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Checking Out the Best New Restaurants of 1999

The exciting conclusion to a year of tasting & talking, dining & drinking, kvetching & considering... Now, the envelope, please.

Every restaurant tells a story, and every August, D presents the latest installment in the story of Dallas dining: who has left the stage, what new characters have taken the spotlight, and which new restaurants are here for the long run.

The restaurant business is an ongoing soap opera with a thousand sub-plots. When we left you last August, the plot was pretty thin. Our annual “Best Restaurants” list had dwindled from 12 in 1997 to just five in 1998.

But this year has been a fast-paced, action-packed episode. A big hand for Patrick Colombo & Phil Romano at Nick & Sam’s; Alberto Lombardi returns to star again in his new venue Bizú. Mediterrraneo changed into Popolo’s overnight (you can still see the ghost of the sign on the Quandrangle wall). Then founding chef David Holben left Foodstar, (mother company of both Riveria and Med-Quad) altogether. And Annie Wong, the Judi Dench of Thai food, makes a special guest appearance at nearly every restaurant in town.

We are, as always, looking for restaurants that have made a significant change in the Dallas dining drama. There are a solid 11 that have done that this year, each with its own success story. Meanwhile (back at the ranch), big-deal steakhouses have become the Andrew Loyd Webber productions of the restaurant scene: big budgets, special effects, high ticket prices, wildly popular, but somehow all strangely the same. (Check the chart on p. 40 to help you deside where to find the sirloin of your dreams.)

The surprise sensation of the food show this year wasn’t a restaurant at all, but a donut factory. With all the enduring cheesy appeal of a Rockettes revue, thousands of dozens of Krispy Kreme donuts took center stage to sell-out crowds, (see p. 44)

Of course, in restaurant show biz, every story is a cliff hanger. What will happen when Angus beef loses it star power? Will Foodstar finally fade to black? Will Kent Rathbun, who left Seventeen Seventeen last year to start his own show, ever debut? Which of this year’s picks will still be open next year? Stay tuned as the tables turn,

NICK & SAM’S: Leading Men

Consider the cast of characters-Patrick Colombo, once with 21, Man of the Mansion, founder of Sfuzzi, and Phil Romano, “Concept King,” creator of Fuddruckers, Eatzi’s, and Macaroni Grill. These leading men teamed their talents to found Nick & Sam’s (named after their sons). With Romano’s flair for mass appeal, Colombo’s finesse with the upscale diner, using basic beef as the medium, these two have opened the steakhouse that transcends the genre. When the day comes that Black Angus is a bore and steakhouses turn into hamburger joints, we predict Nick & Sam’s will still be playing to a full house. As well as possessing all the stats of the steakhouse- 12,000 square feet, hundreds of bottles of wine in the cellar, triple-digit dinner prices, and a 75-seat private dining room-Nick & Sam’s has a chic, multi-gender appeal that most macho steakhouses lack. A tuxedoed pianist plays a baby grand in the open kitchen; diners don’t flinch at paying $700 for a bottle of wine; and the cellar moves more French Bordeaux than California cabernet. You don’t have to eat steak at this steakhouse, (in fact you don’t have to eat at all-there are several fine champagnes by the glass). You can choose to eat in the raw bar at the other end of the dining room or in the wine parlor where you can sample flights of wine. But if you do dine, your money will be well spent. Swordfish, sea bass and salmon share top billing with T-bones, filets and sirloins. And the crowd at Nick & Sam’s is so self-confident they order mac-and-cheese without a blush. When the dish was removed from the regular menu, public demand brought it back as a near-nightly special. Other old steak standbys have gotten a face lift-an iceberg wedge is dressed in luxurious Maytag Blue and Nick & Sam’s steak and lobster makes “surf & turf’ seem young again. It’s said that there are a limited number of tales to tell in the world. Isn’t “Star Wars” just a remake of “The Wizard of Oz” ? The same is true of restaurants-new concepts fade fast while an old idea done well like Nick & Sam’s lives happily ever after. Nick & Sams, 3008 Maple Ave., 214-871-7444.

ENCORE: Love Story

It’s a classic romance between a man and his kitchen. Man eats food, man meets kitchen, you know the rest. Of course, since this is a French love story, the man has another kitchen on the side and finally leaves the grape love of his life to take up with a restaurant he barely knows.

