Ramblin' toque

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

And orchestrated interdependent layers are exactly what makes up the seared ahi tuna foie gras with leek compote. Maybe it was because I had too much white wine by the glass while I scoured the parchment menu, but I disassembled this appetizer as soon as it arrived and tasted the components separately to see if I could get some insight into Avner's inflated, roving mind. The tuna seemed mushy, the foie gras was oily and unappealing, and the compote was too salty. Yet when I put it back together and tasted it like a layered wedding cake, these flaws disappeared, and it danced in a rich, sophisticated surf-and-turf kind of way.

Another appetizer that inspired really deep culinary thoughts was the potato-crusted squid with Vietnamese vegetable salad and chilled carrot vinaigrette. Geez, what is it with ego-soaked chefs and endlessly long dish names? They constantly blather about ingredient simplicity, yet they construct menus that require Strunk and White decoder rings to read. Why couldn't this item be called spudded ink shooters in Charlie greens or Ho Chi Minh Hash to spare us the stress on our MTV-honed attention spans? Anyway, this bit of exotica swayed with the spicy, earthy flavor of daikon (an Asian radish) sprouts coupled with tender sweet squid strips and the aggressive crunch of a war-torn, barbed-wire mass of shredded iceberg lettuce, red and Napa cabbage, zucchini, and yellow squash accented with a bit of Japanese pickled ginger. The edges of the plate were drizzled with coriander oil and a pink curry-mayonnaise-lemon juice cocktail applied with a squeeze bottle. Lest you think this all sounds like an artsy fart on the palate of the common Dallas power diner, let me assure you that each flavor functioned expertly as part of this well-executed whole.

The entrees, for the most part, picked up on this appetizer excellence with, for example, the pan-seared California halibut on leek compote and sweet herb sauce; a dish that in our decoder ring shorthand could easily be dubbed "dude fish surfing in milk." This moist, flaky sea flesh swims in a reduction of white wine and cream spiked with basil, tarragon, coriander, oregano, and parsley topped with leeks poached in chicken stock. The whole thing proved light, provocative, and dashed with a bit of herbal sweetness.

Almost as good was the Maine lobster with lemon risotto, plum tomatoes, and green herbs. The lemon tang--not encumbered with butter--worked well with the tomato to cut into the lobster richness and open its flavors, while the risotto provided texture. But as I dug toward the bottom of the bowl, I found the risotto had coagulated into a thick paste.

Entrees that didn't work so well sprung mostly from the lunch menu. The cold (penne) pasta salad with vegetable spaghetti and grilled Pacific salmon medallions (whew) had some of the best bits of grilled salmon meat ever tasted. But the whole conglomeration was over-dressed, leaving it oily with an annoying sweetness. The fried catfish (coated with a Japanese bread crumb-cornmeal mixture) with shoestring potatoes and Okeanos tartar sauce was unbelievably void of flavor. And the grilled filet of beef tenderloin with crispy blue cheese wonton and mixed green salad (a dinner entree) showcased a fight in its midst: The strong tang of the demi-glace, flavored with tomato paste and red wine, sparred with the sharp bite of the blue cheese--both of which combined to wipe out the delicate flavors of the perfectly grilled cattle flesh. The clash was so belligerent, it was hard to enjoy a glass of the Ruffino Chianti Classico we ordered, as the wine was immediately crushed on the palate.

Which brings me to the wine list. Why, with a menu so innovative and global, is the wine selection so provincial and boring? Out of 22 wines, almost half are California Chardonnays, and only four wines are from outside the Golden State. This Chardonnay blubber could easily make room for an Italian Pinot Grigio, a Sancerre, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and an Australian Se'millon, while a Spanish Rioja and a lighter Côtes du Rhone would slip in nicely among the reds. This menu would be a blast with a tight, diverse selection of wines from all over. Why sell it short with vinified monotony?

Desserts were another disappointment. The Frangelica creme brulee, with a nice burnt sugar crust, didn't have discernible Frangelica flavor, and the inside was runny--more like a pudding than a custard. The cheesecake with raspberry sauce had a thick crust, something you don't see much these days. But there wasn't a whole lot of flavor--more bulk than pizzazz. One exciting offering, though, was the Far Niente Dolce, a Sauternes-style dessert wine rich in rhubarb and tropical fruit flavors. This wine may actually have been a better match for Samuel's blue cheese wonton-topped filet than a full-bodied red wine.

Samuel seems genuinely excited about his new venue. He says the Dallas restaurant scene is poised to enter a level of culinary excellence on a par with Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. "The customers are dying for that," he insists. Guess who Avner Samuel expects to lead this charge.

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