Outstanding miss

Imaginative home cooking takes Rooster almost all the way

Whatever his execution problems, Burdette has enough imagination to go around. At Rooster, appetizers don't eclipse the entrees in verve and flavor, the way they do at most restaurants. The modified Rockefeller dish of baked oysters with pancetta, spinach, and cheese, served on a bed of rock salt, with lemon and fennel sprigs was a bright idea. The roasted "Vadalia" onion soup was suspiciously misspelled, and even more suspiciously, it was being served in February. (One friend asked the waiter, "So, where do you get Vidalia onions in February?" and learned from the reply that Vidalia are special, sweet onions grown in Georgia and that this summer Rooster is going to serve Noonday onion soup instead. Which didn't answer at all the question of where you get Vidalia onions in January.) The soup--wherever the onions came from--was good, a soft essence of flavor, not as caramelized or as deeply flavored as traditional French onion soup, but round-flavored and rich. The Maryland crabcakes were served with a red chili remoulade, but you wouldn't have known that if you hadn't read about it first. The sauce had no heat, and the crabcakes were mealy. Salad was served with the red eye gravy vinaigrette, which turned out to be not frightening, but mere fancy. In case you don't know, you make redeye gravy by pouring a cup of coffee in the pan you just fried the ham in, scraping up the drippings, and boiling it down a little. It was hard to imagine that flavor over salad greens, and thank goodness there is no need to. It turns out the chef substitutes some balsamic vinegar for the coffee, making it just a vinaigrette, after all.

Main courses hailed from all over the South, though, as I said, some dishes were conspicuous by their absence. I doubt whether the enchantingly named "Frogmore stew," a traditional dish from the southern low country, has ever been served in Dallas before, but with the sea-craze that's currently overwhelming the restaurant scene, we may see more of it. A sort of backwater bouillabaisse, this "stew" is really more of a soup, or at least a broth, with shrimp, scallops, crawfish, and a hunk of sausage floating in the murky "potlikker" along with the vegetables. Eating it was a little like midnight fishing--you weren't sure what you'd speared until you got it real close. And the ingredients seemed to have met by accident in the soup bowl--each retained its own flavor. Pheasant was overwhelmed by its complicated combination of accompaniments--the shiitake flavor was lost, the dumplings were really gnocchi, and the meat was dry. Skillet-seared red snapper could have been labeled "blackened," and if it had been, I might have avoided it. The fish was close to being overwhelmed by the spices, though it was topped with a mild, stewy etouffee that mellowed the sharpness of the spice. In that way, it was an authentically Creole conception, the mild fish topped with rich shellfish following in the tradition of trout marguery or redfish Pontchartrain. Smoked pork loin, two moist middle slices and two dry ends, came with great grits, with a toothy texture like a coarse polenta. On the plate, they looked like mashed potatoes, and they offered the same bland foil to the smoky meat, but with the delicate sweetness of corn underscoring the strong caramelized sweetness of onion marmalade. It's common knowledge in Atlanta that Coca-Cola not only cures a cold and cleans a car battery, but makes a great tenderizing marinade for ham. Burdette has soused a loin of venison with it instead, and it mellowed the meat into a velvety texture with a touch of sweetness. Adding a juniper-infused hot pepper jelly and a cabernet sauce was just taking the whole thing slightly over the top, but it's hard not to excuse enthusiasm.

Of the desserts, the New Orleans burnt cream was a shallow dish of nearly unsweetened thickened cream with a bare glaze--a treat remarkable only for a blandness so complete it disappeared completely and immediately in your mouth and from your mind. Twin sorbet scoops were good, icily granular with intense flavor, and white chocolate banana bread pudding was predictably gloppy, heavy, and dense. Best was the vanilla ice cream, lulled to smooth softness by the honey it was sweetened with, and presented in a "Carolina lace cookie," which turned out to be a benne seed (that's what they're called in the Carolinas) cookie. Simple and elegant, its pedigree showing clearly, this is the kind of food I think we'll see more of at Rooster as Burdette relaxes a little in his new house. "Outstanding miss" is a good phrase, but you have to remember that the clean-up hitters miss more than anyone.

Rooster, 3521 Oak Grove Ave., (at Lemmon), (214) 521-1234, Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Sunday-Thursday 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

Braised Wild Pheasant and Chive Dumplings $19.00
Coca-Cola Marinated Venison Loin $24.00
Low Country Frogmore Stew $21.00
White Chocolate Banana Bread Pudding $6.00
Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream in Carolina Lace Cookie $6.00

Fresh Farm Frittata $7.50
Kentucky Hot Brown Sandwich $8.50
Old Fashioned Chicken and Dumplings $9.00

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