Michel Baudouin has been wooing the Fort Worth dining public for years in a series of chef-run restaurants-remember Michel’s and Le Chardonnay? Last year’s infatuation brought us the Grape Escape, which made our top restaurant list because it was such a refreshing new concept even though the menu requires little cooking. This year, Michel was seduced by the saute pan again and left Grape Escape in capable hands while he ran away to another kitchen, this time called Encore. It’s not much to look at from the outside; inside the disturbingly blue, home-decorated room there are only 40 seats. Yes, it is smack in the middle of the latest trend towards informal French bistro food, but for Michel, French food is a way of life, not a passing trend. He’s in the kitchen every night preparing mussels in white wine and thyme broth, roast duck with peaches, l’entrecote au poivre, and-the ultimate in French comfort food-macaroni au gratin. (That’s French for mac-and-cheese, and Michel makes it just like his mom used to), When he can, he tears himself away from the kitchen and tours the dining room, wineglass in hand, to greet his guests, table by table. He also welcomes guests in the kitchen-go around the corner and chat with him, a handsome smiling Frenchman with a Beaujolais complexion, At the end of the night, he’s still there, slowly sipping wine, fondly remembering the evening, lovingly making macaroni.

This love story does not end in heartbreak.(Or heartburn.) We discovered at Encore the love of our lives-la tarte fines au pommes, a baked to order. Granny Smith apple tart-it was just sweet, so tender and buttery, so honest and unaffected. Oh, we fell for it hard and we drove back to Dallas with sweet dreams of it still in our mouths. Encore, 3457 West 7th St., 817-336-2004.


This is nothing but showbiz, folks. Fusion showbiz, maybe, but showbiz nonetheless. Dallas experienced its first Brazilian-style steakhouse, Fogo de Chao, a couple of years ago and Texas de Brazil, the city’s latest, most glamorous churrascaria, has confirmed both the old restaurant saying that the power of ambiance is stronger than food and the dogowner’s wisdom that carnivores don’t care how you wrap it, as long as it’s meat.

Texas de Brazil is basically Del Frisco’s on a stick, but the costumed waiters rushing around with swords of meat, the big firepit, Gloria Estafan playing in the background, and the caipirinhas all make the churrascaria seem much more exciting than the usual chop-house. On our first visit to the original Addison location last year, the waiters were dressed in jeans-the sole tribute to the Texas name. Now the waiters are gussied up in cobalt shirts with black pants, long black aprons, and black logo vests. And chicken has been added to the formerly pure-bred four-legged menu. There’s not much Texas left in Brazil, if you want to be picky instead of dazzled. There is no menu, strictly speaking, but each waiter’s spiel is well-rehearsed. Although the price is never really mentioned, he does explain how to use your tongs to retrieve the meat from the skewer and warns about the onslaught of servers that will rush on you once you’ve turned your ordering chip from red to green. So when you go green, you’re not that surprised when waiters crowd from all angles with long skewers of Argentine sausage, bacon-wrapped filet chunks, parmesan crusted porkloin. and legs of lamb. Picanha is the best: garlic-studded rump roast with a satisfying heft and chew. Quien es mas macho?

As in all big productions, everything at Texas de Brazil is larger than life. There’s always a huge fresh flower arrangement in the center of the dining room. The salad bar is enormous-asparagus, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, marinated mushrooms, a platter of deviled eggs, and tabouleh, feijoada, naturally. A show this big is bound to take it on the road, and sure enough, Texas de Brazil opened recently near downtown. Texas de Brazil, 15101 Addison Rd., 972-385-1000.

TACO DINER: Taco Family

Opening a restaurant takes months of planning, weeks of rehearsals, and a never-ending ability to improvise. Take Taco Diner for instance. Everyone else has.

A slick, highly designed version of a Mexico City-syle taqueria, Taco Diner was opened a year ago by the same team who molded the Mexican menu to suit the North Dallas soul at Mi Cocina. Throughout the year, we’ve been here more times than our expense account allows. We’ve seen window shades installed to block out the fierce western sun and whimsical light fixtures by Tully Weiss added as a punch line to the formerly stark minimalist interior. We’ve observed managements’ quick-witted comebacks to every straight line delivered by a customer. Take the salsa service-please. In the opening weeks, salsas-pico de gallo, verde, ranchera-came served an inch at a time in tea cups too tiny to dip a chip in. After a few months of watching frustrated margarita sippers try vainly to snag salsa with the tip of a tostada, Taco Diner hooked the teacups off the table and replaced them with a stainless caddie-still too small. Finally, they stopped trying to find a solution for an already solved problem-and started serving salsa in white bowls-like Mi Cocina. Likewise, originally diners were supposed to be savvy enough fill out sushi-style order forms to order tacos. That required too much audience participation, and besides, we always lost our golf pencils. We loved the original all-taco menu: soft tacos, house-made com tortillas tucked around fillings of stewed pork, grilled beef, and seared fish served with freshly chopped cilantro, jalapenos, and sweet onion to customize to taste. But obviously, most people wanted more than just tacos, so the kitchen added a few other acts- enchiladas, fajitas, and flautos. The nachos are still top notch-individual round chips like Mexican canapes, layered with refried beans, melted cheese, perfect guacamole, and a drizzle of queso fresco-like cream on top,

