The New Materpieces of Dallas Dining

Savvy restaurateurs know thai the way a restaurant looks is as important to their customers as the way the food tastes. And they must be right. Why else has the lounge at AquaKnox-now known as Fishbowl- been reconfigured three times in the past two years?

As much planning and money goes into the appearance of a restaurant as goes into the menu. Sometimes so much more that (he food is forgotten altogether. (A case in point is the 17-page press release we received recently that described in detail the architecture, interior design, and atmosphere of a new restaurant without saying one word about the cuisine it intends to serve.)

But. in a way. all the attention is deserved. Food, after all, is a fine art. And it deserves to he presented with all the panache of an Old Master and glamour of a blockbuster exhibit. Here’s a look at the gourmet gallery of best new restaurants in Dallas.

1. VOLTAIRE: Conceptual Art

A fundamental restaurant precept is that a place should look tike it tastes. Its corollary is that your first taste should come the minute you walk in the front door. At Voltaire light rays shoot out from an assemblage of smashed plates and cups suspended from the high ceiling to illuminate the entry. A work of art by renowned lighting designer Ingo Maurer. commissioned especially for Voltaire, the chandelier is emblematic of the restaurant. Voltaire is an iconoclastic re-assembly of ideas about dining out in Dallas.

At Voltaire all the elements of fine dining have been taken to surreal extremes. Paul Draper’s startling décorsets the lone. Each of Voltaire’s dining rooms is a distinct experience with its own mood-setting installation piece. Above a row of wall tables, owner Scott Ginsburg’s collection of Dale Chihuly glass sculptures is ingeniously displayed on mirrors so the colorful amorphous pieces seem to multiply forever. In another section a water wall flows subtly and constantly outside the floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Tall niches beside the fireplace are stacked with wood, the log ends forming an abstract sculptural pattern. And the main dining room ends with the big chef’s table placed in front of an etched glass wall looking into Chef George Papadopoulos’ Willy Wonka-proportioned kitchen.

Voltaire is an overstatement in every respect: Its 4,000-square-foot kitchen is organized along traditional French lines with a different station for everything from butchering meats to baking bread. The wine list is 15,000 bottles strong and only (maybe) 10 percent of the inventory costs under S100. Nevermind-the bar was spewing Haut-Brion by the $25 glass one night when we were there, and the bartender was pouring it like water.

The menu, for all the extravagance of the setting, is surprisingly minimal. Three “canapés.” like upscale chalupas. are offered, each named after an artist: “Picasso” is topped with tomatoes, cheese, and basil; “Matisse,” with duck confit and caramelized red onion prosciutto; “Monet,” with marinated shrimp and garlic. The canapes are supposed to precede hors d’oeuvres, adding another course to an already expensive dinner (lovely lobster harissa with garlic-mashed potatoes, grilled asparagus, and a warm Thai-scented sauce. at $24.) There are three fish dishes and four plats de Voltaire. All of this takes time, and Voltaire sets a leisurely pace. Volume per square foot is not what this chef’s oeuvre is all about.

5150 Keller Springs Rd. at North Dallas Tollway. 972-239-89HH.

2. SUZE: Still Life

Everyone knows everyone. At least that’s what Suze feels like. Maybe it’s because the room is cozy. Maybe it’s because the tables are close together. And maybe it’s because everyone knows Susie “Suze” Priore.

A whim of a restaurant, an idea conceived in a car repair garage, an effort of friends working together, inspired by the idea of food and fellowship. Suze’s menu changes daily. Like Monet’s haystacks the general shape remains the same, but the impression shifts at Suze according to the time of day. the dish you’re served, and the company you’re with. One night we dropped in late fora glass of wine and a chocolate banana mousse. Another evening we dined early and comfortably, ordering as we ate, making up our mind as we spied something tempting on a tray being carried to another table. One dinner had a taste of fusion-inspired open-mouthed mussels in a broth of coconut milk, chipotle, and cilantro. On another night Suze’s sophisticated version of Southern-fried chicken and ethereal whipped sweet potatoes was pure Americana.

As impetuous decisions go. Susie Priore’s brainstorm to go into the restaurant business was a great one. She called her friend Russ Hodges to help her pull the kitchen together and moved into Going Gourmet, a neighborhood BYOB place. Chef Gilbert Garcia, formerly of Toscana. is in the kitchen, and the menu and ambience is a collaboration, not just between Susie and Gilbert, but between Susie and Gilbert and their already devoted clientele, who provide the convivial backdrop for food that is as original as the place is friendly. 4345 W. Northwest Highway at Midway. 214-350-613.

