Cheap speed

Silks' reach for culinary respectability fades in the stretch

"I'm going to have to get into this horse-racing thing," an elderly woman chirped as she made her way from the betting window back to her table at Silks. "If for no other reason than to come here and enjoy all of this."
And that's what you'll find at Lone Star Park: an abundance of "all of this." If you're in the betting way, you'll discover lots of wagering amenities to keep you riveted in place: rows of betting windows and self-service betting machines (sort of like an ATM in reverse), wandering betting attendants who carry little computers on their shoulders so you can place a bet without ever leaving your Daily Double Steak Sandwich, and closed-circuit television monitors everywhere so you can keep tabs on races throughout the day.

If you're not in the betting way, there's still plenty to keep you occupied. Which is good, because I'm one of those who has a hard time getting into the swing of betting. I usually find myself wagering on things like how much time will pass before a set director brushes the clod of pancake makeup off Patrick Buchanan's shoulder during Crossfire. My other gambling experiences involve losing a pair of Nebraska Cornhusker gym shorts and my deceased aunt's coin collection through poker games.

That's why I was certain I could avoid all ancillary distractions when I made the trip to Silks at Lone Star Park to sample the food. And there are plenty of distractions. The facility's $96 million, seven-level grandstand rises from 315 acres of Grand Prairie scrub like an elaborate Spanish baroque-style monastery (somehow, the architects must have been irony-proofed on this one). Behind the grandstand is an appealing paddock area where the horses are saddled and paraded before each race. Up the stretch from the grandstand is the family fun park--a place to bring the kids if you don't want them to find out that "Tasting Spunky" ran off with their college tuition money--with picnic areas, a playground, a petting zoo, and pony rides.

But the most important feature of the park is its huge food service operation, which efficiently resupplies the girths of patrons with rapidly thinning wallets. One of the largest restaurant operations in North Texas, Lone Star Park has 12 concession areas, 11 bars, three restaurants, and a private dining club, all serviced by 13 kitchens, including an 8,400-square foot central kitchen on the third level of the grandstand. The crown jewel of all of this frenetic food service is the Silks Dining Room, an upscale restaurant named for the jacket and cap worn by jockeys.

"The way that we look at this is that it's an entertainment venue," explains executive chef Pat Hershorn. "As the chef, I've got to look at it to where it's not a racetrack--it's a restaurant." Hershorn, whose previous stints include one as executive chef at the Dallas Museum of Art, would have to be blindfolded to see it this way. Nearly every table in the tiered, four-level restaurant--which has expansive floor-to-ceiling windows facing the track--has a nine-inch Sony television carrying simulcasts of the races. A guy named Chuck Badone, the "track handicapper," periodically interrupts the televised statistics and pastoral scenes to give you the scoop on the upcoming race along with his picks, most of which will cost you. Badone also tries to explain track handicapping, an incomprehensible statistical analysis.

Another thing you'll find on your table is the Lone Star Park souvenir magazine, filled with history; jockey, owner, and trainer profiles; and a glossary of horse-racing jargon that defines such things as "washy" (a horse that becomes so nervous it sweats profusely before a race). You'll also hear lots of noises--from the racing announcements to the yelling and stomping of patrons trying to coax a horse across the finish line--and find people the next table over who place bets from wads of $50 and $100 bills while you scrape your pockets for an extra quarter to place a minimum $2 bet. Silks is not so much a restaurant as it is an interactive sports bar with Caesar salad and sliced pork loin in orange marmalade sauce replacing bowls of cheese balls and Chex party mix as bar snacks.

Silks has a set menu that changes seasonally (thoroughbreds April through July, and quarter horses October and November) and a buffet that changes daily. Menu items include things like appetizers, sandwiches, a ribeye steak, and daily specials ranging from quail to veal chops. Lone Star Nachos Grande was something that actually could feed a horse, or maybe two. It's a huge heap of stale tortilla chips, grilled chicken, refried beans, diced tomatoes, and sliced jalapenos. The cheese application was interesting in that it had a foundation of liquid cheesefood, similar to what you might find in ballpark nachos, and a light sprinkling of shredded jack and cheddar cheeses to give it authenticity. All in all, it was a gooey mess.

