s all those years ago, the parsley was there on the right side-it’s still there. This is not a business where you can say, lI got it made.’ You have to keep it steady.”
The menu is divided into two parts: The old side features Scholz’s classics, and the new side features Robbins’ ideas. Both sides change every month or so. Scholz’s side of the menu is stuffed with Larousse-inspired chestnuts: crabmeat-topped mushrooms, tournedos Moritz. pepper steak, escargots. Robbins’ is full of global buzzwords and ingredients: grilled, goat cheese, chutney, free-range, pesto. It looks like a one-on-one wrestling match between old and new, the perfect point of comparison between continental and cutting-edge cuisine.
But it turns out, as life so disappointingly often does, that there is no clear winner. On our visits, appetizers from the new list were perhaps a little more vivid, better setting the mouth up for a main course with bright and strong flavors- garlicky eggplant purée, an artichoke and garlic soup. Entrées from Robbins were often either dull-like pork grilled to gray with a scant dab of cranberry chutney-or they’re too weird-strips of halibut over cream-sauced pasta with bits of blue cheese and snipped dried apricots. (Shall I repeat that?) The flavors weren’t so awful, but the idea shouts down what your mouth tells you. Both of the old saws about the new cuisine-that first courses beat out second courses and that concept too often conquers taste-take experience to contradict. Experience that Robbins doesn’t have yet.
The “classic” menu offered the better fare. Rosy lamb chops were complemented by a sauce of rosemary and fruity port, and the pepper steak’s brown sauce was deep and long-cooked. Though the fried parsley melts in your mouth like a bit of buttery air, it’s true that the bit of crumb-topped salad tomato adds nothing but pale red to the plate, and the cold shrimp and crab cocktail is only cold, unless you want to add flabby.
The New American conquistadores have all but wiped out continental food in many cities, Dallas included. But the standard complaints about the old continental cuisine-that plates are paint-by-number, that the chef relies on received wisdom, even that the ingredients don’t reflect the region-sound like quibbling in view of the unique comparison available at Ewald’s. How can regionalism be more than an affectation when groceries are now global? Would flavor combinations like lamb and rosemary have become traditional if they didn’t work?
The kitchen at Ewald’s is in the process of compromising on some of these questions. But in the end. the correct answer is only on the tip of the diner’s tongue.