Taking a stand

Rebellious Chef Danielle Custer creates a risky menu for Laurels

Plenty of women attend the prestigious CIA (that's Culinary Institute of America, the country's premier culinary training ground) in Hyde Park, just outside New York City.

But if you count the high-profile women chefs in Dallas, you won't need all your fingers. It's strange but true that although women still do most of the cooking in home kitchens, they're still second-class in professional kitchens. Alice Waters was one of the first to change that in this country--remember that her predecessor, Julia Child, was never a professional restaurant chef. Today's women chefs inherit a long tradition of misogyny from the French practitioners of haute cuisine. And in Dallas, that's been somewhat augmented and abetted by the Southern good ol' boy approach to doing bidness.

So it's refreshing to hear that one of the city's top culinary venues, Laurels, has hired a young woman, Danielle Custer, as executive chef and general manager.

Laurels itself follows in that unique Dallas tradition of fine hotel dining. In most cities, the hotels are notable for expensive but not stellar food. However, in Dallas, hotels have hired some of the finest chefs in the city and served as a culinary conduit, bringing in kitchen talent (at an enticing price) who typically establish a following, then open their own restaurants, while the hotel brings in another culinary aspirant. Dallas has been seeded with fine European restaurants this way. The Sheraton does not have quite the cachet of the Rosewood hotels, the Mansion, and the Crescent, or the patina of the Fairmont or Adolphus, but it has maintained a reputation as a multi-star dining room, even though everyone by now knows (and believes) the cliche that the higher the restaurant, the worse the food. Laurels is on the 20th floor of the Sheraton Park Central, a hotel on an island at Coit and LBJ, and it has plenty of windows to take in the longest, flattest view of Dallas from any restaurant in the city. And, unfortunately, that's the prettiest thing about the room these days--its decor is in dire need of updating. But the Sheraton has gone about things the smart way, springing for the chef first, letting her plant her culinary flag and establish the kitchen's style so the dining room can be redesigned to suit the food, so the space and her spices will segue easily into one another. Since Custer is general manager as well as executive chef, she'll have as much say over the room's style as she does over the food. The renovation is scheduled for this summer.

Custer comes to Laurels from Seattle, where she was sous chef at Fullers, working under a long line of women chefs including Monique Barbeau. Custer's specialty is predictable--when you're young, of course, the world's your oyster, and Custer wants to cook globally. It's the cook's equivalent of alternative music, the edge. She likes to consider herself a rebel, and combining four or five flavors from different countries in one dish is her chosen--I might say admitted--signature.

So it takes a while to read this menu--you have some abstract tastes to roll around on your mind's tongue. Try this--a smoked mushroom-stuffed chicken breast with coconut-orange collard greens, a spicy currant corn cake, and red mole. Do you want me to repeat that? It's the second clause about the coconut-orange collard greens that stops me cold, but you might have your own barriers. In any case, Custer has met her personal goal with this dish--I count Mexico, the American South, the tropics, and Thailand as four cuisines in this dish. Chicken breast, of course, belongs to us all; it's the Esperanto of pantry lingo. Nevertheless, we didn't order this particular dish because although Custer's personal goals may have been reached, she didn't reach the primary professional one of tempting the diner. I'm not the parent of a teenager for nothing--I have learned that there are some things it's better not to know. So if Custer wants to present a rack of lamb with licorice-and-mint jelly, I don't want to read about it first. I'd rather just order lamb and trust I'll like it. (Or, if you need to hint that more is going on, how about listing "Lamb, yadda-yadda-yadda"?)

Other things did sound tempting, though, and intriguing, too. A Dungeness crab cake was served with a drizzle of carrot-cinnamon oil, the aromatics seguing nicely into the sweetness of the shellfish. And the roasted fingerling potato and arugula salad was a dish of pure genius, ordered from sheer curiosity--none of us could imagine the smoked onion and salmon vinaigrette that seasoned it. It turned out to be a flat cake of the unstarchy potatoes and assertive arugula, warmed just enough to bring together the flavors, gentling the arugula and intensifying the potato. This was the dish that made us surrender, achieve faith, and trust our dinner to Custer, the dish that made the "Chef's Signature Menu" seem like perfect sense: a five-course meal for fifty-nine (all the prices are spelled out on this menu, another style decision). It sounds expensive until you add up the a la carte prices. My menu of duck salad (ten), and falafel-crusted salmon (twenty-eight), followed by a molten chocolate gateau (nine) came to forty-seven for three courses. And I didn't have a soup course or the intermezzo of citrus ice.

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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