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1997’s Twelve Best Restaurants, Revisited

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES
By Nancy Nichols |

Fish

I’m afraid that Fish has rotted from a big head. Apparently, its successful opening and our Gold Medal award last August as the best new restaurant of the year led to an inflated attitude. Its latest press release boasts that “Fish has reached legendary status” and become a “downtown powerhouse.” A legend after 18 months in operation? Such arrogance is even less tolerable when combined with an inedible plate of snapper, which was served- slowly I might add-on a recent lunch visit.

If it intends to be “legendary,” Fish had better upscale its act soon.



Barclays

If I could throw Fish back into the sea, 1 would give the Gold Medal of 1997 to Barclays. I knew after the first time I ate here that this place was special. And chef/owner Nick Barclay has proved me right. He has continued to improve on a good tiling by adding another night (Tuesdays) and a patio serving British cocktails along with sample plates of his specialties. Bubble and squeak and a glass of Pimm’s after a long day at the office? How civilized is that?



Sevy’s

The thrill of Jim Severson’s grill has made Sevy’s one of this year’s big success stories, proving to his customers and his investors that he is not just a good chef but also a good businessman. Severson had “wildly” projected $2.3 million in sales the first year, but with two weeks left in the restaurant’s first fiscal year, sales were pushing $3 million and lines are still out the door.

Plans for Sevy’s Addison or Sevy ’s Atlanta are not in the works-Severson is perfectly happy serving simple, good food like grilled portobello muschrooms, hickory-scented beef tenderloin, and the best chopped salad in town. Daily specials may just be a ploy to keep the regulars regular.



Lavendou

What Frenchman doesn’t know the difference between smooth and coarse paté? Our waiter didn’t, but fortunately, someone in die kitchen can cook with a French accent. Unless, that is, you want something from the beautifully tiled French pizza oven. It wasn’t working when they opened last year, and it still seems to have defeated the technological capability of the staff.

No pissaladiere here-a significant absence for a Provencal place. But the tilapia was magnifique, garnished a la Francaise within an inch of its life. The tender fish came tucked into a tutu-like frill of purple kale, decorated with two swishes and a swirl of garishly orange red-pepper sauce. It tasted good, but was it in good taste? Depends on how you feel about Christian Lacroix.



Firehouse

Firehouse started out walking the high wire of high-concept cuisine, and after two years they’ve gotten scarily sloppy.

There are some great dishes. But this year, the Sicilian Firehouse Chicken came drowning in habanero sauce. The trademarked “reds and greens” (red potatoes and green beans) reminded me of Mom’s casserole of green beans slathered with mushroom soup topped with Durkee’sonion rings. (Sorry, Mom.) And Chef Bruno Melli has made a real three-ring circus by juggling three nights in the Firehouse kitchen with three nights at his downtown restaurant. Champagne.



Mark’s on Henderson

He’s at die front door. He’s in the kitchen. He’s suggesting a wine to someone in the cellar. He’s showing us his salsa collection (50 types!). He’s tossing a Caesar salad tableside. He’s the chef-maybe he should spend more time in the kitchen.

Mark’s on Henderson is an avowed one-man show, but my last visits have found his food starving for attention. A moist sea bass was good but was slung onto a pile of risotto cooked to a paste more appropriate for papi-er-maché than for consumption.

Mark needs to let his pleasant staff handle more. We’re all for chef-run restaurants, But Mark, you can’t do it all.



Modo Mio

In a thick Italian accent chef/owner Rino Brigliadori barks to his waiters, “Don’t ever say ’no’ to any request! If I have it in my kitchen, I will do it!”

Here is a “labor of love restaurant” that has overcome the obstacle of being lost in an ugly strip mall. “Write something good about me so I can have more customers,” he gruffly orders me when I ask how his business has been over the past year.

OK, I will. But only because he is still serving some of the best Italian food in town. His small, quality menu turns out plump gnocchi perfectly coated with a light tomato sauce, and the simple seafood specials are always perfectly prepared.



■ Angeluna

Hark! As if there isn’t enough angel art inside the restaurant, across die street 30-foot limestone cherubs with long brass trumpets herald another downtown Fort Worth success story: the Bass Performance Hall. Angeluna postured itself wisely, anticipating the appetites of cultural crowds.

Angeluna’s real estate gamble has paid off. The patio swarms with an artsy Chanel-and-Chardonnay crowd dining on designer pizza and spinach and mushroom salads corralled in a potato ring. Who cares if it’s more about style than substance? Remember, the parent restaurant is in Aspen.



■ What Else?

Whatever have they done to What Else? The once user-friendly, well-priced menu spotlighting the dishes of Provence has now changed to a confusing mix-and-match where you pick a meat or seafood and match it with a sauce. When I eat, I don’t want to work that hard.

The five specialties de la maison that remain on the menu, including duck leg con-fit and iamb shank braised with flageolets, are still superb. My advice? Go back to what you do best: simple French country fare.



Marrakesh

The surprise success of this restaurant-cum-belly-dancing spot certainly doesn’t come from the support of a large local community of Moroccans. It proves that Dallas has gotten away from its meat-and-potatoes mentality and embraced an ethnic cuisine other than Tex-Mex.

There have been plenty of new bellies to fill and dance for over the past year. Marrakesh continues to serve exquisitely prepared Moroccan dishes exotically combining Iamb, chicken, and beef with fruit and spice. The once-undesirable back corner now looks like a sultan’s tent, complete with gauzy curtains, pillows, and brass tables.



Lombardi Mare

Alberto Lombardi knows what he’s doing. Lombardi Mare has maintained its quality as it has gained popularity. The stylishly polished interior has plenty of whimsy-from the goldfish bowls hanging above the bar to the Italian language tapes playing in the restrooms. But the food here is serious stuff. Sautéed polenta-crusted salmon served with red cabbage was a perfect meal, suiting the restaurant’s perfect style. Molto bene!



■ La Tasca Espanola

“Closed for staff vacations” was the reason La Tasca’s doors were closed, said the voice on the phone. When 1 called again, La Tasca was closed because of “a change of ownership.” When I finally sat down to dinner, the waiter told me the monthlong hiatus was due to “air-conditioning repairs.”

Whatever. Someone should have called in a repairman for the food. The paella Valencia looked like something off a laminated menu-you couldn’t tell by looking whether they were rubber bands or calamari. And die tortilla Espanola, the classic layering of potatoes and eggs, has gained weight. One slice must’ve weighed a pound.

Nevertheless, the service was gracious, and a Spanish red (one bottle of which cost as much as two glasses in most restaurants) from the fun wine list allowed us to forgive the food flaws and achieve a slow Spanish pace, comforted by the wine.

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