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Restaurants are risky business. What’s required is a near-obsessive personality, passion for the business, showbiz savvy, and lots of money.
By Mary Brown Malouf |

THE TABLE FOR TWO IS SPREAD WITH IMMACULATE WHITE LINEN. The thick white plate is rimmed with blue. To the right are two globe-shaped wineglasses. The flatware is gleaming stain-less-the fork with a ribbed pattern, the knife smooth-handled, In the center of the table is a lava lamp, unlit.

This table à deux is not set for a couple’s night on the town; it is right next to a desk furnished with a computer and piled with papers. cookbooks, and catalogues. It’s all part of the working restaurant laboratory of Michael Cox and Stephan Pyles, co-owners of Dallas’ eagerly anticipated new restaurant. AquaKnox

Since last spring, I’ve been taking an invitation-only look at [ it takes to create a contender in Dallas’ competitive restau-rant market. I’ve followed the AquaKnox team from the Star Canyon offices to the construction site, the designer’s conference room, the artist’s studio, and the tabletop showroom. Decisions have been made and unmade, all with an eye toward this unavoidable fact: Opening a new restaurant in Dallas is a risky business. Nearly a quarter of all restaurants that opened in 1994 failed after two years, most within the first year of operation. It’s almost impossible to keep track of the countless variables that add up to a successful restaurant, but Dallas is a notoriously fickle market, where diners have a greater understanding of celebrity than cuisine. To succeed, it takes a near-obsessive personality and love of the business, not to mention lots of money an J considerable showbiz savvy.

Michael Cox and star chef Stephan Pyles, veterans of the revered Roulh Street Cafe, originally teamed up in 1993 (with the aid of TCBY tycoon Herren Hickingbotham’s deep pockets) to open Star Canyon, an instant hit. Now they’re trying to make the mgic happen again with AquaKnox, the new seafood restaurant that just opened after a month of mentions in the society columns and a week of charity dinners. Before the place hit the press, there was nearly a year of planning, replanning, revising, and rejecting. So the goal was to simultaneously provide a venue for the culinary vision of one of the country’s best chefs and create a suitable habitat for the finicky Dallas diner. The process of opening AquaKnox was an odd exercise in compromise for the sake of the superlative, in balancing the necessities of high design and haute cuisine with the bottom line.

They were still working on Star Canyon when Michael Cox and Stephan Pyles began dreaming up their next project together. Their first idea was a casual taqueria, a natural extension of the Southwest palace on Cedar Springs Road. But Pyles became convinced that “people want to eat out again,” in a high-profile, ’80s kind of style. Seafood appealed for a number of reasons: Fish lends itself to the most interesting kinds of cooking, providing a perfect palette for Pyles’ brand of creativity. Seafood sales had increased and so had its availability and variety. “Dallas is not landlocked anymore,” says Pyles. “You can get fish fresh from the water in 48 hours.” Finally, “When we first thought the idea up (in January 1995), there was no seafood in Dallas besides Cafe Pacific.”

That’s certainly not true now- seafood restaurants have become Dallas’ hottest concept. Still, neither Cox nor Pyles is the least bit flustered by the fact that no less than five seafood-themed restaurants have opened in Dallas in the last year or two, from high-end, white tablecloth places like Fish to casual but inventive cafes like Picardys. When asked about distance between AquaKnox and the cutting edge, Pyles just says firmly, “It’s all about execution. The cutting edge here is attention to detail.” There are millions of details. All of them have a price tag.

ON A SUNNY DAY IN EARLY JUNE, WHEN MICHAEL COX and I are standing in front of the unpromising-looking demolished storefront which he envisions as Dallas’ next blockbuster restaurant, the fall opening date seems like pie-in-the-sky optimism. Cox is calm. In his view, the biggest part of the project is already complete. He has signed a lease.

