THE SPACE IS CLEAN, WHITE, JUST limned with acid yellow and Greek blue, the cool colors and serene space repeated in a mirrored wall. White-clad tables are sat with fresh flowers, cobalt stemware, (and diagonally placed flatware. Somehow, it all looks very familiar. And when you See the food, you have a stronger sense of déjà vu. This beautiful blend of julienned vegetables garnishing so many dishes, th|s obvious Eastern influence woven through a seafood theme, this astonishingly artistic presentation-not many local chefs can put together plates like this.
Avner Samuel can. The passionate, internationally experienced chef with the long résumé has resurfaced again, this time in a modes|t new venue called Okeanos by Avner. The interior looks like a reflection of the eponymous Avner’s and Yellow, and the food looks like Avner’s always has-at The Joint, at Da Spot, at Avner’s, Yellow, the Pyramid Room.
Besides $8 foie gras, squid ink gnocchi, and Tasmanian lobster, Avner Samuel has given Dal as foodies a new vocabulary word-now we all know what “peripatetic” means His career spans the whole Dallas food scene-he was the first star chef at the Mansion and was designated executive chef of the Crescent when the hotel was just a hole in the ground (he mysteriously left before its opening). He’s opened and closed mors restaurants in the last 16 years than most chefs do in a career-some (like the Melrose Landmark) before he even saw his food served. Avner is resentful that his résumé is mentioned in every review of Okeanos. His too-extensive experience has become a bit of an embarrassment.
The food at Okeanos certainly commands attention for its own sake. Our dinner, beginning with a “giant crawfish tower”-Avner-speak for a vertical crab cake made with crawfish and garnished with slivered sweet-marinated cucumbers-was highlighted by a fabulous dish of succulent red lobster meat nestled on perfectly creamy lemon-scented risotto. All our meals at Okeanos were this good. But people know Avner’s food will be good. They’re wondering why they’ve had to go to so many different places to get it.
Avner’s answer is simple denial. “My ideas about food are always the best,” says the Israeli-bom chef, with a thick accent. “I will never compromise on that. I been 16 years in the city and worked in six different places. Lots of chefs have worked more places than that.”
Lots, but not many as talented as Avner. Why all the moves? Rumors answer the question their own way, but the truth really seems to be as complicated as the restaurant business itself. A long-running restaurant is built on an interweaving of creative passion with levelheaded business and depends precariously on tight relationships between several strong personalities. (You also have to have plenty of money.)
His business acumen may be suspect, but Avner’s not lacking in creative passion. “He’s a very, very passionate guy about what he does,” says Jim Anile, executive chef at the Melrose Landmark, who worked with Avner during his stint at that hotel.
Of course, there’s always the question of separating the art from the artist. For the diner, it’s what’s on the plate that counts. Even lunch, a never-mind meal at many restaurants, is presented with flair at Okeanos. Orzo, potentially an ignorable pasta, is lifted from the ordinary by tiny bay scallops and roasted vegetables. It’s easy to forget the questions about where Avner’s kitchen has been or where it will be-just concentrate on his cooking, which is good.
The claim that chefs are creative artists seems to justify the purist’s attitude: my way or not at all. There is a whole school of uncompromising chefs who only want to serve the people who respect their work. And these chefs are happy to offer you exactly what they want you to eat But in practical fact, a chef is not just an artist. A chef not only has to please the public-he also has to be able to manage and teach a staff of cooks. The European kitchen is based on the idea of the creative tyrant, the temperamental, pot-throwing chef who rules rather than teaches. Americans mostly use another model: the kitchen as graduate school. Avner seems to have been caught between the two.
“Avner is his biggest enemy and his biggest fan,” Anile comments. It’s clear to anyone who’s eaten at Avner’s varied venues that the chef’s idea of what food should be has not blurred one bit. And as Anile points out, “He’s quite a visionary. Just sometimes it’s hard for him to convey his vision. And sometimes he doesn’t have a very good idea how to get the work out of someone else.