3. MANGO: Modernism

Doo-wop, doo-wop. doo-wop.

Three Asian chicks in pigtails were bopping to the beat of early Elvis Costello behind the counter of the open kitchen, looking like the go-go girls of Mango.

Pop goes the Thai food. This is the second restaurant from the folks who brought us Chow Thai, Dallas’ first assertively stylish Thai restaurant. Sherbet-colored molded plastic chairs furnish the little diner-style room. Aqua-colored walls are decorated ’80s-style by shadows cast from cutouts over the halogen lights. Chopsticks are stainless steel; centerpieces are plastic Gerber daisies; teacup-shaped bowls are Claes Oldenburg giant-size. Playful proportions and offbeat hues color Mango California-cool in plain old Piano. and the noodle-slurpers at the gray laminate tables look like they dropped in from 90210. not 75093.

This unexpected portal into genuine pop style sneaked into a strip mall on Park Blvd., and it’s as hot as it is cool. Three sauces-peanut sauce, sweet-plum dipping sauce, and a soy vinaigrette-accompanied an appetizer platter piled high with (take a deep breath) fried shrimp, chicken satay, crimped pork dumplings, crab cakes, tem-pura sweet potato in the sheerest crust, and spring rolls with a surprise sliver of mango at the center.

The same dumplings bobbed in the wonton soup, chicken broth clear as an aquarium with noodles swirling in its depths. House special Mee Sea Go is an ocean broth full of scallops, shrimp, cala-mari, cockles, and mussels (alive-alive-oh). Pad Thai, the national dish of Thailand, was appropriately sweet and crunchy with peanuts.

For dessert, a Chow Thai specialty: sticky rice sweetened with coconut served with slices of mango. A fruitless 15 minutes after we gave our order, our pigtailed go-go girl apologized, saying the kitchen had cut into a dozen mangoes but none of them were perfectly ripe, so would we please accept the dish free of charge? Mangoes were out of season, but we hope this restaurant is part of the city’s permanent collection.

4701 West Park, Piano. 972-599-0289.

4. ABACUS: A Long-Awaited Masterpiece

“We’re finally talking.”

That’s how the invitation to the preview read. For two years Chef Kent Rathbun and art connoisseur Robert Hoffman (who had worked together at Seventeen Seventeen in the Dallas Museum of Ait) had been planning their Restaurant-with a capital R-in secret. The media’s first peek behind the curtain was at an unveiling in Hoffman’s Bryan Tower office. Gathered together in the board room were two local public relations representatives, the restaurant’s management squad, the executive chef, sous chef, pastry chef, building contractors, kitchen designers, and the whole Engstrom design team who had flown into Dallas from San Francisco expressly for the occasion.They rolled out fabric swatches, tiles, color boards, balsa wood models, and paper samples, then passed plates of hors d’oeuvres {“not exactly the food we’ll be serving, but the kind of tiling we’ll be serving,” explained Rathbun). All four mem-bees of the Dallas food press got a very good idea of what the restaurant would look like, but a very hazy notion of what it would be serving.

Like the pyramids the thing took hundreds of people years to finish but, finally, two months after the press conference. Abacus- named by artist Jasper Johns. Hoffman says casually-was open for business. The exterior, intended to be sculptural, reminds us of a Jetson’s version of Kip’s Big Boy. The bar is on the right of the entrance, and the designed-to-death dining room, on the left, curves around a wall and opens into the main room where Rathbun presides over a completely open kitchen,

The kitchen is his stage; dinner is a show. And the food is all about appearances, too. Rathbun wants his presentation to knock your socks off. “Shooters,” for instance, are an appetizer he invented for a dinner at the prestigious Beard House in New York. Here they are served sake-style: Six little sake cups each contain a morsel of fried lobster and the sake carafe is filled with a Thai soup-type broth of coconut milk, red curry, and sake. You pour the broth over the lobster and toss it off. Very tricky. Another high-concept “small plate” is the stir-fried calamari “pasta,” the fish scored so it curls like rotelle. “Big plates” (and they are) seem generally to work off the pairing of meat and mash: pan-seared wall-eyed pike with scallion-whipped potatoes, pork loin with pumpkin risotto, lamb loin with blue cheese grits. For dessert-too often an embarrassingly overdone architectural extravagance on a plate-we were relieved by the post-modern simplicity of homemade cookies and ice cream accented with a chocolate truffle.