For years the block of Knox Street from McKinney Avenue to Travis Street was the only nearly seedy section of the Park Cities. The south side was anchored by yesterday’s enterprises like Weir’s Furniture and Highland Park Pharmacy. The north side was nothing but a block of boarded-up buildings, inexplicably undeveloped and seemingly overlooked, with the venerable Highland Park Cafeteria providing the reason for a parking lot. But in 1997, the construction revolution finally reached this sleepy street. Standing on the curb with Cox, I can hear the noise of construction-Crate & Barrel is building a three-story flagship store on the corner. Smith & Hawken. Pottery Bam, and Restoration Hardware all have stylish new stores open. One brick wall is all that remains of the old Highland Park Cafeteria. Knox Street has become hot property, and Cox is happy that a piece of it is his.

All restaurateurs are on the same hunt for the perfect space. After all, the restaurant business is really the real estate business-a good location is most of what it takes for a restaurant to succeed. AquaKnox almost didn’t happen just because Pyles and Cox couldn’t find a home for it. The concept-a high-end, high-service seafood restaurant and bar-was so location-dri-ven that at one point they dropped the whole idea in despair at ever finding real estate that met their criteria. “There are only certain neighborhoods where we feel comfortable,” says Cox. “There are different attitudes in neighborhoods, different perceptions of quality.” North Dallas, where so many downtown restaurants replicate, isn’t conducive to what Cox and Pyles wanted to do. They looked downtown, but nothing with parking was available. They looked at the Fuddruckers location where Clive & Stuart is now, but it was the wrong size. They looked at the old Wool worth building where Larry North deluxe opened, but Preston Center was in a state of flux and lacked prestige. They even looked in the West End, but Cox considered it “too touristy” for the sort of clientele they wanted. (Admittedly, Star Canyon is itself a tourist attraction, but not the West End kind.)

Last May, Cox and Pyles decided that the old Cafeteria was what they wanted. “We knew Crate & Barrel was going in at the end of the block. We knew Sigel’s wanted the space. It was the right size-6,700 square feet, approximately the size of Star Canyon.” The location had already been a restaurant, usually an advantage in terms of existing plumbing, and the distance between Star Canyon and AquaKnox is drivable in 15 minutes. (In Dallas, everything always comes back to the car.) Cox can easily shuttle between the two restaurants, counting on 45 minutes in each place at a time to cover both two-hour table turns.

Lack of parking alone can kill not just a business, but a neighborhood. That’s one problem with McKinney Avenue’s faltering restaurant row, and Cox tells me ifs a potential problem with Star Canyon. (There have been numerous accidents at Cedar Springs Road and Welborn Street.) So his final consideration about the Knox Street space was the same one that drives all Dallas retail and restaurants: Was there enough available parking? His answer: Not quite. “The city now requires one parking space per 100 square feet of restaurant in a freestanding space-but the parking at the Knox Street location is ’grandfathered’ so the regulation doesn’t apply.” Valets will have to run a full block to park those Porsches in the lot behind Smith & Hawken.

Of course, what Cox and Pyles like best about the location of AquaKnox is its proximity to the Park Cities/Uptown residential neighborhoods. “There’s lots of rich people who eat out a lot,” Cox smiles.

YOU’D THINK THAT SOMEONE WHO’S GOING TO SPEND more than $1 million dollars on finishing out a restaurant would have every detail budgeted and accounted for, but the design of AquaKnox was an organic, rather than organized, process. There were never any artist’s renderings-most conversations about AquaKnox’s design relied heavily on hand gestures. Pyles and Cox had worked with Jim Rimelspach 0n Star Canyon, and since he seemed to know intuitively what they wanted, they never even considered another designer for AquaKnox. (Contractor George Sheban, another Star Canyon alum, was also a given.) This was not a paint-by-numbers project with a designer paying artists and craftsmen to execute his ideas. Rimelspach and t’y les hired artisans whose work they like and trusted them to create the design solutions. Until they were installed, Cox never even saw the etched panels glass artist Polly Giselle created for Star Canyon. A similar artisan-based approach is what Cox and Pyles wanted for AquaKnox.

