Full circle

The name is Americana, but Chef Russ Hodges is home again on Routh Street

It's a culinary Frank Capra script. Call it downright heartwarming.
The lovely old house that used to be home to Routh Street Cafe has been through some changes since the famous restaurant closed, as has Russ Hodges, who worked in that stellar kitchen with the first talented team under Stephan Pyles. His name is still familiar in Dallas, but almost as an itinerant chef. After leaving Routh Street Cafe, he was executive chef at Hotel Crescent Court, founding chef of both J Pinnell's and Fog City Diner, Dallas, and final chef at the late Juniper. In between, he had a career in Arizona.

Several months ago, chef Chris Svalesen called Hodges to help on a consulting basis as Svalesen took over the kitchen at Yellow. In the process, Hodges and T. J. Mand, Yellow's owner, hit it off. Mand called Hodges when he wanted a chef for his new restaurant. "It's where that Belgian place was," he told Hodges. "What, a waffle house?" "No, where Capriccio was, where Vaccaro's was. Where Routh Street Cafe was." "Oh yeah," said Hodges, "I believe I know that place."

Hodges clicked his chef's clogs together and presto! There's no place like home. A happy ending for all of us.

So here is Hodges, come full circle, ensconced again in the kitchen of the house that Stephan Pyles built. It must be a slightly haunted homecoming for him, but he knows all these ghosts and they're friendly. Good for Hodges, good for the old Routh Street building, but better for us. We get to eat Hodges' cooking at its best, in a complementary setting.

The restaurant is called Americana, and Hodges says he's picking up where he left off at J Pinnell's, only doing it better.

"Sometimes, when you learn what you can't do, it's strengthening," Hodges says. At Fog City and Juniper, Hodges' latest Dallas gigs, he was a self-confessed square peg in a round hole. A chef can't cook in a vacuum, and good ones can't cook in just any kitchen, either.

Diner cooking was too prescriptive, Hodges says. Fog City Diner, Dallas is supposed to be a clone of Fog City Diner, San Francisco. That didn't leave much room for a chef's creativity.

Juniper had a strong following of Francophiles who had French expectations Russ says he wasn't interested in fulfilling. Russ's metier is regional American cooking, of that particular type that had its genesis in the '80s.

In contrast, Mand has set Hodges up for success by letting him have carte blanche with the creative end of Americana--Hodges even came up with the name, which perfectly reflects his cooking philosophy and which he found while thumbing through a cookbook by James Beard, the greatest proponent of American food ever. The big guy would have liked this restaurant.

Hodges calls his current style of cooking "regional American seasonal." It's a culmination of all he's learned so far. The opening menu includes a lot of his greatest hits from other venues. Some dishes, like the foie gras, flashed and sauced with dried berries and port, will be remembered from J Pinnell, and some, like the crab cake, from the height of his misplaced efforts at Juniper.

Between them, Hodges and Mand have restored the award-winning modern interior, which they've brought it into the '90s with a healthy respect for that originally created by the late designer Tonny Foy. Instead of echoing with streamlined ocean-liner luxury, like the Cafe did, Americana is jazzy, more casual, and more approachable. The tables are set with Arne Jacobsen's 3107 chairs, purchased appropriately from Foy and Pyles' Baby Routh. The depressing powder-blue walls, a legacy of the Belgians, have been repainted a warm golden color, with simple blond-wood grids where the awful etched glass panels used to be. White-draped tables set with cobalt glasses and red napkins, and wall art by former Dallasite Dan Rizzie add touches of bright color. The effect is stylish, New World, classic.

The service, more solicitous than necessary, was at the same time less professional. Of course, you have to factor in the single-child syndrome; our waiter had absolutely nothing else to do that evening but hover over, worry about, and advise us. We were the only diners in the restaurant the entire evening. The valet was just as bored: He kept his textbook on computer language handy in the entry, several chapters of which he probably mastered during the course of our dinner, and the car was at the curb before we'd left the restaurant.

Wine and cocktails were complementary, because changing the name on the liquor license from "Chez Jacques" to "Americana" is more complicated than it sounds, and Austin takes its time with these things. We sipped a Robert Mondavi Chardonnay as we studied the menu.

The kitchen makes the bread, served hot, with a delicate crumb and a lightness like old-fashioned Sunday dinner rolls. It's not the European-style peasant bread we've come to expect from restaurant bread baskets, now routinely filled by Empire Baking Company, regardless of the restaurant's gastronomic provenance. Instead of butter, a creamy roule-style dip made of tomatoes, garlic, oil, and egg. The care taken with these set the expectations for the dinner to follow, with which we weren't disappointed.

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