Delighting in the details

Picardys is much more than shrimp--or even seafood

All day, plaza shoppers and shop proprietors had been asking Don Lindsley and Angus MacKay, "What time are you going to open?" All day, 6 o'clock was the answer given, but at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday two weeks ago, Angus quietly unlocked the door and flipped the "open" sign on for the first time at Picardys Shrimp Shop in Snider Plaza. By 5:50 p.m., the place was full and people were waiting for tables. By 6 p.m., there was a line down the block. By 6:05, we were in it.

Not fair for a critic to visit the very first night? I've never done it before, but I don't think it's out of line. When Osteria del Circo, the very hottest restaurant in New York, was opened early this fall by people who ought to know best (the children of Sirio Macchioni, the owner of Le Cirque), menu prices were discounted during the first few weeks while the wait staff and kitchen perfected their performance with the diners. Barring that kind of smart marketing ploy, if a restaurant's open for business and taking people's money, it's fair game for a critic. I am the public. So, along with the rest of the neighborhood, we waited for a table on Wednesday evening.

Our waiter's name was "Brew" (a sobriquet one can only assume he earned in a frat house--and one can only imagine how--unless he actually grew up in the Park Cities and Brew is short for some fancy family middle name his mother saddled him with to avoid calling him something low-rent like "Bob" or "Ray"). I generally object to knowing a waiter's name--I mistrust those TGI Friday's touches--but Brew was so efficient, so cheerfully helpful, that I didn't mind. Anyway, thankfully, he did not attempt to bond so closely with us that we learned any personal details about him, such as how he came to be called "Brew."

Wednesday, of course, was a challenge at Picardys, even for someone, like Brew, professionally cheerful. The owners would have preferred the house half full, but the crowds did not let up all night, the kitchen was in the weeds (that's restaurant slang for "in big trouble"), and food was slow getting to the dining room. The members of one family we know, and who came in after and left before we did, came over to our table and whispered as they left, "The food's good, but the service gets an F."

I didn't think so.
Put that kind of pressure on an untried team and some difficulties are unavoidable. Restaurants depend first on their kitchen's performance, and the kitchen is always an ensemble act. One player doesn't show up, a couple of cues are missed, and the whole line's pace is thrown off; that can happen whether a place has been open five months or five minutes. The only line of defense for any restaurant, any time--but especially for a restaurant whose kitchen is under the gun--is its wait staff. And how well a restaurant handles tough times is a measure of how good it really is. Don and Angus are not prima-donna owners; they were working the floor both times we visited Picardys, pitching in wherever they saw a detail unattended to, a plate that needed to be cleared, or a place that needed to be set. And fortunately for us, fortunately for Picardys, Brew turned out to be an expert waiter. He frequently came by our table bringing whatever he could bring us when he came, and when there was nothing to bring, he brought us idle promises--as any politician should--that the food was just about ready or that we'd be served in just a minute. He knew the food on the menu and could answer any question about any dish. He remembered our orders and delivered them correctly, special requests honored, without writing anything down. He made sure we were on his side.

There had been considerable preopening publicity about the Mansion-quality training the wait staff at Picardys would receive, and that alleged degree and quality of professionalism at the head of this restaurant was one reason I wanted to check it out on day one. These owners should know how to pull this off without too much trial and error: Picardys is the creation of Angus MacKay, formerly food and beverage director of The Mansion on Turtle Creek, and Don Lindsley, a limited partner (and the one working partner) in Red, Hot and Blue. It's a team that sounded threateningly upscale for the as yet unpretentiously peaceful Snider Plaza, which after all, doesn't even have a Gap. I was a little nervous about the big guys opening up in one of Dallas' few unspoiled places; it sounded sadly like The Mansion was moving in on Mayberry. But Picardys actually blends in nicely, and certainly the neighborhood has received it enthusiastically; on the first Saturday night, Lindsley points out proudly, Picardys served 210 covers in three hours without a hitch.

The restaurant's modern setting is low key, but far trendier than the potpourri decor of most of the plaza's shops and cafes. Don Blanton, king of Deep Ellum (or at least its landlord), who was in Picardys one evening when we were, called it "my kind of place," as he glanced around at the old tin ceiling, concrete floors, metro light fixtures, and black-grouted white tile walls. (The noise level should have made Blanton feel right at home, too.) Picardys is anything but quaint, and even the exterior of the corner near the fountain, marked by a tall clock tower, is more self-consciously "designed" than its serendipitously attractive neighbors.

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