It’s a long way from the mud and rubble of the restaurant site to the elegant marble-floored office on Turtle Creek Boulevard, but the usual AquaKnox design meeting involved eight guys sitting around a table in the conference room at Wilson & Associates, talking about details like drains and light fixtures. Nul just light fixtures, but how long a ladder they’ll need to change the light bulbs. Pyles and Cox may not require flow charts a^id renderings, but they demand meticulous attention to every little thing.

In this city of surfaces, “how it looks” is important to any venture, but ^t’s crucial for a restaurant where the setting must attract and reflect the clientele. Serious chefs hate to admit it, but they know that atmosphere, ambience, and decor are more critical for success than cuisine. Patrons spend money in a fine restaurant not just to eat well, but to feel good, to feel like they look good, and to make themselves look good. So the design of AquaKnox’s interior was a paramount concern. “Design narrows your margin in dollars,” admits Cox, the practical man in the partnership. “But it’s essential for us. The artistic side is what makes us special. Down to the door handle, it makes a difference.” So nothing was too small to discuss at a design meeting.

On June 12, Rimelspach, Craig Roberts (the laser-sharp lighting designer), George Sheban (the most dapper contractor in town), Cox, and Pyles meet to solve the week’s problems-a typical guys-and-gadgets conversation. There is a 20-minute discussion of where to put the coat closet and how to make it secure before Cox changes the subject to other matters. Questions are raised about remote controls for lights and sound, and there’s talk about the touchy situation with neighboring tenant Laura Ashley, whose management isn’t exactly thrilled that a seafood restaurant is going in next door. The basic incom-patibility between ruffled flowers and the smell of fish makes the construction of a special sound- and odor-proof wall necessary.

Then comes the hard part: money talk. Construction was estimated to take four months from the time the city permits were issued: health, zoning, structural, etc. (By the end of July, Sheban would be complaining about the building boom in Dallas, which meant that all the necessary permits were just inching their way through city offices.) But before construction even began, there were big cost overruns. At this meeting, Sheban is a little defensive about it. “I’m sure you gentleman are aware that this isn’t the same project we started out with,” he says. Hundreds of elements have been added that were never budgeted: iron grates for trees, the removal of The entire sidewalk for a drainage slope. “We thought we had suf-ficient air conditioning and a grease trap that worked,” points out Sheban. Rimelspach suggests simply pricing everything as specified and then backing up. And probably out of some of the more expensive additions.

People get divorced over less complicated projects than AquaKnox, but Rimelspach-a tall, relaxed man with an easy laugh-seldom seems flustered. His attitude is generally optimistic, and he was upbeat from the beginning about this restaurant, viewing its opening as particularly well-timed. “People are tired of the utility-vehicle lifestyle. They’re ready for something new and exciting,” he tells me. Design starts from a sweeping statement that provides the clean page for a new concept.

His ideas for AquaKnox were based in the food. “This is seafood as complex as Star Canyon’s Mexican food. We wanted to avoid a theme, to emphasize the uniqueness of a chef-run approach, the artistry of this particular chef,” he explains when describing his visual plans. “This is a more sculptural, less decorative space than Star Canyon-it’s more about color, line, sculpted surfaces.”

AquaKnox benefits from Star Canyon’s mistakes. “It was clear we could do a bigger business in the bar at Star Canyon,” says Cox. “But there was no room for it, and the shape of the space dictated certain use.” So AquaKnox has a separate bar that seats 80 and serves sushi, raw seafood, and wok cooking-all action-packed, spectator food. The entry at Star Canyon spills into the too-noisy dining room, so AquaKnox has an entire entry enclosure of glass (known during planning as “the masterpiece”) with a waterwall, and the dining room is separate, featuring all the sleek, quiet comforts of a cruise liner, with deep blue carpet, soft alabaster lighting, and booths of navy leather. Everyone wanted more flexibility and convenience than was built into Star Canyon-AquaKnox has a liquor room by the bar, a bar that opens onto a patio.

