Princess for a day

Don your rhinestone tiara: The Pyramid's prix-fixe dinner is the best deal in town

It's a time of year when princesses and witches are on the mind of a daughter's mother. Last year, we received a memo from my daughter's school to please stay away from witch costumes on Halloween--to please look for "more positive role models." I discussed this piece of absurdity with another mother whose response was, "I've always worried a lot more about Jane thinking she was a 'princess' than a 'witch.'"

The princess syndrome is certainly something we have to watch for at my house: Anna's owned a tiara since she was three. But, heck, every girl wants to feel like a princess some time. I don't have too much lust for luxury--I don't have a tiara, diamonds are not my best friend (we've never even been introduced), and I don't eat caviar and champagne for breakfast (often enough).

Still, when I do feel a craving for a crown, I can have dinner at the Pyramid Room for 24 bucks and feel like Grace Kelly. The Pyramid's prix-fixe dinner is the best deal in town for low-budget princesses.

In the old days, the Pyramid was one of those places where only the men were given the menus with the prices--yeah, yeah, I know, very sexist. Very nice. Women weren't even supposed to let thoughts of dollars enter their pretty little heads. Last week, my menu had every price listed, both a la carte and table d'hote. Ever the pragmatist, my companion added up the cost of prix-fixe menu items off the a la carte menu and found the tab more than doubled. The table d'hote dinner for $24 is a full, five-course meal--$43 if you add wine. Show me another deal like this. I don't doubt that the Pyramid's kitchen has done its math and is making its money, but this is undoubtedly a win-win situation.

The Pyramid's gorgeous decor plays the Egyptian theme to the hilt, with gilded lions, sphinxes, and Tutankhamen golden stripes; it seemed appropriate to explore the archaeology of the place while we dined. The Fairmont Hotel and Pyramid Room celebrated their 25th anniversary last year--that's a considerable history for a restaurant. If you drew a family tree of Dallas restaurants and chefs, you'd have to put the Fairmont at the root of every branch. Avner Samuel, Guy Calluaud, Alberto Lombardi, Dean Fearing, Dieter Paul, Jean Claude Prevot--just to name a few--all came to Dallas through the Fairmont kitchens. This was Dallas' conduit to fine dining. The Fairmont funneled in talented people who got to know the market, left the hotel, and opened their own businesses. The Pyramid literally seeded Dallas with good restaurants. You have to wonder what we'd be eating if this hotel hadn't opened.

Everyone has a favorite memory from the glory days--the baskets of souffle potatoes, the ice sculptures, the opera-singing sommelier. The Pyramid lost its cachet for a while when its "children" grew up. But a $2 million (there's that word again) remodeling job in 1989 restored the golden glow. Last year, it was inducted into Nation's Restaurant News Fine Dining Hall of Fame, and Wine Spectator recognized the Pyramid's wine list with its "Best of" Award of Excellence (it's won every year since 1991). Recently, it again received the 1995 DiReNA (Distinguished Restaurants of North America) award.

But enough history. The Pyramid Room today is not as grand and showy as in the past. Its scale is more intimate; the rooms are quiet, more subtle than splashy. (Well, even the original pyramids are only grandiose from the outside--inside they're divided into the ultimate personal spaces.) The light is dappled and golden, the elegance is discreet. It's more a meticulous attention to style and quality which weaves the spell that makes you believe in magic for an evening.

And what is even better, this is magic for the masses. For $14.50 you can have a one-hour weekday lunch at the Pyramid. On Sundays, they serve brunch with champagne for $24. This is the power of the Pyramid--true, affordable luxury.

No cutting corners, either. The chairs are cushy, the linens are thick, there's a gold-shaded candle, and a single freesia on the table. We started with dry sherry--one ice cube, please--cold champagne, colder martinis. We nibbled on lahvosh and raisin bread while my companion did his math and reveled, not just in the bubbles, but in the great deal we were getting, and I pretended that it was Cary Grant doing the tallying.

The current chef, John Edwards, seems as talented as his predecessors. One of us ate a la carte, the rest of us prix fixe, two with wine, one without. The choice of appetizers was lump-crab and shrimp cocktail with grated tomato and fresh horseradish or mushroom ravioli with a duck confit crouton. We (the royal we) chose both. Chilled, sweet shellfish, just barely seasoned with tart tomato and a little heat; two broad bands of fresh green pasta, criss-crossed over a mound of portabello, morel, and shiitake mushrooms; sprinkled with pepper and onion confetti; the Villeroy and Boch plate dusted with cheese and garnished with a tiny croustade rich with shreds of duck. Our server, making sure we saw the label, poured a Bonny Doon "Pacific Rim" Riesling, California, 1993 with the ravioli; Llano Estacado's "Signature White" Sauvignon Blanc, 1994 with the seafood.

