Unconventional wisdom

Going Gourmet created itself in the image of its customers

"Eatertainment" is a real word I recently read in a respected restaurant business publication.

"Eatertainment."
You immediately can see what it means, and all you can do is mentally shake your fork at the establishments whose success has allowed such a word to be coined. It refers, of course, to theme restaurants, places where the old-fashioned restaurant has metamorphosed from simply a place to be served food into a mini amusement park. It refers to places like Fashion Cafe (owned by "celebrity models," a dizzying concept itself); Dive! (owned by Steven Spielberg), the restaurant in a faux submarine that actually tilts every so often; and, soon to come, The Laugh Factory Funhouse, with computerized databases of jokes and 3-D holographic scenes of famous comedy performances (owned partly by that famous funnyman, Quincy Jones). Can't wait till this one gets to the West End--all the Lucy and Ethel material will have been used up in London and Las Vegas, and Dallas will get holographs of classic My Mother The Car episodes.

According to the article in Nature's Restaurant News where I ran across this dubious addition to the language (Isn't Congress about to pass a law making English mandatory? Will it deal with something really threatening like "eatertainment"?), there are even "theme restaurant analysts" who do nothing but predict the future of "eatertainment" now that "a lot of the low-hanging fruit is already taken." The next step, experts say, is "hypertheming." "James Berk, CEO of the Hard Rock chain, predicts that 'hypertheming is going to lay waste to a lot of concepts...'"

Does everyone still remember that we're talking about restaurants here? Maybe not, because actually there are more "concepts" to eat in than restaurants these days. And food is only one small aspect of a concept, where service is primarily a question of costumes and computer proficiency.

Then there's a place like Going Gourmet, a busy little bistro in seminorth Dallas. This place runs counter to most of the conventional wisdom of today's restaurant business, wisdom that starts with a business plan and a demographic study, calls for hordes of professional designers and graphic artists, and ends with a fleet of valet parkers and a sophisticated computerized menu based on cheese fries. Instead, Going Gourmet created itself in the image of its customers, not what its consultants demanded. Its second owners (who have the enchanting names Norm and Nixon Shum) have an odd idea about running their restaurant: "Stay close to your customers and everything will be fine." The brothers Shum respond to people, not demographics. And they don't mind reaching a little further for their fruit.

Going Gourmet started out as one idea that its name implies and ended up another. Originally, it was a takeout shop, with a case full of prepared food, and coffee and cheese by the pound--you know, like Eatzi's, only smaller, and without the opera soundtrack. But so many to-go customers ate right there that Oona and Ettore Settembre scrapped the takeout and filled the country-Frenchish space (this is Dallas, after all) with tables. The Shums added even more seating, and after a recent fire also redecorated a little. But sticking with that odd "please the customer" idea, the kitchen still does a brisk to-go business.

Chef Patrick Demeester has been with Going Gourmet since it opened, moving from the sous to the executive position in the kitchen; he describes his cooking as "sort of a New American-Italian cuisine." I'd call it American bistro food, which means mostly Italian, anyway--lotsa pasta, plenty of salads, some substantial meat dishes, and the balance of boneless chicken. Of course, there are crab cakes. But there also are escargots. There is no wine list, which is one of the pleasures of the place if you prefer bringing your own to choosing a bottle from a usually overpriced list.

Escargots are one of the more sumptuous dishes on the menu and were an introduction to a thoroughly satisfactory dinner. Curled up with mushrooms and bits of leek inside a puff-pastry box, their fat shapes were just discernible under a blanket of basil cream sauce, pale flecked with green and with an exotic aftertaste of spice. We also liked the breaded ravioli, each square sandy with crumbs on the outside and fried just till crisp, served with a lemon-tart tomato sauce rounded out with olives and capers. Salads were all exemplary; the house salad one of the best I've had in several weeks: Crisp, dried, dark greens mixed with slivers of purple onion and tomato in a light vinaigrette, it was perfectly simple and fine. Other salads were the same greens with different cheese toppings--Greek salad, with bits of feta and olives; Gorgonzola salad, rich with stinky blue crumbles and walnuts; and goat-cheese salad, with a patty of warm chevre, walnuts, and tiny strips of red bell pepper.

For "Chicken Milanesa," the chef had pounded out a whole chicken breast to the size of a small Frisbee, crusted it with parmesan and crumbs, and fried it crisp; fresh chopped tomatoes and a squeeze of lemon cut the richness. Rack of lamb was cooked to perfect rareness and served with two sauces: one rosemary-infused port, the other fresh mint and mustard--both nice plays on respected flavor combinations. Pasta portions were enormous, bottomless-plate servings. Angel hair was threaded with crawfish, artichokes, leeks and tomatoes in more of that basil cream that was becoming so familiar to us; and "penne portabella" was smothered in chopped mushrooms and jammy sun-dried tomatoes cooked to a compote.

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