“More sculptural” doesn’t mean AquaKnox is more understated than Star Canyon. Rimelspach planned huge fish cut from exotic wood veneers to hang from the 28-foot ceiling of the bar, floating (or swimming) around a coral-like steel structure for uplights with a long alabaster table at its base. A wall of glass separates the open kitchen from a transition seating area between the lively bar and formal dining room, but the sightliness of the show kitchen, the patio, and the valet parking are unobstructed. Everyone at AquaKnox can see the chefs, and everyone can see each other.

Tension at the design meeting lessens at the entrance of Polly Giselle, the cheerful artist whose etched glass panels define Star Canyon. Rimelspach is counting on her to provide equally key elements at AquaKnox. He unfurls a set of blueprints and starts walking his fingers over the lines as he talks fast, obviously seeing the plans in 3D. He has in mind back-lit, carved glass panels behind iron struts as the ceiling of the entry (the “masterpiece”), which he wants to have as much visual impact as possible, “So you feel like you’re in a fish tank.” The blue terrazzo floor and brilliant blue hostess stand at one end will echo the waterwall, designed by Donnette Brady. There’s another waterwall combined with glasswork in the bar, and Giselle will also design the windows and sconces for the dining room. “Cool,” says Giselle. “How much do you think it would cost?” asks Cox. His favorite question.

ON THE MID-JUNE MORNING WHEN WE VISIT PAUL LaBute’s minimalist office/showroom in the Dallas Design Center, Cox carries a set of AquaKnox blueprints under his arm. He’s been carrying them for months as faithfully as some people carry their FiloFax. Cox and Pyles have come to talk about sound. AquaKnox requires two systems, one for the crowded bar, another for the more subdued dining room. “The concept calls for it, but can you do that?” Cox wonders. With the “soft” acoustic transition area, LaBute, who specializes in technological interiors, thinks it’s workable. Cox imagines multicultural jazz in the bar. a softer, more classical sound in the dining room. At Star Canyon he uses a 50-CD changer; at AquaKnox he’ll want more flexibility than even a 200-disc changer allows. Typically, Cox prefers to retain control, even deciding which song is playing at what time.

There’s more to discuss. Right now, Rimelspach, Pyles, and Cox envision some kind of multimedia display for AquaKnox, a bank of televisions flashing fish videos or images from a camera in one of the fish tanks. LaBute, not surprisingly, loves this idea. Then the talk ranges from Bose speakers to Lutron Control, a Windows-based lighting control system. Questions cover ways to link Star Canyon Corporate with AquaKnox as well as where guests will use the phone.

Finally, Cox reemphasizes the budget. He wants this done as sensibly as possible. He doesn’t want it overdone, and he wants everyone to keep in mind that this is a lease space-he doesn’t want to add too much value to the property.

“Give me a week to put some numbers together. Then you can tell me I’m crazy and we’ll go from there,” says LaBute.

“He’s gonna be expensive,” says Cox as we leave.

The folio wing day, I arrive at the Star Canyon office to accompany Cox, Pyles, and entourage on a kind of fishing trip. The lava lamp, which Cox had proposed as a centerpiece, has been rejected, moved from the center of Cox’s office two-top. There are coffee cups in several shapes (Cox is looking for a traditional Chinese tea bow] shape) but no flatware. The centerpiece is a cobalt blue glass bowl, filled with lemons, which Pyles likes for its graphic simplicity and Cox appreciates because he won’t have to worry about the cost of replacing flowers. He just has to train waiters to make sure that the Sunkist stamp isn’t showing.

Herren Hickingbotham, along with Pyles, Cox, Rimelspach, Chris Ellis (an aquarium expert), and myself, drive from Star Canyon in a caravan of utility vehicles to a North Dallas home. Cox wants us to look at a big saltwater aquarium designed and maintained by Ellis, who may design the tanks for AquaKnox.

Most of die new seafood restaurants in Dallas use live fish in the decor-from the lavish 1,100-gallon tanks in the Dallas World Aquarium to the hanging goldfish bowls at Lombards Mare. (Clive & Stuart has a porthole aquarium over the bar- but Cox says he saw a dead fish in it.) AquaKnox is not an exception, but fish tanks are expensive and require constant upkeep, so to consider the options takes the full AquaKnox force.

