DINING OUT A Family Affair

When the Tarantino brothers opened a new restaurant, they did everything everyone told them not to do. It seems to be working.

IT WAS THE TARANT1N0 BROTHERS’ BIG night. The first review of their new tap-ateria was positive, and that meant the following Saturday they were going to have a full house, packed with the congratulatory regulars who had been Taran-tino barflies from the beginning and the new-restaurant moths, trend followers who flock to whatever is going to be the next hot thing.

The weekend night following the first review is the biggest test of a restaurant. It’s one thing to cook for a word-of-mouth crowd, curious neighborhood residents, and friends of friends of your family who drop in. The question is, can the kitchen cook when the pressure is on? Will the service crack in the face of crowds? Can they handle the crowds? (Will there even be crowds?) For any restaurant, this particular night is always the proof of the pudding, and the Tarantino brothers-Peter, Matt, and Patrick-have a lot to prove.

Dallas was saturated with restaurant openings at the end of 1997. Stephan Pyles opened AquaKnox, FoodStar Restaurant Group replicated Mediterraneo, and Palomino Euro Bistro, a gargantuan branch of the Seattle-based chain, opened in The Crescent. That’s more than 550 high-end dining seats opening up in Dallas’ already competitive market. These places had spent the big bucks, researched their real estate, and churned out the public relations packets to pave the way to their doors. The Tarantinos, in contrast, jumped into a business everyone advised them to avoid, rented space in a questionable location, replaced cash with elbow grease and common sense with blind faith. They recruited five backers, all family friends, and for less than $50,000 opened what could be called the anti-AquaKnox: Tarantino’s.

The boys have been in the restaurant business before. Passion for food runs in the family, as it so often does, and Peter (33), Matt (26), and Patrick (25), as well as their sister, Cynthia, and older brother, Chris, have always had their ringers in the pie. Chris was an apprentice at The Mansion on Turtle Creek; Matt was part of Chef Chris Pyun’s opening crew at the Green Room. Patrick attended the Culinary Institute in Scottsdale; Peter ran a restaurant in Mallorca. Spain. And, in 1993, the family owned a restaurant (called Tarantino’s Cafe & Deli) on Mockingbird Lane, The little cafe served the food of the family culture. New Orleans Sicilian fare, spiced with Dad’s advice and a little of Mom’s famous sugar chess pie. Bui that venture crashed into a family squabble, Dad died, and the siblings splintered in different directions. So the Tarantinos are taking a chance on more than the risky business of restaurants and real estate. The Tarantinos tie food to family, and they want their restaurant to extend that connection to their customers and, in the process, tighten it for themselves.

Exposition Park, the area right across and around the comer from Fair Park, is the edgiest, most avant part of downtown Dallas. Lofts here are still cheap enough for artists to live in, and businesses tend to be tentatively financed and determinedly hip. Peter Tarantino has done a little research on the history of the block and found that Tarantino’s was part of the space that was once Club Lido, where the big bands played when they came to Dallas until after World War II.

They rearranged the kitchen but didn’t do too much to change the dining room. They couldn’t afford to. But they painted the floors, cut the booths in half, and reoriented them so they face the room. Still, the overall effect-a dark, New York cafe-shaped space dominated by a long bar- is only good at night, when the slight scruf-finess is hidden by dim light and the place looks avant instead of under-financed.

At 9 o’clock on Saturday night, post review, the bar is two-deep with people waiting for a table. Through the front window you can see the fire juggler/artist who lives upstairs and who sometimes feels moved to put on a sidewalk show on weekend nights. Tail, pompadoured Frankie, the rockabilly doorman from L.A., is handling the crowd.

The question is, will demand kill the business? There can be a backlash-the restaurant equivalent of road rage-in situations like this. Diners head out to someplace new on the night it’s the most crowded, taste a little panic in the restaurant’s air, and leave angry, telling the world all about it. Word of mouth can be poison.

I’d been to Tarantino’s when the place was nicely filled with opera-goers. Tonight, the artsy block is buzzing and the crowd is gallery-gawkers. Peter’s in a black T-shirt, shuttling between the kitchen, the computer, and his station. The smell of clove cigarettes floats through the dark room. The heart of the restaurant is the service window at the back, where the kitchen meets the dining room, and I hang out there for a while to watch some family dynamics.

