At sea

Clive & Stuart's island cuisine needs a culinary compass or a boardwalk

Remember Grandpa Stupid in that classic children's book, The Stupids Die? "This isn't heaven, it's Cleveland," he explains to his descendants who can't tell the difference. It's so easy to mistake one place for another, but thankfully someone's almost always there to set you straight. So I'm here to remind you, this isn't Destin, it's Dallas. Clive & Stuart--yes, another new seafood restaurant--just looks like the lobby of a try-harder hotel in a demi-deluxe beach resort. The sort-of deco carpet with the oversized, palmy pattern and the vague maritime materials and motifs (Chriscraft-worthy paneling, a round aquarium, and portholes) reach the length of the room. The claustrophobic-looking aquarium behind the bar is depressing--as an art dealer friend points out, there's lots of good fish art, after all. And the wall of windows, which should overlook the sea, or a boardwalk, or at least a string of kitschy T-shirt shops, have the same view of McKinney Avenue you've gazed at a thousand times while drinking Bellinis a block down. (On the other hand, it's not much of a stretch to call the Hard Rock Cafe a kitschy T-shirt shop, is it?) It occurred to me, looking just north of Hard Rock, that if you could somehow marry the slightly prissy Clive & Stuart to that loose Lulu across the street, their progeny might have the easy island style as well as the sophistication this restaurant is trying to balance.

Clive & Stuart is subtitled "island seafood," just to make sure everyone tries it at least once. Because although we've got Italian seafood, New American fish, chowder houses and shrimp shops, and more fried oysters than should be legal, island-style seafood has remained an undiscovered pearl--until now. So of course we all have to try it. (Or is the Caribbean phenomenon ballyhooed a decade ago finally coming to cool-delayed Dallas?) Which island's style it is remains slightly vague. According to the history on the back of the menu, Clive (Whent) and Stuart (Gray) trained in Australia and Canada (cultural islands, anyway), and met each other while working in England. (Well, it is an island.) Finally, Stuart got a good job in Providenciales (the menu doesn't say exactly where that is, but it's supposed to be at the bottom of the Bahamas), and when Clive came to visit, he joined the kitchen in the number-two position. (Tough decision, right? Hampshire or the Caribbean. Hmmm...) Finally, the two opened their own restaurant in a resort in the Turks and Caicos islands, and then, naturally, the next step was Dallas. If that sounds like more than six degrees to you, that's because I left out the part about Tom McLendon and Gene Street. McLendon owns the resort where Clive and Stu's restaurant is located; when he decided to move the concept into Dallas, Street, one of the investors, suggested that the place be called "Clive and Stuart." I presume no one feared even for an instant that anyone would mistake it for another upscale, British-based salon with its own hair care product line.

Clive & Stuart themselves are only opening consultants, however; Tony Guercio, a Star Canyon and Daddy Jack's alumnus, is the chef, and Tony hired a crew of bright and energetic young cooks with good-looking resumes to back him up. The direction the food was going to take, then, was clear. Only the decor sends a mixed message. Do they want this to be an upscale seafood place populated by banded-collar types (replacing the old-style island evening dress of Bermuda shorts and a blazer) or a casual, walk-in place where Hawaiian shirts are appropriate? It wants to be both, but isn't quite either. Oddly, lunch at Clive & Stuart is more formal (wineglasses and white linens) than most of us would prefer, while dinner is less so (but with entree prices touching the $20 mark).

The food stretches the "island" conceit, but with these pedigrees, you knew it would. It actually shows admirable restraint on the part of someone (the chefs? the menu writer?) not coupling "island" with "global," but this menu is hardly authentic. Like New American, New Southwest, New South, and "global" cuisines, Guercio's "island" menu draws from a number of gastronomic sources, not all ocean-bound. In fact, some of the references are geographically schizophrenic--what to make of "fire shrimp on plantain mash" with "roast beet vinaigrette"? Is this a recipe from the little-known Polish Caribbean? Of course, you expect Caesar salad, because no restaurant could possibly avoid serving it, but asparagus? Balsamic vinegar?

Some of the eclecticism may originate in the food's design by committee. Stuart, Tony, and the two sous worked together on the menu. Some items, like the conch sausage, are Stuart's signature dishes. Others are pure inventions, fantasies of Dallas chefs dreaming of the Caribbean. And some of them work wonderfully. Pina de gallo, a salsa with barely cooked pineapple bits replacing tomatoes and onions, is a natural, the tropical sugar accented with spice and the meld of flavors a perfect foil for fish or shellfish. A lunchtime lobster club sandwich held a decent number of sweet meat rounds sandwiched between the biscuit-like yeast bread (baked in-house and served complimentary with your meal with cilantro pesto) with leather-thick bacon strips and underripe avocado chunks. Fried plantain chips subbed for the usual corn or potato sides. Another dish, the tomato tart, sounded better than it tasted. A round tart shell held sliced tomatoes under a piece of snapper scattered with capers. Unfortunately, the salt from the capers had released all the water in the tomatoes; the result was like a pastry wading pool, and the overwhelming flavor was salt. The bulti curry (it's a typically Caribbean curry spice mix--I had to ask, too) was good, with plenty of firm shellfish and black beans mixed into the red rice, a splattering of hot harissa around the edge, and a dollop of pina de gallo on top.

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