Ellis designs and maintains aquariums, and the one we are about to view is her display piece but belongs to a client. We self-consciously traipse through his living room and kitchen to contemplate the 7-by-24-inch tank she installed in the family’s den, (All the fish here are alive.) Ellis, a long-haired woman in glasses and je ans who’s as passionate about the undersea world as Jacques Cousteau, lectures the chef, the designer, the manager, and the money man on the social habits of schooling fish in a tank habitat. Pyles and Rimelspach, of course, skip immediately to the| aesthetic questions-they wonder about the visibility of the| filtration equipment and protein skimmers and insist they want nothing but blue fish swimming in empty darkness. Blue tang, for instance, would exactly match the imaginary cobalt bowl that currently centers each table. Ellis argues for a more fish-friendly living coral and rock environment. There’s an intense discussion of fish personalities and the health issues of fish-relevant, it seems, to a fine dining establishment. One type of fish eats lettuce, and Pyles wonders if mesclun will do. Ellis says that the brilliant blue fish lose or change color as they get older, so they will have to be replaced with younger ones as they age. “Put it on the menu,” Rimels-pach advises Pyles.

Cox thinks in dollars, worrying about the amount of maintenance an aquarium requires on a weekly basis. “’How much do you have tied up in this thing?” he asks the homeowner. “That’s not a question to ask in front of my wife,” is the hobbyist’s answer.

“That’s what I was afraid of,” sighs Cox.

AFEW DAYS LATER, LARGE, WHITE, ELABORATELY FOLD-ed napkins have been added to the white-clad table in Michael Cox’s office. “This particular fold is great-looking,” Cox says, “but it takes too long. Ideally, set-up should be easy and original and fast.” It is something Cox deeply believes: He uses a stopwatch to time his staff as they fold the napkins during training sessions. The place setting now includes a shield-shaped plate and some white china rimmed in blue. “Too oyster-house looking,” says Cox briefly. They still haven’t found the correct cobalt blue bowl.

In his adjacent private office, Stephan Pyles’ desk is stacked with books about sake, fish cookery, and Japanese cuisine. Sipping cappuccino, he turns his attention alternately to the TV series he’s currently shooting and to AquaKnox, for which he needs to hire a chef and write a menu.

Which brings up one obvious drawback to a star chef like Pyles opening a second restaurant: He can’t be in two places at once. There are certain to be those that carp on Star Canyon’s perceived decline in quality when Pyles spends time at the new restaurant. But he says, “I’m not a coach and not a player. I’m the executive. I love teaching and inspiring younger people to see how food should be their lives.” In other words, AquaKnox will be a collaborative effort. Pyles will set the standard and have more control in the early days, then he’ll release it as the AquaKnox chef proves himself. Creative people don’t paint or cook by number. “You have to give good, young creative talent some ownership,” Pyles says.

Pyles quickly narrowed his selection field for the top spot to four chefs, all of whom prepare dinner for himself and Cox in addition to interviewing. Whoever takes the toque must be in sync with Pyles’ palate. “I want the food to be aggressive but refined, to have an Asian feel with a strong Japanese influence in the bar.” He calls it “Global Water Cuisine,” inspired by Southeast Asia, Central and South America, the Caribbean, with some whiffs of the Mediterranean. The first-draft menu lists ideas like red snapper en escabèche with roast Peruvian purple potatoes, canella-scented oak roasted lobster with green chile-papaya risotto, and cassoulet of monkfish with shrimp and garlic sausages.

Prices are higher at AquaKnox than at Star Canyon by about 20 percent. Pyles, though, is not worried: He is banking on affluence and says simply, “The quality of the seafood dictates the pricing.”

