By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
Of course, we're not talking throngs of art patrons, or even many out-of-Texas tourists. The opening of the NASCAR track has drawn the largest crowds to the area so far. So large that the USA Cafe, which was still in its colonial stage at the time, didn't even try to serve food from its menu, offering instead a country-club-style buffet, complete with steamship round. So large that the staff at Angeluna, the shiniest star on the new Fort Worth dining scene, has already developed a Dallas-like snobby attitude about the "race people."
You never used to see restaurants like Angeluna in Fort Worth. The sibling of chichi Mezzaluna in Aspen, it's a hard-core contemporary space, sound bouncing off the tiled floor and high, sky-scaped ceiling. Its visual piece de resistance is the wall of 200 original works of art interpreting the restaurant's name (which means "angel moon"). Unfortunately, these are hung so tightly they seem to be a single, wallpaper-like piece, and there's no catalog or key, so you don't know who did what. Art as interior design was handled much better by Shannon Wynne at 8.0 down the block. There, you can't miss the point.
Angeluna chef Clark McDaniel is a graduate of El Centro's Culinary Apprenticeship Program and worked with Kevin Rathbun at Baby Routh, so the metaphorical menu is hardly unexpected. Dishes have names like "standing streudel" and "angel wings" (in a tamarind-lime "birdbath"). A Chinese-inspired beef salad comes with Asian "begetables." Ravioli are stuffed with "yesterday's truffle tators." And McDaniel's "one world cuisine" label means he pulls in a wild diversity of ingredients and techniques, so you find menu listings like "Joe's shrimp paesano with Limoncello butter martini style," "sumac-seared lamb carpaccio with black lentil hummus and harrissa-mint aioli," and "jerk-spiced chicken with bonito fufu and mango-habanero vinaigrette." It's only a degree over from USA's cuisine--Angeluna features the food of the un-melted melting pot. Translating this from the page to your palate's imagination so you can order a coherent meal takes quite a bit of time, yours and the waiter's. Even then, what we expected and what we ate often had little to do with one another. Jerk chicken had no more flavor than any grilled chicken breast, despite the implications of "jerk," "habanero," and even "bonito fufu." Those truffled-tator ravioli were a giant conglomeration, a pasta stew strung with threads of oxtail meat, only faintly redolent of fungus, and slicked with rich demi-glace. Lamb carpaccio, slices so thin they had to be scraped from the plate, had flavor in corresponding amount, though the black lentil hummus molded in the center of the plate was good with the mint. And the satin scallops, scented with the green curry and lemon grass that infused an accompanying "risotto," succeeded in blending world flavors satisfactorily through the universal medium of rice. Pork tenderloin, cooked medium, came with a tangy Stilton flan, caramelized pears, and candied walnuts--a well-conceived, if unseasonal, dish. Still, the bread basket we were presented at the beginning of the meal, with two breadsticks rising like alien antennae out of a loaf, was accurate foreshadowing that the food at Angeluna was going to be more about style than taste.
The best of the new restaurants showcase Fort Worth's flair for the understated, whether they celebrate a return to Cowtown's roots (which it's not afraid are showing), or a re-creation of relaxation in another part of the world. There's an inclination towards easiness, an absence of stylistic shrillness in some Fort Worth restaurants that seems to stem from a lack of cultural self-consciousness. For instance, Reata--named after the ranch in "Giant," probably the most hallowed mythological place in Texas (after the Alamo)--could have been the hokiest place in town. We've all seen too many kitschy Western interiors with horseshoe chandeliers and cowboy-boot wine coolers. But Reata comes across as a genuine article, the real thang, even though its location is 35 floors up in a bank building, normally a bad sign for a restaurant. Even though it has its own souvenir shop.
Here's how authentic the cowboy theme is: Some of the beef served at Reata actually comes from the herd of Herefords on owner Al Micallef's Clear Fork Ranch, and the first Reata restaurant was in Alpine. Fort Worth's Reata presents real Western style--furnishings and fittings are designed for full comfort, and no apparent corners are cut, but the attitude is open-armed, and on a recent Saturday night the restaurant's dining rooms were filled with loud-laughing Fort Worth families as well as business types and couples. The bar serves real margaritas, and you can eat right there if you want to, cuddled in a cowhide chair with a view of Sundance Square and USA Cafe. The menu is straightforward and protein-heavy--velvety calf fries come with thick, pepper-spiked cream gravy; big juicy shrimp were wrapped in bacon and sweetened with caramelized onions and star-shaped polenta. A hefty, perfectly cooked T-bone (your waiter will insist on cutting it open to make sure it is perfectly cooked) makes you rejoice in your carnivorousness and is accompanied by a rich enchilada filled with herb-flecked cacciotta. Tamales are luxuriously packed with shredded beef, smoothed with goat cheese, and given a gentle crunch with toasted pumpkin seeds. For once, a restaurant where the food is about flavor, not fashion. This kitchen's horizons end with the Red River and the Rio Grande, and that's world enough for this menu.