Outstanding miss

Imaginative home cooking takes Rooster almost all the way

Lots of us lament the disappearance of regionalism in this country. The dominance of fast food, media, and the movies means that boundaries are blurring, that local differences in talk and taste are fading. It's getting hard to tell, for instance, exactly where the North sinks into the south, or where the south ends and the west begins. Cincinnati chili is served in Texas, and southwestern cuisine is hot in Chicago. Everyone everywhere talks like Ross and Rachel, or Dee and Cher.

Families, though, will always develop their own dialects, distinct from other families' language, full of phrases and words with a history and resonance that give them greater meaning or a certain spin not apparent to outsiders. In our family, when the kids' soccer team executes a brilliant play, passing the ball perfectly down the field to the final forward, who boots it beautifully---right over the corner of the net, we'll say, "An outstanding miss!" Since, as a clan, we tend to be jacks of all but masters of little, we use this phrase often. And as my father points out, it's an invaluable phrase in a golf game.

It occurred to me that "outstanding miss" was how I would characterize my meals at Rooster, a new restaurant not on McKinney Avenue. Actually, you'd miss Rooster altogether if it weren't for the aggressive signage (banners, arrows, placards) directing you to the corner on Oak Grove behind Albertson's. But once you do find it, Rooster itself misses. Outstandingly, though. Or, as that bumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart used to say, "...by that much!"

Until modern California was invented and someone discovered cholesterol, the South was considered the home of the best cooks in the U.S.A. Think about it. "Home cooking" really means "Southern cooking," no matter where you were born. Cornbread, fried chicken, biscuits, and barbecue were all perfected in the South. Rooster specializes in "New American Southern" cuisine, one of the hottest trends in Atlanta and Savannah, a style of cooking that does the same thing for (or to) comfort food that Stephan Pyles' "New Southwest" cuisine did for (or to) Mexican food. "New American Southern" cooking plays with the repertoire, lightens it up a little (takes the lard out), moves it up on the scale of ingredients (remember the foie gras tamales at Star Canyon?). It marries traditional regional cuisine with classical and cooking school techniques and then garnishes the hell out of it.

The apparent problem with Rooster--that Southern cooking has no place in Dallas' West--is easy to shout down, not only because regionalism is disappearing anyway, but also because, despite all the bronze steers and mustangs running wild around our office buildings, Dallas is as much South as West, culturally speaking. The problem with Rooster isn't geographical, it's culinary.

That said, Rooster's location, in another sense, is odd--the old house which used to be home to Jenni Messina's Culinary Center appears to be the only survivor of some natural disaster, an island of livable architecture in the middle of Uptown's high rises and aspiring lots. It's surrounded by a wood porch (I suppose I should call it a verandah, now that it's Southern), and the dining rooms inside have been redecorated in a warm, Williamsburg style with a lot of oil paintings depicting--you guessed it--roosters, from the co-owner Cameron Morris' collection. The climate-controlled patio, which nearly doubles the restaurant's capacity, did not have the ambiance of a biological experiment as the clear plastic tent enclosing it would suggest. It was, however, far too dark for dining--we could hardly see our food, and how fair is it to tell people they are eating braised wild pheasant and chive dumplings with Southern Comfort-glazed baby onions, cracklings, shiitake mushrooms, and hunter's sauce if they can't even see to find the cracklings? More candles, please. Romance is fine as long as it doesn't interfere with dinner.

At least we could see the bread--warm biscuits (not too thick; a Southern biscuit has no business being thick) and corn sticks in a napkin-lined basket--and it sustained us while we perused the descriptions of the food. I've seldom read such an enticing menu: breast of chicken stuffed with crabmeat, catfish crusted with molasses and pecans, horseradish mashed potatoes, crabcakes with chili remoulade, creole ratatouille, vegetable beignets. Almost everything seemed slightly familiar and slightly intriguing. It was like seeing a good friend in costume and realizing there's even more to discover about someone you already know. On the other hand, some of it was slightly spooky and slightly familiar, like seeing a good friend in costume and thinking maybe you should get another ride home. Red-eye gravy vinaigrette is a frightening idea, tarragon blood orange butter seemed too tricky, and venison marinated in Coca-Cola was okay, but served with a cabernet sauce, too? Are you sure? And then, some dishes seemed to be missing--where was the fried chicken, anyway? The succotash? The greens? The rabbit and squirrel?

Well, perhaps those things will debut later, as Rooster becomes more established and chef David Burdette gets more comfortable in his large, new kitchen. Burdette is co-owner of Rooster, along with Morris (front of the house), and Todd Tracy (the bank), and he came to Rooster from the Grape, where he was executive chef and credited with bringing some new luster to the Dallas classic. But Rooster is much larger than the Grape, and the menu is much more complex, so that in the end, the food was better on paper than on the palate.

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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