According to Cox, who took a course on fish in Boston, unfrozen fish has a shelf life of 14 days. “A fishing trip lasts 10 days, courting a day and a half to get out and the same to get back. You want fish from the last two days of the trip- your agent can tell when they were caught by where they’re racked and the look of the fish. For every 2 degrees higher than 32 a fish is stored, its shelf life is cut in half.”

These days, Dallas restaurants are paying closer attention to the quality of seafood. Chris Svalesen, chef at Fish and longtime fish cook specialist, estimates that 60 restaurants in Dallas fly in their own fish. At AquaKnox, as at other top-tier seafood restaurants, whole fish will be delivered on ice, moved to ice immediately, butchered, sealed in plastic, and returned to ice. (So Pyles is locking for a good fish butcher as well as the usual lineup of chef? and sous.)

Lobsters are nearly as finicky. The 6,000-gallon, custom-built lobster tank has 10 times the filtration of a normal aquarium. Since it’s located inside the fish butchery, the temperature will always be a nippy 40 degrees. Quality is one of the main reasons Pyles is not concerned that AquaKnox will be lost in the flood of new seafood restaurants. He is convinced that no one’s f)sh will be fresher than his.

WHAT’S SERVED AND HOW IT’S SERVED ARE THE PLOT and costume of a dining drama. Tabletop decisions for a restaurant of this caliber mean a shopping spree as complex and consequential as a bridal registry. These are the details that make up the art of the restaurant, the place where the concept touches the customer. Cox has a passion for tabletop, and trying to find product that fits his vision and his budget is difficult. That’s why the tablescape in his office keeps changing.

When Cox, Pyles, and I arrive at Yeager and Schmidt’s showroom in late June, Joe Yeager has a similar display set up for consideration, but that’s just the place setting-there are also coffeepots, water pitchers, breadbaskets, and barware to be purchased, all with an eye to durability, style, and cost. A sugar bowl alone takes careful consideration, and Pyles hates the look of packets on the table. “At Routh Street, we used to have to tear open packets of Equal to fill the bowls,” Cox sighs again.

He and Pyles roam the shelves for themselves. They have a practiced eye and developed taste, and they know touch is as important as the look-their customers expect thin glassware and light plates, not thick, cafe-style stuff. Cox says he wants Pyles to become accustomed to a heavier weight, for reasons of cost. The service plates at casual Star Canyon cost $23; the white plates are $17 apiece. Says Cox, “Our challenge is to do a formal dining room for the same money as Star Canyon.”

Cox finds an 18/10 weight stainless 70-ounce pitcher with a guard for $50 and a 9-ounce sugar bowl for $ 18. He wants silver or glass for coffee service and water pitchers-silver would be better because it’s a one-time cost. “We struggled with the water glass at Star Canyon-it broke very easily and we were spending $200-$300 a month just on water glasses. It was almost a weekly delivery. “Luckily,” Cox laughs, “the company discontinued that glass.” Star Canyon’s wine glasses are $4 to $5 a stem, and Cox thinks they can halve that. “Most people pour four ounces. We put a 6-ounce pour in an oversized glass and it ends up costing us because people complain.” Perhaps a smaller glass this time.

Theft is a big worry in expensive restaurants. At Star Canyon, guests have attempted to remove the sconces from the walls, pocketed toilet paper hangers, and stolen the bud vases, which cost $ 15 apiece. Cox tells me about a guest who was seen stealing one: “We told her quietly we’d be happy to add it to her check, and she just said her party had spent $600 on dinner and they were entitled to take whatever they wanted.”

Yeager and Schmidt did the china for Routh Street Cafe. Browsing around the stock room. Cox finds a logo cup from the old restaurant and Pyles zeroes in on a fine white plate, the same base as the Routh Street plates. Yeager says, “I still have a piece or two of that around.”

“So do I,” says Pyles dryly. “About a hundred.” That specter of failure is fuel in the drive for perfection.

ON MONDAY, AUG. 19, COX HAS NINE COBALT BLUE BOWLS LINED up on the table in his office. He doesn’t like any of them. He’s rejected as many dishes as he’s looked at and has asked Giselle to come up with designs for the decorative plates. But the tabletop budget is shrinking.

