Star-struck

The celebrity servers stumble at Toscana

You're offered bottled water with your aperitif, then a plate of good sliced bread is brought to the table, as well as an upside-down demitasse on a saucer. The waiter lifts the cup carefully, and a flood of flavored olive oil fills the saucer (an impressive get-acquainted trick I intend to try at my next dinner party).

Most of the food we tried from Toscana's kitchen had a simple, earthy quality that avoided any trick except losing its balance, even though most dishes were strongly flavored, almost over the top, just teetering on the edge of excess. (There is a list of lavish pizzas and a group of pasta dishes, none of which we've tried yet.) The light, yeasty foccacia we tried on our first visit was threaded thickly through with strands of caramelized onions. A mammoth portobello mushroom had been marinated in honey; after the first bite, it seemed almost cloyingly sweet, but it had been grilled till just before it gave up its juices, and the smoky scent and the scattering of creamy blue cheese crumbles with some frilly greens provided a counterpoint. The special risotto had been cooked with barolo wine, cremini mushrooms, peas, and strips of prosciutto that made it almost too salty...but not quite. Trout fillets, shining white, sauteed and served with a kind of stew of braised artichokes to provide the tang that lemon usually does, with brown toasted orzo mixed in with slippery rice-shaped grains, was the only dish that didn't challenge our taste buds, but just coddled them with its easy combination of soft textures and compatible flavors.

A sprightly salad of cucumber and fennel and another of pale yellow hearts of cool romaine, napped with a thick yellow cream dressing and lots of fruity olive chunks, were cool beginnings for a summer meal, once our waiter remembered that's what we ordered.

Grilled rabbit--I'm so glad we're seeing bunnies on more menus--was excellent, served with a crisped risotto cake so violently flavored with lemon that it made your mouth pucker (good with the rabbit but hard on the wine).

Our only real disappointment on the plate was the highly touted Copper River salmon, a special on our second visit. This is the fish of the moment in terms of trendiness, the current West Coast darling. The line-caught, wild Alaskan fish is only available four weeks of the year and our waiter said ours had never been frozen. What can I say? Maybe this was its fifth week. Maybe it should have been frozen. This fish looked good--it was a pretty, hot pink, wet and cool in the center--but its texture was mushy. A few sliced nuts over the top hinted at the alleged almond in the sauce, but its flavor was overwhelmed by the strong taste of fish. Worse, or just as bad, the plate was as hot as an enchilada platter, so the soft mound of accompanying polenta had crusted over the top and the beans, a compote of yellow wax and green, were shrivelled at their tips. (A fun fact to know and tell: The haricot bean, imported from the New World, became so popular in Florence that its citizens were known as mangiafagioli--"bean eaters.") This was a plate that had been under the salamander too long.

The only desserts we tried were the lemon-lime pie, its sweet, soft chartreuse curd garnished with berries and profiteroles, filled with ice cream and drizzled with chocolate.

Wines by the glass were good--we drank a Rodney Strong and a Deloach chardonnay. The wine list featured bottles mostly in the $30 range, and when we asked for a recommendation--a wine to complement salmon and rabbit--our waiter wisely went and asked for advice.

The question is, What was Franco expecting, if not success? I don't know what the finish-out on this location cost, but I would think the previous tenant, Gaspar's, took the bite on most of the redecorating it took to transform Gordo's, a collegiate pizza bar, into a fine dining establishment. And this is not the chic end of McKinney; the landlord must be thrilled to have such a high-profile tenant. Surely Franco and friends could afford to remove a couple of banquette tables to make their patrons' dinner more relaxed, enjoyable--and audible? (The couple next to us was celebrating an anniversary, but had no chance to murmur sweet nothings since we had to actually concentrate not to eavesdrop.) The third time out, this gang of pros should have been prepared for the onslaught. And known how to prepare the staff. It's so certain that Toscana will be a big hit, that I was extra irritated by the little glitches--the slightly sloppy service, the unbearable noise level, the salmon mistake--all of which seem avoidable. But the restaurant business is a service industry; it can get a little tricky when the tables are turned and the servers become the celebrities.

Toscana, 4900 McKinney Ave. at Monticello, 521-2244. Open for dinner daily, 6 p.m.- 10 p.m. Open for lunch starting July 23.

Rosemary Flat Bread $4.50
Grilled Honey-Marinated Portobello $7
Hearts of Romaine and Three-Olive Salad $6
Spicy Chilled Cucumber, Fennel, and Tomato Salad $6.50
Sauteed Trout and Braised Artichokes $15.50
Grilled Rabbit with Lemon Risotto $17.50
Risotto with Grilled Asparagus $11

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