4511 McKinney Ave. 214-559-3111.

5. CITIZEN: Performance Art

Pan-Asian noodle houses are all the rage, and that was the original. unoriginal idea for Citizen. But a trip to New York convinced M Group’s Chris Ward. Mico Rodriguez, and Ray Washburn to push the restaurant into the upscale zone, into the rarified atmosphere of Kobe beef and designer sake.

They pulled die plug on Mainstream Fish House at Turtle Creek and sank $300,(XK) into Zero Three’s design for a techno-Nippon interior that resembles a toned-down Moriko Mori stage set: giant pandas on the wall, stacks of televisions over the bar, paper balloon light shades over deep black booths, and a bamboo-fringed patio.

Chef Ward, who also mans the kitchen at The Mercury (another M Group, Zero Three-designed effort) has devised a menu as full Of tricks as the décor. Tuna tartare is served on the base of upside-down martini glasses. (Be careful, it tends to slide off at the touch of a chopstick.) Sake is served in wood boxes. The “orientalenhanced” Caesar salad is topped with fried wonton. But some dishes are stunningly simple-a slab of black cod is served solo on a banana leaf, the flesh slipping away in snowy flakes, the blond miso anchoring the ethereal fish. Grated green papaya salad is topped with chunks of fried calamari. And the Kobe beef, grilled and sliced, is the ultimate extravagance at around $15 an ounce. One nigh! the service was excellent. But on another visit we were given the sign-of-lhe-limes excuse for our two-hour wait for entrees: ’The computer’s down in the kitchen.” All the flash and dash in the world couldn’t distract us from wondering why the waiter couldn’t have just told the cook what our order was. 3858 Oak Lawn. 214- 522-7253.

6. PARIS BISTROT: French Impressions

Located in a section of McKinney Avenue that will soon he dubbed the French Quarter, Paris Bistrot spills out. onto the pavement like a sidewalk café in Paris. The patio wraps around the outside of the restaurant, penned by an iron railing, and under every umbrella on a pretty day there’s a parly.

Owner Jean-Michel Sakouhi didn’t need a team of high-powered designers to create the casual, intimate mood of this quirky space. He knew what he wanted, though lie was just a little confused on how to get it.

Through a friend he met Sherry Bealle. a Dallas artist who made her mark painting portraits of former presidents Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter, and George Bush. Now living in Santa Fe. she took the Paris Bistrot job despite the fact (or maybe because) she’s never done a restaurant interior.

Jean-Michel ( formerly with the Chaparral Club, Tramontana, and the Mansion) admits art isn’t his strong point. “I lived in Paris for most of my life surrounded by ail and didn’t pay much attention to it. I used to walk to the Museum Rodin and sit in the garden by The Thinker.” He told Beatle what he wanted-casual, fun. Parisian. Alter the paint dried on lite colorful, impressionistic murais, (lie price of ambience came in at around $50,000. “I see people spending millions [on restaurant interiors], and I think I made out pretty good.”

We were delighted with Paris Bistrot when it opened, relieved by the absence of kitchen tricks and the presence of chocolate mousse. Second chef James Buchannon, sous chef at Patrizio for four years. has changed some presentations-we were recently disappointed by the irritating cayenne-dusted rims of the dinner plates. But we remain infatuated with the classic duck confit, coarse pate campagne, mashed potatoes with a signature tall potato waffle, delicately julienned and turned vegetables, and lamb shank with rich creamy risotto.

The wallet-friendly wine list is arranged by dags, and somehow, in the midst of a labor shortage. Jean-Michel has assembled a veteran staff, including a real, honest-to-Gaul French waiter.

The menu-lenderloin au poivre, rotisserie chicken, apple tart. and chocolate mousse-is so French it makes this place a no-brain-er. If you closed your eyes, you could believe you were sitting next to The Thinker. 2533 McKinney Ave. 214-720-0225.

7. Z CAFÉ: Self Portrait

Some artists are made, some are born.

Nicholas Zotos grew up in the kitchen at Little Gus. the legen-darily hip spot that made Lower Greenville.

Burger house by day. Greek bistro at night. Little Gus was run by the extended Zotos family. At age 10 Nicholas was washing dishes and Hipping burgers while his parents ran the front of the house. At age 29 he’s a lifer and ready to fly on his own power.

