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DINING OUT NEW RESTAURANT REVIEWS Barclays Beckons With the Best From the Brits

Also: Nicbolini’s and Harper’s.
By D Magazine |

BARCLAYS

Except for its sausages, which are irredeemably pasty and tasteless, British fare has always struck me as solidly satisfying-and not all that different from the West Texas home cooking that was (and still is) my childhood’s comfort food. Hearty roasts, honest breads, bracing cheeses. And give the Brits this: While most of our own broadening influences came from Mexico and whatever accidental contributions we picked up from ethnic immigrants, theirs were brought home purposefully from world-flung U.K. outposts and folded serenely into a national diet that may have been limply short on salads, but allowed all kinds of savory fruit treatments-in other words, the fabulous chutneys.

And that now gives British-born Nick Barclay whatever international license he may have needed to expand on his native theme. Not that he needs any, actually-the founding chef of dani, the catering firm responsible for Seventeen Seventeen et al, Barclay has already impressed Dallas diners with his confident creativity. In his new restaurant on Uptown’s Fairmount Street, he has undertaken to elevate his homeland’s common cookery to cutting-edge cuisine.

Euro-British, Barclay calls the fare, and his monthly-evolving menu bears out the term with sly takes on traditional dishes brightened with avant accents and techniques. Most of them succeed. That old cabbage-potato staple, bubble and squeak, moves beyond its nursery origins into a tender domed cake crowned with tomato basil chutney and encircled by crisp cod fritters almost light enough to float from the plate.

Watercress soup, served hot or cold, is pretty as a painting, strewn with cress leaves and sliced rounds of tender grilled shrimp, a gutsy but subtle brew. Chicken liver parfait, a satin refinement of pedestrian pate, takes on elegance partnered with grape chutney and brioche toasts alongside baby greens dressed in a zesty vinaigrette.

A fourth starter didn’t make it on our visits. Potato ravioli’s pasta was too chewy, although the rather neutral little pillows took some redemption from a robust sauce of woodsy wild mushrooms with Stilton cheese balancing the sweetness of port wine jus. And, skipping ahead to our only negative dessert notice, we found English summer pudding’s gummy cake of red berries and bread sourly sauced, distinctly unlovable.

Main courses, however, were prime, from a rare-roasted cut of beef tenderloin with mild celeriac mashed potatoes and haricots verts played against sharp Stilton-black olive jus to the sautéed Dover sole fillets, meaty browned strips woven with house-made potato chips on tomato basil pistou. Roast rack of lamb’s mustard-parsley crust gave the chops vivid flavor; grill-marked calf’s liver, medium rare, was fanned on the plate with lean British bacon in a jus of caramelized onion.

The best dessert that we tried was a trio of lemon miniatures: a tiny tart, a globe of smooth sorbet and a cunning little cup of syllabub-a fragrant froth of wine-spiked milk, cream and lemon zest reminiscent of sabayon sauce. Vaguely reminiscent, too, of shampoo but delicious nonetheless. A finishing course of British cheese wedges-blue-veined Stilton, green-veined sage Derby and bright golden Cheddar-came with grapes and the dimpled Bath Oliver biscuits that Britons love but I find tasteless, the better, I suppose, to set off their savory burdens.

Barclays’ one-page menu offers a trio of sensible fixed-price combinations-two courses for $25, three for $30, four for $35. Just as thoughtfully, every wine on the restaurant’s fairly extensive list is available by the glass or bottle. The setting and service could hardly be more comfortable or diner-friendly, all airy rooms and polished floors with a charmingly intimate draped lounge for pre- and post-prandial lingering. Located in die old Fairmount cottage where Calluaud’s triumphed as Dallas’ first definitive French restaurant, Barclays shows promise at erasing the shadow of failure cast by a series of short-term tenants and laying valid claim to the place as British territory. Certainly, the revelers when we were there seemed to favor the prospect. And so do we. -Betty Cook Barclays. 2917 F air mount St., 214-855-0700.5-10:30 p.m., Thursday-Monday. Moderate to expensive.

NICHOLINI’S

IS THERE NO END TO THE AFFLUENT DALLAS appetite for new takes on known restaurant themes? Apparently not. This Far North combination of several hums with happy celebrants of (a) fresh seafood (b) mostly grilled or sautéed and sauced in a (c) mostly Mediterranean manner. First-time restaurant owner Don Woods may have over-endowed his strip-center entry with neon gaud (me sign shouts from blocks away), but he’s hit all the right notes otherwise, transforming his modest space into intimate luxury, doubling its size visually with an entire wall of mirror centered with a stunning reef aquarium that not only offers a close-up glimpse of brilliant deep-sea creatures but also reminds diners not to walk through to the trompe-l’oeil reflected space.

