Taking a stand

Rebellious Chef Danielle Custer creates a risky menu for Laurels

The duck salad, based on cumin-spiced Peking duck, was not as blindingly brilliant as that arugula salad, but the rare little rounds of duck were chewy on their nest of greens, and the green mole sauce had a rough, grainy texture as if it had been pounded in a molcajete, not processed. Pumpkin seeds and soft, sauteed bananas brought up the number of cuisines to Custer's requisite number and gave the dish the in-your-face, envelope-pushing quality Custer delights in. On the other hand, the champagne and pear (both Red Sensation and Bosc--did you think it would remain a mystery?) soup was a subtle wonder, demonstrating that this Courtney Love cuisine can indeed dress up like Grace Kelly. Pale, cool, champagne-colored, it had the sweetness and underlying tartness of a fine pear, intensified by the five-spice pear compote slowly sinking in the middle of the bowl.

In trying to describe Custer's food, one risks sounding like an Iowa test question. Try this: Which item does not belong in this group? (a) candied hazelnuts (b) pancetta (c) pickled grapes (d) Stilton cheese (e) greens. Your IQ would probably end up in the cellar with mine, especially if brown butter vinaigrette were added to the list, which it was, because the aforementioned ingredients were grouped together in a salad, one of the choices on the chef's signature menu. Oddly, the falafel-crusted salmon sounded more daring than it was. The falafel crust was really a topping on the fish, and wasn't as crisp as falafel-crusted falafel are. Too bad, because the crunch would have been a welcome texture addition. The greens underneath it were supposed to be tossed in raita, the Indian yogurt salad, but that tang was underplayed, too, although the salmon itself was dark, moist and lovely. A chef's special plate featured two meats, antelope and ostrich, both rows of fanned-out rounds lean and rare, with cracked pepper and a winey sauce whose smoothness provided the flavor vehicle lacking in the leanness of the meats.

The service at Laurels has a reputation for coddling smoothness, and at times the attention was almost a caricature of solicitousness. A gauntlet of smiling staff ushered us into the room, and when one of us left the table mid-meal, the hostess used graceful flight-attendant gestures to indicate the direction we wanted to go. Unfortunately, though the dining room was far from full, the service slowed as the evening progressed and other tables became more demanding. Ordering dessert was a little harried. We were first told by the server, not our waiter, that the souffles took 15 minutes, which is usual; but we hadn't been advised of this at the beginning of the meal, and after eating for several hours, we couldn't face another quarter hour. So we ordered the "molten chocolate gateau" instead, only to be told it took equally long. But when we started looking at other selections, our server backtracked, saying really, he thought we could have the gateau in less time than he had said. Maybe those souffles are discouraged--after all, the menu lists it uncharacteristically succinctly as "Laurels souffle." Anyway, we were glad for the comforting savor of warm chocolate when we could have been exploring the mother-gone-mad combination of apple tart topped with beet-walnut ice cream and essence of rosemary--a dessert that sounds almost therapeutic. The chocolate was a tart that flowed darkly onto the plate at the prick of the fork, a barely bitter, deep chocolate cream, sided by a buttery almond tuile, those French lace cookies that melt like a snowflake on the tongue, slices of crisped banana, and a superfluous scoop of ginger-orange sherbet. Lemon meringue tart was more traditional, a mile high triangle, its brown-tipped meringue apparently cooked separately so it was dry and crisp the whole way through, with the curd underneath almost painfully lemony. The blueberry-star anise compote on top didn't add much except exoticism. The "dessert symphony" that climaxed the chef's signature menu included a mini version of the tart, as well as a bite of creamy kahlua cheesecake, a baby creme brulee, a round of sorbet, and a half-dollar sized gateau, which was better big.

If the new Laurels does take the cuisine as a starting point, it should be a dazzling place by next fall. Laurels is undisputedly dowdy now--we were seated next to a couple of parked service carts--and the room right now has none of the glamour or style of the food. But it does have the best view in Dallas, and with all the excitement out the windows and on the plate, who's looking at the room, anyway? I wouldn't wait until September for the adventure of dining with Custer.

Laurels, Sheraton Park Central Hotel, 12720 Merit Drive, (972) 851-2021. Open for dinner 6 p.m.-11 p.m.

Warm Pumpkin Seed and Cumin Spiced Peking Duck Salad $10.00
Dungeness Crab Cake $10.00
Champagne Roasted Pear Soup $7.00
Roasted Fingerling Potato and Arugula Salad $10.00
Stilton and Greens $9.00
Falafel-Crusted Salmon $28.00

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