Equipped with his grandmother’s recipes, a can of Mediterranean sea blue paint, and about $3,000, independent-spirited Nicholas built the restaurant of his modest dreams on Henderson. Like most dreams his look a lot like his childhood-and taste like it. too. Something abort thai particular shade of Greek blue lias a Pavlovian effect: Your mouth just expects feta and kalamata. Considering Zotos’ heritage, we weren’t surprised that Z Cafe’s menu combines Greek flavors with burgerjoint staples.

Pizza is lopped with gyro meat, feta, tomatoes, and olives. The famous potato halls, a legacy of Little Gus, mix riced potatoes with cheese, garlic, salt and pepper in a pingpong-sized ball. Fried, they’re an inspired side dish for a plate of shish kebab. Or a cheeseburger.

Breakfast omelettes take on the flavor of the neighborhood when they’re filled with chorizo, chili, and Cheddar, and they take on the taste of Zotos ” ancestors when folded around feta and oregano. Zotos makes his grandmother’s grape leaves every morning and serves baklava every day until it’s gone. Like the artist in a garret, he handled all the interior work himself. He painted the walls, stained the window sills, sealed the floor, and picked up some Greek columns from MJ Designs.

And as the art world has discovered in the 20th century, self-taught artists sometimes possess a genius that years of training can’t instill.

Thai explains the wonder of the Z-Burger topped with feta cheese, grilled onions, and jalapenos. The quintessential greasy spoon hamburger has been transformed into a masterpiece.1924 N. Henderson. 214-821-0991.

8. IL SOLE: Family PortraitGood food rims in families. And good chefs want their freedom. So it’s not too surprising that Brian Black, son of Janet Cobb, co-owner of Mi Piaci. should jump the mother ship to open his own restaurant.

He slipped away from Mi Piaci with chef Tim Perm to create his own Mediterranean vision at Travis Walk.

Yes, he’s moved into that jinxed second-story location that has housed so many promising places, most recently Tarazza. Considering the importance of atmosphere, we’re mystified why no one has been able to maintain a lasting restaurant in this space. It has great “bones.”

The upstairs patio is a pleasant, airy, above-the-fumes version of the sidewalk café. The sweeping staircase entry provides essential drama. Perhaps the dining room is too boxy, loo austere, but 11 Sole has overcome thai one drawback with ils artful lighting. And the food helps out the fixtures with its sunshine tastes.

Chef Penn focuses on Mediterranean food, sometimes to brilliant effect. Long lingers of lender pan-fried calamari dip easily into a spicy red chile sauce. The salad, ingeniously stuffed inside a tuile of montassio cheese, pops with flavor, as does the wonderful warm putanesca pasta crowded with fruity kalamata olives, capers, tomatoes, and garlic. This pasta alone is worth a return visit. 4514 Travis St. Travis Walk. 214-559-38X8.

9. FISHBOWL: Global Palette

The benign countenance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama beams down from above the open sushi bar. In the latest version of West-rips-off-East. sage advice is writ large along the walls: Abundance. Prosperity, Creative. Tradition. Moderation.

We might suggest that Adaptability be substituted for Moderation, since there is an abundance of evidence for the former, and no apparent limit on the decorating budget.

The space originally conceived as the lounge for AquaKnox has had more facelifts than Phyllis Diller. Last November, almost overnight, the understudy lounge got its own name and its own entrance-you enter Fishhowl through shiny red doors on Knox. The blue chenille chairs are covered in wheat linen, the Lama is installed, and Japanese lanterns are strung across the room.

The small but ambitious menu reflects the 1960s Pan-Asian concept-Trader Vic’s style cocktails, sushi, sake, and noodles-served tapas-style, one small plate at a time. A meal is a series and may include a predictable best seller like peanut chicken satay as well as Stephan Pyles” innovative version of mu shu pork tacos served with Thai basil slaw. Duck lacquered in live spices rolled in delicate mandarin pancakes is moist and crunchy.

The wise woman knows that truth is like an onion: You get closer to it one layer at a time. Fishbowl seems to be on its way to achieving restaurant tranquility, one incarnation at a time.

You are where you eat,” proclaimed the pre-opening billboards for Citizen. That sums up the year’s dining philosophy: The where has replaced the what. The restaurant itself has become our High Art. and designers seem about to replace chefs as the celebrities of the day. Their work can be dazzling and fun and even romantic. Once. But after the designer has finished with the last paint daub and sent in the bill, only the chef can bring us back again.


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