Woods has also had die wit to put an accomplished chef in the kitchen, Sfuzzi ex Javier Perez, and call in a successful seafood restaurateur, former Yoli’s owner Anson Chan, as menu consultant.

The mix works well, partly because me bill of fare is a comforting listing of familiar dishes (no off-putting, exotic challenges here), but more, perhaps, because their familiarity becomes secondary to flawless freshness and deft competence in their preparation. Even as old-hat a starter as jumbo shrimp cocktail takes on new glamour when die firm, perfect shrimp take fire in their sauce’s assertive chop of peppers. Pan-fried Louisiana crab cakes are all crab (no fillers, thank you) on smoked red pepper cream sauce. Lobster bisque is the very essence of rich flavor under its fling of crunchy corn kernels.

Entree-wise, Nicholini’s mixed grill of giant prawns, sea scallops and crisp-edged salmon fillet is all sea-fresh succulence, complemented with emerald asparagus stalks on sweet red pepper coulis; ditto the hazelnut-crusted lemon sole, sautéed and partnered with barely blanched spinach and crab claws in lobster-paprika sauce. Both dishes overshadowed a plate of pale sea scallops meunière, too delicately seasoned and sided with an as-bland salad of bow-tie pasta topped with jicama and bell pepper strands.

But desserts offer redemption. Chef Perez lets his whimsy loose on Chocolate Madonna, twin chocolate-bathed cones standing on cappuccino ice cream in vanilla bean sauce. We forbore sampling the busty construction, favoring instead a melt-ingly lovely tiramisu and the best Key lime pie I can remember-tartly perfect filling in a thick, buttery-rich crumb crust on a plate brushed with lemon mascarpone.

Service was attentive and unrushed, in keeping with the leisurely crowd that seems to enjoy lingering in this pretty place, at lunch as well as dinner. Woods may not have been a restaurateur before, but he’s clearly one now. -B.C.

Nicholini’s. 17370 Preston Rd., 972-735-9868. Lunch: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Monday-Friday; dinner: 5:30-10p.m., Sunday-Thursday; 5:30-11 p.m., Friday & Saturday. Moderate to expensive.



HARPER’S

JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING AT HARPER’S bursts at the seams on a Friday or Saturday night: the huge parking lot, die air soaked with noise and that trendy smoke smell belched from wood-fueled ovens and grills, the bar and dining room stuffed with so many people you get a pager when upon arrival to alert you when a table opens after a one-hour-plus wait.

What’s drawing throngs to the Dallas tendril of this small Charlotte, N. C.-based restaurant chain? Is it the 9-foot steel plaque of the state of Texas embedded in the entryway floor? Or the handsome, casual interior accoutered with brick, stone, wood and flat black metal? Maybe it’s the 21-foot custom mural, “The Great Armadillo Race,” an acrylic rendering of cowboys riding giant armadillos.

Mental efforts to unlock this mystery made us thirsty. So we headed for Harper’s bar, tightly clutching our pager, in search of refreshment. What we got instead were pointed snubs from the bartenders as we moved around the oval bar waving for attention. The treatment was so striking that it caught the eye of a busboy, who set aside his rack of glasses to see to it we were served. Then mere’s the food.

Harper’s shovels “mid-priced American fare,” things like burgers, pasta, chicken, fish, steaks and ribs. The salads were among the best things on the menu save for the bland, waxy tomatoes and the huge, greasy house-made croutons. (Isn’t it time this crunchy salad clutter went the way of the harvest-gold kitchen?) Another honorable mention was Betty’s Pimento Cheese Burger, a juicy, certified Angus beef patty slathered in a tangy, sharp, cheddar-cheese sauce sparked with pimento, mayo and seasonings.

But the paper-thin Chicago pizza with house-made Italian sausage was one of the sorriest things ever choked from a wood-fired oven: greasy, soggy, droopy, pasty. Any chef who tried to serve this glop in Chicago would have rollerblades strapped to his feet and be ridden out of town on the Dan Ryan Expressway through oncoming traffic.

Complicating the Harper’s mystery further was the Penne Pasta with six cheeses- a dish that wasn’t so much melded in an oven as it was forged in a blast furnace. The pasta was charred black brittle and left to struggle pathetically in a puddle of greasy cheese-food ooze.

While the waitstaff was considerate and friendly, the rest of the crew could stand some smile therapy. And, of course, the folks in the bar and kitchen might wish to consider career changes. Racing giant armadillos, for instance. -Mark Stuertz Harper’s. 5150 Keller Springs Rd. at Dallas North Tollway, 972-503-4500. 11:15 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday; 11:15 a.m.-11 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 11:15 a.m.-midnight, Friday & Saturday. Moderate.

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