Success made simple

What Else is the best new entry on the dining scene in a year

At dinner, we found parking was a problem because the valet works both sides of the street. We had to wait quite awhile for someone to show up to park our car, and there was no street parking in sight. But that was the only rough place in the evening. Seth de Witt, chef de cuisine, put bliss on all our plates. Sweetbreads, served as an appetizer with a subtle chive sauce, were prepared virtually perfectly, sauteed to rich crispness on outside, but within tender as custard, as any infant flesh ought to be, and my father, who constantly seeks out sweetbreads as he does desserts like pecan pie and bread pudding, put them at the top of his life list. The ambitious-sounding "lobster napoleon" is a version of a trend--chefs all over the country have been playing with savory strudels and pastries this year. This dish featured a big puff paste hat-shaped triangle, the top barely floating on a saute of lobster meat and mushrooms. The big chunks of tail meat had a rarely genteel texture, amazingly tender but firm instead of rubbery as it almost always is unless you're dissecting the just-boiled exoskeleton yourself. And there was a whole, lovely curved piece of claw meat, not flaunted as garnish, but simply part of the whole. We were a threesome, and a red wine had won the toss, but Thierry was upset that Mother considered drinking the mourvedre the rest of us were going to drink and insisted she have a little glass of Reserve St. Martin Viognier with the lobster. A wise host.

The grilled tuna was thick and fresh, with that stripped-down taste that tuna has because it's meaty without being fat, but it was enriched here with a red wine sauce. It and the other entrees, lunch and dinner, came with very ordinary vegetables--zucchini, carrot slices, roasted potato quarters--made extraordinary just by the prosaic fact that they were cooked correctly. How many times have I tried to spear a carrot slice with a fork only to find it as resistant as a rubber sole? These carrots and their companions were seasoned--with salt, even--and perfectly crisp-tender, the way God and Escoffier intended vegetables to be cooked. Lambshank was stewed tenderly, not until it fell off the bone, but just to succulent moistness, with pale green flageolets, in another hearty stew that kept its ingredients distinct even as one flavor enhanced another. And desserts--all made in-house--were just as satisfying. Fig ice cream tastes faintly like Fig Newtons (a cookie whose time has returned), pithiviers, the classic but rarely encountered French almond cake that is more like a pastry, was barely sweet, and tarte tatin the grandmere of all apple pies, was served warm.

What Else's parent restaurant, Watel's, has become a mainstay of French cuisine in Dallas, a stubbornly funky little place on the wrong end of McKinney Avenue, with a--might as well be blunt--tacky, sloping patio, glassed in and covered in a blue-striped awning, cooled by a window unit, warmed with space heaters, decorated with sickly pothos ivy and yellowing asparagus fern in tag-sale white iron holders. Again, it doesn't matter that most big-deal restaurant operators would consider the place to be decoratively challenged; the menu is not only appetizing but accommodating and welcomes the diner with real hospitality. It should be the mark of a good restaurant that if you don't see what you crave on the menu, the kitchen will prepare what does appeal. But when even cash registers are programmed to the menu items, custom cooking is hard to come by. It's typical of Rene Peeters' renegade retro philosophy that Watel's' menu states at the top "If you don't see something you'd like, please ask for it; we'll make it if we can."

We liked what we saw when we dropped by for lunch recently. A cold salad plate hardly sounds tempting in the face of a blue norther, but thick little seared chunks of tuna, left rare in the centers, crusted with black pepper gravel and nestled in mustard, lent heft to the concept of salad, balanced by a mound of coolly substantial lentils. On the other hand, cassoulet is precisely what you daydream about on a blustery day, and the shallow bowl of white beans, bits of bacon, ham, lamb, and a roasted duck leg simmered together until the smoke and the fat and the flavor permeated everything, was a dream come true.

What Else? 1915 Greenville, (214) 874-WHAT. Open for lunch Tuesday-Sunday 11:30 a.m.- 2 p.m.; for dinner Sunday-Thursday 6 p.m.-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 6 p.m.-10:30 p.m.

Watel's, 1923 McKinney Ave., (214) 720-0323. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday-Thursday 6 p.m.-8:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 6 p.m.-9:30 p.m.

What Else:
Ratatouille and Portobello $6.00
Lobster Napoleon $9.00
Duck Breast with Honey, Lemon, and Lavender $8.00
Two Courses $16.00
Three Courses $20.00
Four Courses $24.00

Watel's:
Peppered Rare Tuna and Lentil Salad $11.00
Cassoulet $10.00

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