In the end, Taco Diner’s flexibility allows the customer to improvise. This restaurant is whatever you want it to be. We stop in for after-work nachos and margaritas, for lunch-time tacos or for a full scale family meal. It’s a hit every time. Taco Diner, 4011 Villanova Dr., 214-696-4944.

TIN STAR: tights. Camera. Action!

The opening shot is tight. A stark glass wall, a small star sign, and a patio that overlooks the first level of a parking garage. Inside it is hard to know where to focus. Tin Star has the staccato frenzy of an MTV video.

CUTTO: A maze of stanchions, the smell of sizzling onions, and an overriding din with the effect of a strobe. It’s hard to figure out where to order, how to balance everything from the counter to the table, how to juggle tostados with your electronic flashing beeper, find the silverware, get your drinks, and hit the salsa bar.

CLOSE UP: A cheerful man is griddling quesadillas in the middle of the restaurant, handing them out to the confused customers in line. Given a beeper, silverware, and chips and salsa, a quesadil-la {it’s good) only complicates the scene.

CUT TO: The beeper flashes the second you sit. The kitchen moves faster than the service system.

CLOSE UP: Once you’re one-on-one with the food, everything goes slow mo. You can savor all the contrasting textures in your psy-chedelically constructed tacos. Tempura shrimp, fruit pico de gallo, bacon and cilantro? Go ahead. Live on the edge. Poblano Jack chicken doesn’t challenge your imagination, but the pounded-thin chicken breast, grilled and topped with roasted pob-lanos and makes you happy just the same. Jack cheese served with demi-glaze potatoes is fast food Stephan Pyles could be proud of, And West Texas fried chicken sautéed with mushrooms and thick chopped bacon and drizzled with chipotle is a sound bite. Tin Star, 2626 Howell St., Suite 100,214-999-0059.

THAI GARDEN: All Annie’s Children

Erica Kane has got nothing on Annie Wong. Not that Annie is bitchy and backstabbing or fooling around with your husband, but Annie has had just as long a run.

Outside of her high profile at Liberty (one of our top five restau-tants last year, see p. 103), Annie stage-manages her “children” all over town. For example we were orginally told Thai Garden was started by her niece, who called herself a daughter but in reality is Annie’s sister in-law’s daughter who is no longer a sister in-law. We do know Annie mothered the menu at Thai Garden, trained the chefs at Liberty, and then turned them loose in North Dallas to make it on their own. The place takes no prizes for set design; they kept the vinyl tablecloths, plastic flowers, and buffet steam table left by the previous tenant. They kept the Chinese chef, too, and the most popular Chinese dishes to keep the regulars regular. In an ongoing effort to educate North Dallas palates, the kitchen slips Thai treats into all the Chinese takeout orders. One taste of this Thai food should convert anyone. The flavors explode in your head. Forget chicken soup the next time you’re down with the flu, try Tom Kha Gai-a fragrant blend of chicken, coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, and chili paste. Noodle dishes are our favorites: on the Thai side, pad kee mao, stir-fried spicy noodles with basil, green peppers, chili, and garlic. The black Thai rice drizzled with coconut milk and sweet tropical jackfruit will soothe your tongue and your soul. Thai Garden. 6090 Campbell Road, 972-248-1514.

The Purple Cow is that rare

animal, a restaurant that actually appeals to the child in tow and the child within.

PURPLE COW: For Mature Audiences It’s a mistake to make a generalization about anything, but we’re going to run out on a limb and say that PG restaurants, like most PG entertainment, are best avoided by childless adults. Unfortunately that means that the perfectly sophisticated hamburger, fries, and shake menu has been largely conceded to the under 12 set.

How many parents have planted they- kids in front of an animated Disney feature only to sneak down the hall for R-rated action? Take a good look at the mothers lunching with their children at McDonald’s on Lovers-they are all eating soup and salad from City Cafe across the street while the rugrats are munching McNuggets.

