Ramblin' toque

Chef Avner Samuel turns up for another 15 minutes of culinary fame at Okeanos

"Why not?" he fires back.
Why not indeed? When you think about it, this response makes a lot of sense.
But a lot of us still want to know why Avner Samuel moves around so doggone much. I mean, is he an insufferable prima donna who packs his sauce pans and whisks as soon as he doesn't get his way? Or is he just trying to bring free agency to the restaurant business?

Maybe it's a little of both. Or maybe Samuel is simply the culinary version of the 21st-century worker: the buffed surfer on Alvin Toffler's Third Wave; the quintessential poster boy for Tom Peters' Thriving on Chaos management goulash; the ultimate hired gun with a bullet belt stuffed with coriander and peppercorns. At 41, Samuel exhibits the fluidity and fearless lust for change normally associated with twentysomething high-tech jocks who make money faster than the rest of us exceed our credit limits. If Samuel were a cyberspace exec instead of an executive chef, we wouldn't be asking why he job-hops so much--we'd be asking who gave him the fattest signing bonus this month.

Born in Israel and trained in Paris, Samuel came to Dallas some 16 years ago via Florida, where he worked as a chef at the Boca Raton Hotel and Club. In the years since, he's developed a distinctive style and a healthy ego that makes him doubly fun to watch.

"I do exciting things...as long as I do always better things than before, I don't see why not to move," he says. "[My food is] cutting-edge, creative, well-presented, and super-fresh. Whatever I produce has always been of the highest quality and is the most innovative."

And, as he likes to point out, he's had stints at some of Dallas' most revered eateries, including the Mansion on Turtle Creek, The Pyramid Room, Avner's on McKinney (which he owned), Yellow, the Landmark, and the Joint. His last stint was a return to Yellow, which closed just a few weeks after he revamped the menu. Samuel claims the white-tablecloth space failed to draw diners because it priced itself out of the McKinney market, where a casual mood now predominates. Who was in charge of that menu again?

Now Samuel has a new line item for his resume: Okeanos by Avner. For this latest stint, Samuel hooked up with Bahman Ayrom of Boerckel, Inc., a firm that owns Addison Cafe, Cafe Highland Park, and Farfallo. Samuel says Ayrom called him while he was shutting down Yellow to ask if he'd be willing to come on board as executive chef and rework the firm's aging restaurant menus. "He figured that with a person of my caliber and with the quality of the food, that I could take him to the next level," Samuel says. "It was very important for me not to compromise on the quality of the product, because obviously I've got a huge following in this city..."

But the poor gourmands keep slicing their fingers on Mapsco pages trying to figure out where the heck to find him. Now it's up north on restaurant row. Okeanos, which means ocean in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, is Samuel's own creation under the Boerckel umbrella. He drenched the interior in baby blue with deviled-egg yellow trim because he said the ex-Bolero Mediterranean Grill space reminded him of the deck of a ship, which I guess fits in well with the name and "global seafood" menu. To me, though, the whole assembly, with its institutional-looking terra cotta tiles and unromantic fluorescent lighting, looks rather like a public restroom. A row of sinks would easily fit in under the mirrors on the west wall, and a collection of stalls seems a natural near the bar, which bears a striking resemblance to the elaborate beverage service carts you find in hotel hospitality suites.

Samuel dubs his menu "global cuisine" because he selects whatever international ingredients and techniques work well with his food. But by this definition, aren't Stouffer's frozen entrees "global cuisine?"

Despite the ambiguous culinary designation, Samuel turns out some highly imaginative creations--many similar to, or exact duplicates of, dishes from Yellow--and he takes daring risks, a few of which don't come off.

The ones that do work, however, hit you upside the head with their brilliance. One such example is the lobster bisque, which, not drubbed with too much butter and cream, is lighter and slightly redder in color than a traditional bisque. It has a rich seafood flavor that floods your palate with a savoriness that dissipates cleanly, leaving a fresh aftertaste rather than a heavy, viscous film.

And this is pretty much what you'll find across the menu: immaculate, well-articulated flavors. One appetizer, stir-fried crab fingers in garlic butter, is topped with pieces of cafir lime leaves (with a flavor profile that mimics lemon grass). It's amazing how simple stuff that most of us would consider Thai lawn mulch can transform the limbs of dismembered crustaceans into a whole new seafood creation. He quickly sautes these tiny crab claws in butter and chicken stock to ensure that the flesh is tender and sweet while he pulls way back on the garlic, creating tight, well-meshed layers of flavor.

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