The preliminary discussion with LaBute about sound and light is still dangling, and Cox has sent a deposit check to Chris for the aquarium, but he says the cameras in Chris’ fish tank are definitely out. The reason? “Today, we’re $29,000 under budget, total. But we’re $192,000 over budget in construction.” The location has presented too many ’’challenges.” Cox will need $50,000 for payroll during the two weeks of staff training before the restaurant opens. AquaKnox is $101,000 under budget on equipment, but $48,000 over budget in working capital, which pays for licenses, permits, graphics, architects and designers, and, oh yes, groceries. Bottom line-much of the $180,000 contingency fund is gone. “Imagine you’re taking a trip to Las Vegas,” explains Cox. “You’ve got $ 1,000 for the weekend (not enough), and by the time you drive into Vegas, you’ve spent $700 because you had a flat tire, you had to stay an extra night on the road, whatever. The point is, you’ve only got $300 left for the actual vacation because you spent most of your money just getting there.”

The original budget estimate for AquaKnox was $1.8 million with a $270,000 finish out from the landlord. The actual cost by mid-August is already $2.4 million, so Cox is having to cash in the contingency fund. “In other words, we just got to Vegas and it looks like we’ll be eating rice and beans for a while.”

The costs have been in basics, things that Cox didn’t expect to have to pay for entirely. And the obvious place to cut corners-the high design elements-are exactly the things that AquaKnox can’t afford to lose. Giselle’s glass windows and sconces cost about $960 each, but they seem essential to the dining room’s design. The carved glass ceiling in the entry, though, has been nixed.

BY THE MIDDLE OF SEPTEMBER, RUMORS ABOUT THE RESTAU-rant are flying around Dallas: Cox and Pyles have split up. They’re planning an environmental display at AquaKnox with a 10-foot wingspan condor. Cox and Pyles have run out of money. AquaKnox is not going to happen. Publicist Barbara Buzzell thought perhaps a press tour would help. It’s an act of imagination, since there’s still nothing much but mud and metal where the restaurant will be.

But on Sept. 26, six scribbling food writers follow Sheban, Pyles, Cox, and the unflappable Rimelspach on a faux tour through the restaurant’s skeleton. Under pieces of foil ductwork, Rimelspach paints a word picture of lush blue carpet (which could never minimize the din of these generators), giant artwork, an
After the reporters have left, Buzzell wants to privately discuss invitations to the opening parties (Pyles even weighs in on what the postage stamp will look like), while Sheban and Cox are solving a problem with the enormous hood, which everyone had envisioned simply suspended from the 28-foot ceiling. No one had devised exactly how it would do that without the supports showing. Rimelspach has a proposal on paper (an emergency act), but Sheban insists the supports will become too greasy, impossible to clean. Then attention turps to the interior doors- Rimelspach lauds their look of stainless steel with porthole windows, Sheban talks about timeliness and schedules, Cox concentrates on their cost and durability. The doors cost about $2,200. The friction and frustration are evident, but they all want only to solve the problem, not win. They must have good marriages.

Near what will be the front of the restaurant, hard-hatted workers gather around a cat caught in the crated ventilator.

“It’s probably black,” says Cox.

THINGS HAPPEN WHEN THEY HAVE TO. IN EARLY October, Cox has a nearly complete table setting to show me in his office. Thin white plates are flanked with brushed stainless flatware, including a fish knife at every place. One decision just leads to other: : The flatware only costs $16 a place setting, but the price will go up, so Cox wants to order as much as possible in the beginning. On the other hand, he doesn’t have much storage, and he doesn’t want to store money on his shelves. Giselle’s designs for the show plates-bamboo on peacock blue, elaborate oriental decorative fish, and a chain of fish-are being made for $ 18 to $30 apiece. He’s committed to a regiment of round-bowled glasses and a stainless water pitcher and coffeepot. Even the sugar bowl (they’re going with packets) has been chosen. Cox is especially pleased with what can only be called a bread vase-a tall, hammered silver vessel, shaped (as Cox describes) like a Big Gulp cup, to hold foc-cacia and peasant bread. It only costs $ 19, it won’t break, and it’s too big to steal.

