All shook up

Doolittle's barely emerges from a martini-induced culinary fog

The menu is salvaged somewhat by the maple-glazed pork chops. Tender, succulent, and perfectly grilled, this pair of chops had the expected rush of sweetness offset by a burst of lemon. The sesame-seared tuna steak, encrusted in white and black sesame seeds with a ginger soy glaze, is another standout. The subtle, nutty flavor and the textural contrast between the crunchy seeds and moist, dense tuna flesh was invigorating.

But if there's one thing you would expect Doolittle's to carry to stellar status, it's red meat. After all, martinis, cigars, and steak are the quintessentially American dining troika of comfort and prosperity. Yet our Cowboy ribeye, ordered medium but delivered medium-rare, was gristly, chewy, and not particularly flavorful--despite the claimed USDA Prime designation. The preparation involved no seasoning other than a light dusting of pepper, and the meat wasn't rich enough to pull through on its own. Plus, it was buried under a spiky heap of bland onion rings that tasted as though they were battered with spackle.

The curious thing about the slabs of flesh that kiss Doolittle's grill is they all come away with a gritty, ashen flavor--as if the grill weren't being properly cleaned. Before I blitzed it with salt, the ribeye's primary flavor was this off taste. On one visit, I winced after biting into a particularly massive chunk of grill grit stuck to my mallet-abused chicken breast.

Accompaniments also fade in and out in quality on Doolittle's plate. Most dishes come with either whipped cheddar potatoes, fire-roasted vegetables, or seasonal vegetables. On one occasion, my supposedly fire-roasted vegetables were actually steamed and soggy. And the potatoes arrived different ways: with cold unmelted cheddar shreds; with melted cheese, but delivered in the form of a cold potato plaster; and, finally, hot, creamy, and flavorful.

One thing Doolittle's gets right, though, is its wine list. Once you get beyond some rather pedestrian Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet selections, the list gets interesting with offerings such as a Bouvet Signature Brut, a delicate sparkling wine from France's Loire Valley; a delicious Hogue Cellars dry Johannisberg Riesling from Washington; and one of the finest Pinot Noirs on the market, the 1995 Rex Hill from Oregon's Willamette Valley. Doolittle's general manager, John McCash, a former bartender at the defunct Flip's Wine Bar and Trattoria and salesman with Tarrant Distributors, a wine and liquor wholesaler, constantly works his list while he conducts weekly tastings with his staff. And it shows. The servers get genuinely excited when asked about the wines and convey their tasting experiences in detail when making recommendations. This makes ordering wine a joy. Why is the simple concept of server training so difficult for most Dallas restaurants to grasp?

Overall, Doolittle's service was genuinely polite and attentive, with a few rough spots. On one occasion our bread--rich and flavorful though it was--arrived at the table after we'd finished our entrees, and our waiter had this odd habit of taking two steps back, pressing his open palms together while raising them to his face, and bowing whenever we made a request or thanked him. Perhaps another stab at American melting-pot eclecticism?

I don't mean to leave the impression that Doolittle's culinary blur is repellent, because it isn't. At times, a spark breaks through. The staff is light years beyond the snotty, strenuously hip puffery that often characterizes the service at Deep Ellum Cafe on Elm Street, and the wood-rich space, designed by architect Dean Dekker, is open and clean with a raised dining area set off by a black metal-and-wood railing. Plus, Doolittle's horseshoe bar is as comfortable as it is attractive.

McCash says his goal is to fashion an upscale neighborhood restaurant with a diverse menu that allows people to come again and again to sample something different each visit. That's all well and good. But wouldn't it be easier to dispense with the melting pot mish-mash and focus on a menu showcasing the freshest possible ingredients, while consistently assembling well-articulated flavors spiced with imagination? It's rare that people won't return again and again for good, well thought-out food.

Doolittle's. 5290 Belt Line, Suite 150, in Addison. (972) 991-2030. Open daily, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.

Martini $6.50
Spicy calamari with warm basil marinara $6.25
Maple-glazed pork chop $14.95
Cowboy ribeye $19.95
Sesame seared tuna steak $12.95

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