In the shadows

Cafe Bianco offers charm amid Oak Lawn's new glitz

Speaking of coming around again, that's what's happening to Oak Lawn.
Once a hot dining neighborhood in Dallas, where all the the most chic and newest restaurants were clustered--Old Warsaw was at the corner of Cedar Springs and Oak Lawn, Mario's and Spanish Village were nearby, Jamie's Hamburgers was just off Oak Lawn on Lemmon--Oak Lawn was bereft of good food for years. With the exceptions of Marty's and Parigi, new restaurants opened over on McKinney Avenue, or out north, or in Deep Ellum.

There's a lot of excitement again on the avenue. Star Canyon anchors the cross street at Cedar Springs, Joey's has made the street a destination to be seen on and Eatzi's has made grocery shopping glamorous. They're all very flashy.

The excitement, though, hasn't spread all the way down the street. Many blocks of Oak Lawn are still a jumble, still low-rent enough to allow a little bistro like Cafe Bianco to survive. Tucked into a corner next to the neon glare of a futuristic copy store, Cafe Bianco is a quiet, owner-operated restaurant, catering to a neighborhood clientele, largely for lunch, I suspect. It's not flashy, chic, seductive, or even good enough for anyone to drive any distance to eat there. Any glow Cafe Bianco might achieve is certainly lost in the glare of its illustrious neighbors.

The place is small and unpretentious. The night we went, the proprietors wore all the hats--hostess, waiter, chef, busboy--making Cafe Bianco's service friendly and caring, even when it was a little uneven. The food served is slightly old-fashioned "continental" fare, of the type you used to--probably still do--find in big hotels in smaller cities (although on the menu Cafe Bianco is subtitled "A Mediterranean Restaurant"). The chef-owner used to work at L'Entrecote at the Anatole.

In my business, you learn to read menus the way I imagine musicians read music. Reading music couldn't be the same as hearing the notes played, but you get an idea of it, just by seeing the notes on the page. It's not the same as tasting the food, but you can get a sense of the chef's imagination and palate just by reading his menu.

I've occasionally encountered menus, not just ethnic ones, based around a certain set of ingredients, like a symphony is based around a musical theme. I just love to read Alice Waters' brilliant menus in the first Chez Panisse cookbook--whole dinners that play with the themes of lobster, lamb, and artichokes, or green beans, quail, and salmon, dish after dish echoing and playing with the same basic flavors in different proportions and preparations. At Cafe Bianco, I seemed to experience such a thematic dinner, in an odd way.

The specialty there seemed to be the trio of crab, Bearnaise, and asparagus: It's on the menu, served over veal as "Veal Oscar," over a filet as "Tornado [sic] St. Tropez," and the same overworked trio was the basis of "Crab Lorenzo." We ordered the special rib-eye and found it, too, was topped with crabmeat (I'm afraid it was crab with a K), asparagus, and Bearnaise.

Besides the favorite garnish, the menu reads like a hotel-cooking-school textbook. Appetizers (besides the Lorenzo) include pate, smoked salmon, onion soup, escargot, and shrimp cocktail. We tried the smoked salmon--pallid, flavorless ribbons of fish--and the onion soup, a salty brown broth, thick with cheese (not swiss) and soft bread. Caesar salad was a cold bowl of big, ribby romaine leaves with a light dressing. For dessert, eschewing the pies and cakes made off-premise (surprisingly, there was no dessert involving crabmeat or Bearnaise), we tried the "Crepe Gundel," a rather tough pancake filled with a log of granular brown sugar mixed into a paste with butter, topped with a drizzle of thin chocolate sauce.

Our favorite dishes were the homey ones that didn't try so hard: "Veal Piccata," the thin slices tender, brown and tart with lemon, and the "Cappellini Basilico," gently cooked angel-hair pasta with a sauce of finely chopped and seasoned fresh tomatoes.

Crab, Bearnaise, and asparagus are high-dollar, glamorous ingredients, but they lose their luster if they're used too commonly. Cafe Bianco would be wiser to stick to the simpler pleasures that better suit a linoleum-floored bistro.

--Mary Brown Malouf

Cafe Bianco, 2615 Oak Lawn Ave., 520-7888. Open daily for lunch, 11 a.m.- 2 p.m.; for dinner, 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.

Cafe Bianco:
Crab Lorenzo $4.95
Caesar Salad $3.95
Fettucini Alfredo with Shrimp $7.95
Veal Oscar $10.95

 
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