Over at the site, Sheban is disheveled and unshaven-the pace of a project like this snowballs towards the end, and he’s frantically figuring out the solutions to the final design problems. His desk in the site trailer is piled with paint samples of vivid blue for the entry, grids of glass tiles for the bathroom, stacks of “gourmet” plywood samples for the 11 8-foot fish (each costing about $600-definitely more than any entrée), squares of alabaster for the bartop. The latter concerns htm. The alabaster in the dining room light fixture should match, but it can’t be real alabaster {too heavy); it has to be plastic, painted with veining. “Be here at 3 in the morning in a couple of weeks-that’s when it gets really exciting,” Sheban grins.

Cox is beaming too, because today, everything is within budget and on schedule. Pyles has hired Chef Lisa Balliet, previously co-executive chef at Cafe Pacific. Mark Schmidt of Tarazza and Shane Stone, sous chef at Star Canyon, will also be in the kitchen. Ann Shukri, an Englishwoman, is the maitre d\ George Majdalani is moving from Star Canyon to the new restaurant, and Jesse Hernandez will sign on as service manager. It really is a global restaurant. Cox is here to lead Majdalani, Stone, and Schmidt on a working tour, an inside-out version of the vision presented to the press. No showbiz now-this nuts and bolts walk starts with the trash compactor. “Keep this area clean,” warns Cox. “It’s right next to the Laura Ashley employee entrance.” He proceeds from the back door, past the woodpile, the cold smoker, the fish cooler, the tilt kettle, the four-burner range and convection oven, the pastry prep area, the fish breakdown room, into the open part of the kitchen. They end up in the dining room, where Cox takes just a short break to gloat. Pausing, he points out the key features of the restaurant’s design, things most chefs wouldn’t notice, the main reasons he’s sure Dallas will love AquaKnox.

“You can see all the way back through into the kitchen from here,” he says from the dining room floor. “And you can also see through the windows who’s arriving and who’s leaving the restaurant.” What they’re driving, how they’re dressed, who they’re with. Cox points out that the restrooms’ situation at the far end of the dining room means that there’s an intermittent parade from the bar across the restaurant, so patrons are bound to know who’s there. In the transition seating area between the bar and dining room, “trophy” tables are fully visible from the bar, the dining room, and the entry. The bar is walled with glass, so you can see who’s coming and going on the sidewalk, and the people outside can see you. The diners can see the cooks while they keep a fascinated eye on each other.

It’s just a month until the first opening party, when the table setting in Cox’s office will be replicated in the rubble-filled space where we’re standing. The completed restaurant is the perfect human aquarium, a display case for the dinner and the diner, the place where scene and cuisine meet. And Dallas’ desire for ostentation is satisfied in perfect taste.

The Name

OF COURSE, AS SOON AS THE ANNOUNCEMENT was made that Stephan Pyles, chef-owner of Star Canyon, was opening a new restaurant. everyone from press to patrons started calling it “StarFish,” the same way they called il “Baby Routh” when that spinoff of Routh Street Cafe was just a twinkle in Stephan Pyles’ eye. That, actually, is one reason Pyles and partner Michael Cox rejected the obvious name-they wanted no reminders of their unprofitable and pitfall-ridden past.

The new restaurant, a seafood-themed sibling of the glitteringly successful Star Canyon, was going to be something completely different, but any Pyles enterprise was bound to receive national attention. So besides scanning the local scene, the pair was thinking nationally. Jeremiah Tower had already used the name ’”Stars,” and Pyles and Cox wanted their name to be unique. In the end, they chose one that’s almost unimaginative, it’s so literal: Aqua (it’s a seafood restaurant) Knox (it’s located in the old Highland Park Cafeteria space on Knox Street). Never mind that it has a ’60s echo of superheroes and hairspray-it says what it is.

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