“Peter’s about to get in the weeds because he just got quadruple sat,” says Matt, who’s the liaison, perhaps the mediator, between Peter in the dining room and Patrick in the kitchen. Tickets are lined up like laundry on a line over the liny service window that looks into the proportionately sized kitchen. Matt and Patrick worked as a team at St. Martin’s wine bar; they’re close in age, separated by a few years from their older brothers. Patrick is the dreamer, the creator; Matt is more structured. They’re the yin and the yang of Tarantino’s food, while Peter is the out-front salesman.

Adrenaline is pumping. In the kitchen, you hear the conversational buzz and the bass notes from the dining room’s music through your feet, but the jambox is tuned to KDGE-FM 94.5, and the cacophony suits the disco pace of the kitchen action. Patrick’s assistant, Fernando Piedras, a bandanna tied around his head, works the stove with the dexterity and speed of a pin-ball master, shaking die pans and turning the gas knobs as he reduces one sauce and heats another. Fernando*S father, Francisco, preps and cleans for the restaurant.

“How’s No. 10 looking?” Mat! asks. When there’s no answer, he ducks into the kitchen to get sliced bread out of the fridge, slide it onto a baking sheet, and push it into the oven. By then, Patrick has three plates ready to go. They just barely lit along the little window ledge. “Stay” he orders as he balances a fourth on the rims underneath. Matt checks the ticket, walks out with the plate, and trots back fast.

“Hey, where’s that lamb? Fire me the lamb on the fly!” It’s the first time there’s been a stressed voice. “I don’t care how you do it.” Matt says as Patrick wraps a plate of sauced meat in plastic for heating in the emergency-only microwave. “Bread!” Fernando calls out from his station at the stove, and Malt disappears into the kitchen. When I peck around the corner, there’s Matt sianding over the trash can. using a serrated knife to scrape the lightly scorched edges off the bread he’d pulled from the oven, That done, he delivers hot bread and lamb.

Patrick’s self-described idea of food is wild and crazy, but this means he wants to go against the overly inventive flow of New American cooking and back to the basics of Italian and Spanish cuisine. The food at Tarantino’s is served tapas-style, in small portions, which allows Patrick to play with big flavors that might cloy in larger portions. He likes to mix two sauces or two versions of one food on the same plate-polenta crab cakes are served with crab claws and crab salad, and a special of smoked duck ravioli was topped with rich duck confit.

Patrick was told he needed to work for another 10 years with a master before cheffing his own restaurant, but he saw an opportunity and decided he would take it, following his father’s advice to work for himself-something his dad never did. Cleverly, Patrick devised a menu symbiotic with his capability and his kitchen space. The small plates, served sequentially, allow him time to prepare each one, and the size of the restaurant limits the order traffic. He knows that tonight will tell if his intuitive planning will work.

The crowd’s even bigger now, and Patrick’s eyes don’t leave the counter, except when he whirls around to take a plate from Fernando. There are nine tickets in the window-more than will fit-and between attending to their tables. Matt is plating desserts while Peter buses glasses from the bar. There’s another crisis when the bartender forgets the recipe for a stinger-Matt shoves two plates into his hands, saying, “These are for table 11,” and goes to the bar.

Finally, Matt brings a plate of clean lamb bones to the kitchen to pack up for a diner’s dog and reports, “It’ll be a trickle now. We got campers.” People are lingering over their coffee now that there’s less pressure to turn the tables. Patrick finally straightens his back, literally panting from working so fast, exits the kitchen, and heads to the bar for a Coke.

The orders steady, and there’s time to gossip about the past night. Peter had to turn away their mother’s best friend visiting from Boston, who dropped in without a reservation, because there was no room. Peter says he had to tell Frankie not to seat anyone for a while, to leave a couple of tables empty while the kitchen caught up. It’s amazing that Tarantino’s is already having to deal with the big boys’ tricks of the inside track-for the sake of crowd control, neither Palomino nor AquaKnox filled their tables for a couple of weeks after opening. Even a cousin got peevish, Peter says, because he couldn’t be seated when he wanted to be. “I say if you’re a friend, you’ll understand,” says Matt. If you’re really a friend, you’ll be glad the Tarantino boys have a hit.

Because they definitely do.

THE SEXIEST DISH IN DALLAS

The strips of flesh fall from the bone and melt in your mouth. The deep, dark red sauce only starts with tomato-that stimulating tang is coupled with the oily fruitiness of purple kalamata olives, then finished with heady Chianti wine. Patrick Tarantino’s take on traditional osso buco, based on a rich, seductively gamy lamb shank instead of traditional veal, is food you lust after, dream about, want. So good you want to suck the bones.

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