All shook up

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

Editor's note: Mark Stuertz debuts this week as the Dallas Observer's restaurant critic. He's previously written for D magazine and several national wine publications.

The question was meant to be a joke. I thought my server would notice the wink, detect the smugness. I thought he'd get it.

Instead, he beamed. "It's over there," he announced proudly. "We just got it two days ago. Would you like me to see what we've got?"

Yes, it's yet another Metroplex martini lounge and eatery with a stogie closet.

Not that this is surprising. I mean, isn't it obvious that cigars--like the hypocrisy of citizens engaged in loud denunciations of Joe Camel at the same time they slobber all over tobacco profits--are a permanent part of our cultural fiber? Of course it is. Restaurants from Reata in Fort Worth to Martini Ranch and The Joint in Dallas offer cigars on the menu, extorting as much as $20 apiece, while glamorous women like Claudia Schiffer and Demi Moore boldly leave lipstick smudges on the butts of their Freudian symbols. What Dallas restaurateur with an ounce of business sense wouldn't want to follow in Claudia's pump steps?

One problem with Doolittle's take on stogie mania, though, is its sanitized, clubby air. It desperately needs a heady Caribbean tobacco fog to give it some authenticity. Instead, a neon martini glass flickers in the window, and the Doolittle's logo incorporates a hokey pair of pimiento-stuffed olives where the first two vowels ought to be. (This olives-as-vowels theme is carried over to the stained-glass "Restrooms" sign. Only here, you'll notice thin, wavering tails trailing behind the pimientos, making the olives seem less like O's than spermatozoa.) This sleek, crisp lounge motif is rounded out with clear-coated birch and maple panels, booths, and ceiling tiles; leather couches; and black and white accents throughout, including black napkins--not such a clever idea, since you can't gauge whether they're too soiled till you make a mess of your face.

Though it has most likely peaked, the cigar-martini frenzy will probably be with us for a while yet. And this is a little strange, because cigars complement most drinks about as well as a Mike Tyson fight fits into a vegan convention. And martinis simply do not go with food.

Now I'm not slamming cigars or martinis or the restaurants that anchor their identities to them. God knows we need all the '50s and '60s vices we can lay our hands on. Cigars are spectacularly enjoyable diversions, and they offer the added benefit of harassing those with secondhand-smoke phobias. Furthermore, it's doubtful that twentieth-century notables such as Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, and H.L. Mencken would have crafted such great works of word and thought without the martini. This "elixir of quietude," as E.B. White once called it, is the drink of power, sex, and maudlin murmurings. And the martini revival, which has been going strong since the late '80s, has introduced its potencies to an entirely new generation of barflies and lounge lizards.

Which is where Doolittle's comes in. Now it wouldn't be fair to imply that this new Addison offshoot of Deep Ellum Cafe is only about cigars and martinis. During several visits, I never once witnessed a smoldering stogie, and despite the ever-present olive theme, the bar offers only a dozen or so martini concoctions, compared to Martini Ranch's countless variations on this cerebral soaker, generated from a menu of some 60 different vodkas.

No, Doolittle's is more. Much more. Almost too much more. It boasts a list of 28 bottled brews--including a Tucher Hefe Weizen and a Breckenridge Indian Pale Ale--16 single-malt scotches, and a handful of bourbons, ports, and cognacs.

The brainchild of Deep Ellum Cafe partners Mike Sakuta and Patrick Davis, Doolittle's is the second restaurant-row stab for this pair after they turned over their Deep Ellum Cafe space to the Truluck's Steak and Stone Crab partnership. So it's probably not surprising that it borrows heavily from Deep Ellum's menu. (They even borrowed executive chef Sergio Elizondo, a 10-year Deep Ellum veteran.) This means you get to sample reruns like chicken and dumplings, Southern-fried steak, black bean ravioli in chipotle cream sauce, and Vietnamese grilled chicken salad along with tavern-style pot roast, crawfish etouffee, cheeseburgers, Reubens, and even a Dagwood sandwich. Doolittle's menu has zero focus, which makes it thematically consistent, I guess, since focus is the first thing to go after a brush with a martini.

The first hint of this eclectic blur emerges in the appetizers. The feta bruschetta with roma tomatoes and roasted garlic slogs across the palate on soggy, under-toasted bread that takes forever to chew. And while the spicy calamari with warm marinara for dipping was tender and delicate, the batter was chalky, with a spice level geared more toward ulcer-sufferers than martini drinkers.

The entrees further expand on the dizziness theme. The black bean ravioli with grilled chicken in a tasty chipotle sauce featured bland, gummy pasta packets that, with alternating stripes of black and yellow, looked like they'd been snipped from old prisoner uniforms. The chicken was good, if a little tough. On the other hand, the garlic mallet chicken--a pounded, grilled chicken breast--was tender and flavorful in a rich port demi-glace speckled with sweet, roasted garlic cloves.

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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