Revisiting a Dallas classic

Parigi is a mainstay for sophisticated, unfailingly fresh food

It was scary to hear that Parigi had been sold. It's one of the last remnants of the first wave of the Dallas dining renaissance, and it's been a refuge--a mainstay for sophisticated, unpretentious food since it opened.

I originally scheduled this revisit because, for the first time in years, there was a new chef at Parigi. When Andree Falls and her mother Marilyn Romweber finally sold the restaurant some months ago, longtime chef Jack Johnston quit, and Hayes Atkins took over the kitchen. Everyone missed Jack, but I'd heard Hayes was doing a great job and that the food at Parigi was as good as ever. I was curious to taste his cooking.

So I was surprised when we arrived to see Jack back in the kitchen and to find that one of the new owners, Jim Ribbeck, is in my book club. So much for an anonymous review.

A restaurant that opened on the cutting edge, Parigi is still sharp 10 years later. It's mellowed, matured, evolved, but the food has been good since its beginning and, unusually, it's stayed true to the style it started with. Andree Falls named the restaurant--Parigi means Paris in Italian, and the fare at this Parigi reflects that idea, along with some California concepts contributed by chefs along the way.

In her introduction to The Parigi Cookbook, Andree said, "We wanted a restaurant with style but without pretension--a place where the tables were close together and the smell of garlic and herbs would assault you the moment you walked through the door." So long banquettes line one wall, the tables are close together, and the kitchen is open to the dining room (my favorite table is practically inside the kitchen). Parigi is buzzing. It's not built for intimate conversation, but there's an overall intimacy that makes dining there like being at a private party; you don't know everyone there, but you feel like you might get to know them. You couldn't build a restaurant like this now--literally. It's "grandfathered" under the old building codes, so as long as it's open, Parigi will look like this.

And so function will follow form, as it does now. It's easy for Jack to pop in and out of the kitchen to speak to the regulars (which is most of the restaurant), to offer them tidbits, talk about the specials. "Here, try this--I got the idea for it when--oops, I have to go turn a veal chop." He brought us an amuse-geule, a tiny ramekin of tapenade, sun-dried tomatoes (reconstituting them in tomato juice and red wine is the secret to their flavor) mashed with olives, capers, sherry, and vivid garlic--a condensed dose of sunshine to spread on bread, an explosion of flavor.

We asked for olives, too, and were served a little bowl of black and purple and green ones, marinated with ribbons of orange peel, cloves, and cinnamon--the spice and citrus lifted some of the heaviness and translated dense fruitiness into a livelier range of tastes. Meltingly warm baked garlic comes with your choice of cheese; we asked for Brie and goat, and then asked for more bread as we discussed the menu and Jack's suggestions.

Left to my own devices, I like to eat snacks at Parigi, then a salad and a pizzette, but my advice is, let the chef pick--the salad Jack recommended he'd adapted from a recipe calling for caramelized pears. When the pears came in, absolutely perfect buttery-ripe Anjou pears, he simply sliced them and anointed them with balsamic vinegar before tossing them with shreds of salty pink domestic prosciutto and Sonoma dry Jack cheese over wild and bitter greens. This was one of the best things I've eaten in months, and it's a good demonstration of how Parigi's kitchen is geared toward flexibility and immediacy, ready to take advantage of the market. (They don't even have a freezer.) Jack's lemony Caesar, often voted the best in town, was ratcheted up a notch by Hayes, who added more garlic, eggs, and anchovy. Jack's lowered the egg content again.

Firm penne with vegetables, including grass-thin haricots verts, was bathed in a version of bagna cauda, the traditional warm anchovy-garlic dip for crudites. Jack mellowed it with melted onions and let it soften over the hot pasta like pesto. An embarrassingly enormous veal chop was topped with slivered shiitake mushrooms in oregano jus--a treatment that respected the delicate flavor of the meat--and sided with Parigi's signature smashed potatoes.

Pan-roasted chicken breast was given a seasonal treatment, with autumn vegetables--chunks of pumpkin, parsnips, fennel, and onion cooked alongside. The remarkably flavorful tenderloin is pan-seared in olive oil, sauced simply with reduced wine, reduced cream, and French whole grain mustard. This is the only dish that's always on Parigi's menu. The regulars won't let it leave. We washed it down with a bottle of Cuvee Mythique, a Languedoc blend of syrah, carignan, grenache, and cabernet and mourvedre, recommended by Jack, from the Dallas importer Val d'Orbieu.

By the time we ordered dessert, Parigi was dense with a crowd of late-living regulars, every seat taken for dinner at nine. We ignored that godawful chocolate glob, the kindergartner's delight, and the peach cobbler, a hold-over from Romweber's '60s restaurant, and enjoyed other desserts: a refreshing triangle of nearly bitter lemon curd tart and something called "fraisier," a kind of strawberry and cream-filled genoise, not too sweet, very French, made for Parigi by L'Epicurien. I don't like the chocolate glob, but it's been on the restaurant's menu since the beginning, because Parigi's core of very loyal, very vocal customers demand it. This is their restaurant.

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