Clear skies ahead

Fog City Diner endures a few rocky opening weeks, but promises great things to come

Deadlines can have a disastrous effect.
I speak from experience, of course. I'm sure all writers think deadlines are disastrous; certainly they feel like impending doom. (Why do you think they're called deadlines?)

Deadlines put an artificial end to the creative process and can force you to sacrifice quality for timeliness. (Editors, are you listening?) I have to admit it's also true that if I had time to refine and polish my writing as much as I'd like, you might just now be reading about the opening of Baby Routh.

It's not only my own looming deadline that's causing me to ruminate about them. The recent news about the refurbished QE2 un-maidenly voyage comes to mind. The Queen sailed without functioning electricity or adequate plumbing, without necessities, much less the extra amenities that were supposed to make this the world's most luxurious cruise. Butthere was a deadline to meet, major press, passengers booked...

Closer to home, the much-anticipated Dallas outpost of Fog City Diner opened before it was quite ready, while it was still under construction. (Three days later the opening chef, Russ Hodges, quit, so it's also been a ship without a captain.) In both cases, I suppose, the show had to go on, but with unfortunate ramifications. After all the highly publicized opening parties and invitation-only practice nights for the kitchen and service staff to get broken in, things at Fog City still seemed pretty rocky two and a half weeks after the doors were opened to the public.

Dallas has been looking forward to the opening of Fog City Diner for many months, almost a year. In the eyes of Dallas, the place has two big things going for it. One, it's an import. Fog City Diner is a San Francisco favorite, and Dallas is always impressed with itself whenever a business from one of the sophisticated cities on the coast decides we're a good market. (We seem to have a lot less respect for home-grown ventures. It's that old Groucho Marx line about the club--who wants to belong to a club that would have you for a member?)

Two, Troy Aikman. (In case you've spent the last six months trekking in Tibet, his Troyness is one of Fog City's investors, along with Will Clark and several others whose names are less important but whose money is equally at risk.) We'll go anywhere to see Troy. (When we ate at Fog City, my mother was sure she saw him at a table at the other end of the Diner.)

Anyway, excited as we all were, we might have been willing to wait a couple more weeks for them to get it right.

Our first visit was aborted by total confusion. Two different phone calls gave me two different answers about the reservations policy, so the first time I planned to go to Fog City, I ended up at Beau Nash. As it turns out, in San Francisco, the Diner doesn't take reservations; here, it does. (And don't try to go without them, at least for a while.)

We weren't the only ones: I have some friends who called and made a lunch reservation for late December. When they showed up for their Christmas lunch and saw the workmen outside, they felt a little insecure, and sure enough, the restaurant wasn't open for lunch yet. "We were sure we called everyone" was the only apology offered. (The friends ended up at Beau Nash.)

So the neighbors are having a bit of a windfall, but in the end, Fog City will win those customers back. Because Dallas doesn't have any place quite like this, and we need it. The food is fine, well-conceived, well-prepared, unpretentious, not expensive. It's time Dallas knew that good food can be this easythat casual food can be this good.

The sleek chrome and neon exterior is as eye-catching as a Christmas tree on the corner of Maple and McKinney. Inside, lots of booths and the chopped-up space seem to offer intimacy, but even in a comfy high-backed booth, it was hard for us to carry on a conversation across from the open kitchen and right by the door to the restroom. The old-fashioned tile floor, walls of windows, and low diner-like ceiling guaranteed noise. There is also a long counter, great for quick stops or for dining alone.

The menu--which doesn't take itself seriously (you can order an "unintimidating mixed green salad" or a "big piece of meat")--ranges from light ("several salads on a plate") to hearty (pot roast with potato pancakes), plain (chili dogs) to almost fancy (roast quail with cornbread stuffing). You could go to Fog City almost anytime, in any mood, and find something appealing. Entrees (here called "large plates") stay under $16; the most expensive thing on the menu is the "famous Don't Worry wristwatch" for $29.95.