Despite the Saturday morning TV name. The Purple Cow is that rare animal, a restaurant that bridges the gastronomical generation gap, that actually appeals to the child in tow and the child within. It’s more Babe than Barney, if you know what we mean. Purple Cow offers a neo-Happy Days menu-excellent burgers in several sensible variations ( blue cheese-bacon or herbed butter) as well as good tortilla soup, an outstanding BLT, and a grilled Palm Beach (pimento cheese) to die for. But the key to the crossover appeal is the beverage list. The milkshake menu is full of PG and R-rated Blue Bell ice cream, including the purple one made from custom blended purple ice cream. But at Purple Cow you can add a shot of peach schnapps to your milkshake. Or sip chardonnay with your onion rings. The Purple Cow, 110 Preston Royal Shopping Center, 214-373-0037.


Bizú has the flirty light-hearted

quality of a champagne cocktail.

BIZU: Play It Again. Alberto

This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Another beautiful friendship. Dallas has been friends with Alberto Lombard] for a long time-ever since he opened his first restaurant on Hall in 1977. Since then. Alberto bas been on top of every trend. Picture this: Il s 1997 and the whole city is seafood crazy. Alberto opens Lombardi Mare, the most chic of the new seafood restaurants. Cut to 1999. and French is the culinary language of choice. Alberto opens Bizú, the most stylish of the new French bistros. Well, it’s nominally French-“bizu” is French slang for “kiss”-but like all his restaurants, Bizú is pure Alberto. Très, très Alberto. What Alberto does best is create sets, settings for relationships. The food-as it should-plays only a supporting role at Bizú, as it does at Lombardi Mare and Lombardi. Alberto’s restaurants have a flirty, lighthearted quality. They’re all whimsically elegant; they make you feel pretty. And witty and gay, too.

Bizú may be the most Alberto restaurant yet. A room of honey-warm woods, alabaster fixtures, big windows, gauzy curtains and white leather banquettes, Bizú is sophisticated-you don’t necessarily dress up to eat here, but you do dress. The food-mostly retro, (Champagne cocktails? Is this a trend?) mostly French-inspired-is mostly very good. We fell in love with the Bizú salad, a mix of spinach, slivered pears, feta, and walnuts in a round raspberry vinaigrette. And we continued our childhood infatuation with French fries, which are always surprisingly best when they are truly French, and which are served at Bizú in combinations as classic as a Happy Meal-as moules frites, with white wine-bathed mussels, and steak frites, with a small, rare piece of steak. We’re happy that fat-phobia is not a factor in this kitchen-both the coarse housemade terrine and the smooth paté are unctuous on the tongue. The kitchen is equally unafraid of such frankly French fare as frogs’ legs, sweetbreads, rabbit, and veal liver. (There’s plenty of pasta listed, too.)

Desserts swept us off our feet: a poached pear filled with vanilla ice cream and dripping with hot chocolate, and a freshly stacked napoleon, the layers of pastry, fruit, and cream so recently assembled that the pastry wasn’t even moist. We know we’re supposed to “remember this, a kiss is just a kiss.”, but tor his latest venture, we suggest a bizu on both cheeks for Alberto Lombardi, Bizú. 2504 McKinney Ave.. 214-303-1002.

The pomegranate seeds, figs, currants, pistachios, and apricots that season the meats and vegetables stimulate almost all the senses.

ARARAT: The Case of the Mystery Meal

Ararat fills our minds with mystery. (And sometime:;, our mouths. ) What is this restaurant where no one ever goes’? How does it stay in business? Can a blend of ancient Kurdish. Turkish. Armenian, Arabic, and Persian foods be considered “fusion” cuisine? And can anyone really tell you what guevec otturtma is’?

Hidden on a coiner in Deep Ellum that looks deserted by day, Ararat is a place of exotic appeal-the aroma of incense greets you at the door, you’re seated (on the floor, if you like) in a room lit by flickering candles and hung with Ramadan lamps, the waiters walk quietly on oriental carpets, and speak even more softly (so your chances of discovering what guevecotturtma is remain elusive).To fully enjoy Ararat, you have to embrace the enigma, take the magic carpet ride, and let your palate experience a higher food conciousness. It’s not a whodunit mystery, it’s a what’s-in-it mystery.

The soft-footed waiter brings you a plate of erotically perfumed, unrecognizable food. Apply Sherlock’s palate and lastebud clues reveal that manov unveiled, is simply roasted lamb marinated with rosemary and garlic.”A casserole of eggplant, zucchini, onions, mushrooms, bell peppers, and carrots, served with Persian rice or bulgur wheat” is the answer to the riddle. “What is guevec otturtma?”