A saffron-dressed salad was equally perfect: greens of all kinds, curly, dark, pale, bitter, tender, juicy. I did have some doubts about the pinwheel of mozzarella rolled with goat cheese plopped on top. One or the other, please. Soup, though, was one of those outlandish-sounding concoctions that it takes the confidence of an experienced palate to create: a velvety cream of blended pumpkin and butternut squash, gently flavored with licorice-like star anise, given a buttery crunch with sliced toasted almonds.

Then four ice swans floated to the table, glowing like jack o' lanterns. Inside each, a scoop of mango sorbet to "refresh" our palates, presented on a frozen lemon disk between the frosty wings. They were lit by a battery candle from underneath (I peeked)--an outrageous, old-fashioned, over-the-top presentation that gave the otherwise lonely dollop a lot of punch.

But it's a typical Pyramid gesture. There's nothing low-key about the place. It's not ostentatious, but they do go out of their way to give you the royal treatment, whether you're ordering table d'hote or a la carte. This service was not just professional and efficient, but gracious. I was seated every time I returned to the table. We lingered over coffee as long as we wanted, with no check until we requested it. We were discreetly asked for our valet ticket. This is service with a flourish: these are people who understand service, who love their jobs, or seem to.

So, of course, entrees were presented, all four at once, under silver domes, all lifted simultaneously so the pent-up bouquet reached our noses in a mouthwatering waft. Fire-roasted filet of beef, chocolate brown-crusted, bloody within, served with souffle potatoes--do you know what it takes to make those potatoes? Sliced precisely, soaked in ice, fried once, fried twice till they puff like balloons and turn gold, these are potatoes that vanish in the mouth as if you'd just eaten crisp air. A tangle of leek and radicchio, slivered and sauteed till slightly sweet, their leaking coat of barely syrupy caramelized madeira glaze saucing the meat as well, lending it a complexity of flavor often missing in tender beef.

Potato-crusted salmon was the special fish of the day, a lovely, thick, fish-shaped fillet covered with a golden shag of potato threads, served with a phyllo "enchilada" stuffed with vegetables; and there was lamb shank, tenderly braised like osso buco, slow and sweet, with white bean "stew." The only thing we didn't try from the table d'hote menu was the chicken, and we all agreed we couldn't face another chicken. A perfect rack of lamb from the a la carte menu was drizzled with a thick, dark-green pesto, made of mint jelly and fresh mint--you never tasted anything so green--served over thick polenta with sugary little yellow tomatoes and asparagus.

Bread pudding, a peasant dish if there ever was one, had found its way onto the dessert menu and remained stubbornly itself: no gimmicks, no tricks, just moist, eggy pudding in a vanilla sauce. However, the polenta had a fairy godmother in the kitchen, although I might have preferred it after midnight, returned to its former self. On this plate, it had been infused with chocolate, formed into a little dome, stuffed with warm caramel, sauced with chocolate, sprinkled with raspberries. It was still warm and recognizably grainy, but I'm not sure cornmeal accomplished anything here that chocolate cake couldn't have.

Desserts from the cart were excellent. A chocolate-coated triangle of cheesecake stood straight up on the plate in a raspberry-studded sauce, served at room temperature so it melted on the heat of your tongue, and you could appreciate the full-fat, lightly lemoned luxury. This is how cheesecake is supposed to taste. And as if pecan pie weren't rich enough already, this one was made with macadamia nuts and chocolate, with a caramel sauce.

Even the coffee was outstanding, though an after-dinner cup of coffee is flavored largely by the memories of flavors that went before.

So the Pyramid Room lives happily ever after as one of Dallas' premier dining rooms, one you can afford to go to, one where you can get a reservation, one where you don't need to know the maitre'd to get a good table. Good service at some restaurants is an investment: go often enough, tip well enough, and you'll get the red carpet when they see you coming. The Pyramid serves strangers just as well.

There's just one thing for part-time princesses to watch out for--that pea under your mattress. It's a bitch.

The Pyramid in The Fairmont Hotel, 720-5249. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. For dinner Monday-Sunday 6 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Jackets required.

The Pyramid Room:
Prix-fixe dinner $24
Roasted rack of lamb on creamy polenta with asparagus and mint pesto
$25.50

Warm chocolate polenta dome filled with warm caramel on a bourbon-chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream $

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