This is, after all, a diner, not a fancy restaurant, so I took three generations of family to eat there with me. We asked that my daughter's food be brought first, while we were still eating appetizers, and I think she had more fun at Fog City than any of us because she used the Diner the way it was meant to be used. She ordered precisely what she felt like eating: a Caesar saladbig crisp leaves of ribby romaine in a creamy dressing; a plate of steaming hot mashed potatoes dusted with fresh chives and perfumed with garlic; and a creamy, not-too-thick milkshake. ("Pulp Fiction" raised a lot of interesting questionsfor instance, for $2 more, how much better than this could Uma Thurman's $5 shake have been?)

The rest of us were less satisfied, but the food was not the problem at the Diner, the pacing was. A diner meal shouldn't take two hours; we had to wait a long time for appetizers and even longer for entrees. Our poor waiter was friendly, efficient, helpful, and doing his best to make up for a kitchen caught in the weeds.

We shared several "small plates" for appetizers. Special fresh shellfish vary according to availabilitya treat in a town where you rarely eat anything but Gulf oysters. We ordered a plate with two each of the Washington oysters (the other selection was from British Columbia), fat little things in baroquely scalloped shells, briny and wild. A basket of uncomplimentary bread held blue corn sticks with a faint tinge of jalapeno heat, oddly served with honey butter; a loaf topped with a basil-leek pesto kind of mixture; and some biscuits that were not the Dutch crunch rolls promised, but were tasty nonetheless.

Ketchup (a condiment about which I have strong convictions) is, according to Irma Rombauer (the author of Joy of Cooking and therefore someone who ranks right up there with Moses as far as dispensing wisdom goes) originally from Malaya; its name comes from the native word meaning "taste." At Fog City, the crisp golden onion rings (absolutely tasteless) come with house-made "ketchup," a thin, pale, sweet and sour sauce. I prefer DelMonte. But that was one of only two disappointments.

An unexpectedly fabulous quesadilla sandwiched slivers of Anaheim peppers and crunchy toasted almonds as well as cheese between toasted tortillas, with a dollop of chilled avocado salsa. The cold "spice cured" pork tenderloin was another winner. The tender meat was good by itself, but when you combined it with a bite of the sweet caramelized onions and the tangy Italian parsley and cilantro salad, the genius of the dish filled your mouth. An insipid pale green gruel was served to my mother, who had ordered black bean soup; when we called the waiter, he explained the kitchen was out of black bean and had substituted. Without asking? Second strike.

On to entrees, or "large plates," all comfort food of the purest sort. "Mahogany" chicken was a juicy, semi-boned half bird, served with a nutty pilaf of rice and vermicelli--homemade Rice-a-roni. A wonderful sandwich of roast lamb and fresh watercress came with a chutney of apricot, tomato and garlic building on the meat's sweetness; a tender pork chop, still pale pink and juicy, with tart lemon-spiked apple sauce and more of those mashed potatoes; and deep dark liver and onions in a glossy brown sauce over fried polenta.

We thought the Kentucky Derby pie, a chocolate pecan concoction, was sublime until we tasted the warm chocolate-chili tart, a version of a dessert combination I first ate at Nancy Beckham's late lamented Brazos: dense, fudgey chocolate, not too sweet, with the surprise finish of pepper heat building as you ate. It's a brilliant pairing and the scoop of homemade coffee ice cream was a natural finishing touch.

Fog City's motto is "don't worry." I'm sure owner Cindy Pawlcyn has found the slogan hard to live by these first few weeks. But if Fog City's beginning hasn't lived up to early billing, the promise is there. There isn't another menu in town with this kind of imagination (did you notice I didn't even mention pizza?) and broad appeal.

By the way, they'll be open for lunch soon. And it wasn't Troy after all--it was Roger Staubach who was dining a few tables away.

Well, whatever. I'm still impressed.

Fog City Diner, 2401 McKinney Ave., 220-2401. Open for dinner Sunday-Wednesday 5 p.m.-11 p.m., Thursday-Saturday 5 p.m.-midnight. Will be opening for lunch in mid-January.

Fog City Diner:
Spice Cured Pork Tenderloin with Caramelized Onions $5.75
Quesadilla with Anaheim Chile Peppers and Almonds $6.50
Sirloin and Black Bean Chili $4.95
Caesar Salad $6.75
Mashed Potatoes $2.50
Crispy Mahogany Chicken with Homemade Rice-a-Roni $11.50
Pork Chop with Lemon Apple Sauce and Garlic Mashed Potatoes $12.

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