There has been a steady fragrant trend of lamb stews and curried couscous creeping onto eclectic menus all over town. Tabouli, hummus, gyro, and pita are common culinary vocabulary now-Ararat is a good place to expand that language. We have eaten here-both on and off the floor-many times and never experienced a bad plate of food. The pomegranate seeds, figs, currants, pistachios, and apricots that season the meats and vegetables stimulate almost all the senses. The belly dancers take care of the rest. Ararat, 2934 Main St.. 214-744-1555.

Where’s the costume designer for this show? Everyone should look

like Fred and Ginger, tuxed and high-heeled.

Chaparral Club: Top Hat

This is a real theater-going experience. You have to jostle through a crowded lobby filled with odors from the ground-floor cede just to get to the elevators. But once you step out on the 38th floor, you’re in another movie. The new Chaparral Club makes you nostalgic for elegance. A renaissance of old Dallas, the Chaparral Club is a renovation of a Dallas benchmark of privilege. The windows are the Stars, the rest of the dining room subdued. There’s just a touch of art-deco and the brown velvet window banquettes are some of the best tables in town.

Order champagne. Notice the china and line stemware, the oversized red wineglass with no lip. Because it’s not required to dress for dinner, no one does, but looking around the spacious. subtly glamorous dining room with ils floor-to-ceiling windows, dance floor, and jazzy pianist, you almost wish there was a dress code so everyone would look the pan. Where’s the costume designer for this show? Everyone should look like Fred and Ginger, tuxed and high-heeled against a backdrop of glittering highway lights.

Well, it’s the ’90s and we ’re sad to say that a golf shin is formal enough for just about any production. At least the food at the Chaparral Club is all dolled up. Plates come with artistically leaning towers of potatoes and deco-Swirled sauces, with full-blown garnitures designed for die eye as well as the palate. The deep, peachy flesh of salmon is set off by a pool of beet-colored sauce. Halibut, snowy-moist inside its jerk spice crust, breaks into wet shiny flakes under the fork and the clean fish contrasts with the whiff of lemon balm pesto and the fluffy tomato-colored couscous. Rasp berry-rare rack of lamb crusted with mustard sits perched on purple mashed potatoes with a clear brown, vividly rosemary-scented glaze. Do not skip dessert: the flan at the Chaparral Club is as smooth as silk charmeuse. Adam’s Mark Hotel. 400 N. Olive St., 214-777-6539 $$-$$$, FB In restaurant show business, every story is a cliff

hanger. Stay tuned as the tables turn.

SAMBA ROOM: la Vida loca

“Loooo?eee, I’m goin’ to the club!” Thai may have sounded fine in the ’50s. hut if Ricky Ricardo was heading to the Samba Room, circa 1999, Lucy might not have been so blithe. Somehow in these PC times, the pick-up bar is back-Capital Grill, Nick n Sam’s, and Sullivan’s all host eye candy-filled bars, and Samba Room is the sweetest scene of all. It swingstoaBabaiu beat from the minute the valet lakes your Lexus. Speakers on the sidewalk make the Lalin vibe radiate down the block and the volume pumps up when you approach the hostess stand. Don’t lose patience with her-she probably doesn’t have an empty table and she can’t hear you. Ask for one. anyway. Tables don*t turn fast because dinner segues into the after-dinner bar scene, (Samba Room has a cigar menu designed to encourage loitering. ) So don’t be surprised if you have to wait, even with a reservation. But waiting is where the action is. Get closetoacaipirinha-acachacadrink muddled with a sugar cane stick-or a pitcher of rum-based mojitos. Moveable gauze walls make magic out ai a boxy room and provide the illusion of intimacy once you do get a table. We filled our table with small plates of griddled com cakes stop spicy shredded beef drizzled with queso bianco, and large plates of sliced Hank steak served with classic mojo alongside grilled onions and black beans and rice.

Of course, we’d love to hear Ricky sounding off in the ’90s version of “I Love Lucy”-the episode where Lucy and Ethel sneak off to the Samba Room, down a couple of mojitos – Ethel, “This tastes just like lemon,., .. . another !”)0t course, they develop a fierce crush on the conga player and stumble home to find Ricky and Fred with their hands on their hips. “Looooceeee!” says Ricky. “You got some ’splainin’ to do!” Samba Room, 4514 Travis St, Suite 132,214-522-4137.