“It’s just a question of patience versus impatience. The success of a business can’t be measured in a few months-it’s measured in years. Avner gets bored easily.”
Fortunately, his diners don’t get bored. How can they when Okeanos’ kitchen serves up imaginative dishes like salmon steak in rice paper with coriander oil and crab ravioli with Thai red curry mayo? Avner’s consistently brilliant way with food has created a base of loyal customers that have followed him faithfully to Okeanos-just as they followed him to Da Spot, when people doubted anyone would go to a Deep Ellum nightclub for high-end food. What happened, then? “The owner (Dan Campbell) ran out of money at Da Spot,” says Avner. “He spent $600,000 in cash for a beautiful place-I was hired to design a kitchen for bar food, but when he saw my résumé, he wanted me to do a full menu. It was just underfunded.”
After Da Spot, Avner opened Yellow for new restaurateur T.J. Mand; he left soon after Mand branched out and opened Americana (a move Avner says he advised against). Then came the stint at the Melrose, about which Avner still sounds bitter. “I feel used. I was interviewing for the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta, but I wanted to stay here with my little girl, so when I heard Ken Rathbun was leaving, I went over there. I took them through the holiday season. They couldn ’t afford me. They had a $50,000 chef and they want Avner? Avner needs more.”
While gossips describe a temper tantrum. Avner says “I walked out of the meeting because I got cussed by my boss. I should’ve popped him. If someone cusses me or cusses my mother, I want to cut his legs off.”
Anile views Avner’s tempera- ment differently. “I think I had a good understanding working with him. He had boisterous opinions and was brash and tempestuous. Avner is a perfectionist to a certain extent. I saw more frustration than temper. Imperfection frustrates him.”
Now, says Avner, he’s a new man, a fam-ily man (married for the third time in March 1996) whose three children are his main motivation. “Now it feels like a different Avner. I’m focused on the family. Now I have a 9-month-old son, Aviel Asher. (Atali is 20; Jordan is 4.) You don’t see this pissed-off Avner anymore.
“In the past eight years, I have behaved foolishly. But I cook damn good. Sometimes 1 surprise myself. My commitment is to do the best I can do. Just, Avner needs to be taken care of.”
Manuel Legarreta. who works at Okea-nos, says of Avner, “He doesn’t really have temper tantrums. But if you can work with him, you can work with anyone. He’s not easy to work with-he wants everything perfect, his way.” Legarreta worked with Avner at Yellow and recently followed him where the chef insisted he would never go- North Dallas.
The night I had dinner at Okeanos, ours was the only table taken, though a subsequent lunch was packed. The food’s polished perfection never wavered. A well-thought-out plate held a steak of Hawaiian tuna, lightly crusted in ginger, ruby jelled flesh inside its sear. Buttery peanut sauce and stir-fried vegetables lent the beefy fish roundness and texture. Tilapia sheathed in a sheer cream sauce with crisp snips of sugar snap peas and red peppers was another brilliant balance of gently textured fish and crunchy vegetable linked by smooth richness. But an utterly simple dish of soft-shelled crabs-just dusted and pan-fried, with lemon-took the evening’s five stars.
Mostly, Avners food is highly inventive. In the past, he has served foie gras with mung beans and Chinese sausage with gnocchi. At Okeanos, he transforms seviche into an oriental fantasy of tuna and scallop sashimi marinated in lime and ginger. The atypically straightforward preparation of crabs seemed to point to a mellower Avner, a cook who’s content with simple excellence rather than invention.
Right now, Avner is reveling in the success of the new restaurant, riding on the rush of the other projects already ahead, including the scheduled fall reopening of Farfallo. Avner has plans to make the club into Dallas’ first caviar and cigar bar and envisions, of course, something unusual and untraditional, serving all kinds of caviar-Chinese and American, in all price ranges, as well as cured and smoked salmon. It doesn’t sound like Avner’s going to have time to get bored. Perhaps we’ll know where to find him for a while.
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