Hershorn says he believes Silks has to go head-to-head with some of the better restaurants in the Dallas area, because that's the kind of clientele he's drawing. "But we can't lose sight of the fact that there are people who do like chicken-fried steak, who do like baked chicken, who do like turkey and dressing," he adds. These considerations are obvious on the buffet. Four entrees, two vegetables, two starches, one soup, and anywhere from eight to 10 salads are available for all-you-can-eat indulgence each day.

Some of the better items included a black-eyed pea salad with bits of olive and pepper in a cilantro-infused vinaigrette, and the sweet, succulent peel-and-eat shrimp done in a boil that gave it just the right touch of bay leaf and other spice flavors. A tawny seafood bisque, with firm, juicy pieces of crawfish and crab seasoned with tarragon and Cajun spices, was velvety and rich. There were also tender slices of smoked turkey--firm, moist, and full of rich flavor.

The buffet also included a picnic-like elbow macaroni salad with ham and peas in deviled-egg flavored cream goo, and a beef stew like your own mom made with chewy cubes of beef tip, cremino mushrooms, and Vidalia onions.

"It's kind of like baseball," Hershorn says. "We're trying to touch all of the bases." Unfortunately, the jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none cliche works a little better than the baseball analogy. The sliced beef brisket was gristly, dry, and coarse, with a surface sheen of teal and magenta that resembled the color scheme on the back of a housefly. I suddenly wondered where old quarter horses spend their retirement years. The sliced pork tenderloin in an orange marmalade sauce with whole peppercorns was fatty and a little tough, while the sauce, with its forward, sweet flavors, seemed misapplied.

Sweet-and-sour shrimp--stir-fried with pineapple, green pepper, and other vegetables in rice wine--featured tiny shrimp marinated in sherry and cornstarch. The process produced tiny little ocean crustaceans coated with a chalky layer, and eating them was like munching on sweet-and-sour sauteed bathtub caulk.

Few of the vegetables even approached the complementary designation. A dismal dish of turnip greens sauteed with thin slices of pork in chicken stock and seasoned with clove and nutmeg was mushy, with a disturbing blush of sweetness. Sweet corn flecked with red pepper most certainly came from a can, and the fresh string beans with diced almonds were overcooked and soggy. Many of the liquids used to dress the salads began with Miracle Whip, which made for a Caesar salad that could easily inspire an Ides of March drama. This mix of romaine, waxy tomatoes, mushrooms, and cucumbers lumbered pathetically through a milky dribble. On a second visit, virtually the same assembly was mocked by a runny French dressing.

The service put another puncture in the attempt to transcend pari-mutuel fare. Our servers were far less attentive than the ones wandering around the floor collecting bets, and they never once mentioned the specials. And our lone attempt at ordering wine--from a list that had maybe five each in the sparkling, red, and white categories--inspired the most distinctive wine service ritual ever encountered. Several minutes after placing the order, our server tapped me on the shoulder, handed me a cork, and then disappeared. I was at a loss as to what I was supposed to do with it--perhaps take it to the betting window and place it on "It's the Roan Ranger" to show? A few minutes later, he came back with a single glass holding a splash of wine for me to taste, then disappeared yet again before returning after several minutes to ask if it was OK. Still more time passed before he showed up at our table holding a tray with glasses and a bottle. He set the glasses in front of us, poured the wine, and completed the ritual by presenting the label before setting the bottle on the table. I've had better wine service in Reno, and there they don't pretend they're doing anything more than fattening you up for another round of nickel slots and craps.

Of course, consideration must be given to the difficulty of maintaining food quality on a buffet table with uneven heat. But even with this taken into account, Silks is simply adequate as a restaurant, though it probably excels in refueling people engaged in the grueling act of losing hard-earned dollars on gorgeously svelte, swift animals with tremendously stupid names. With a side order of tip sheets, Silks is a culinary tour de force.

Take away those horses, though, and it's little more than the top end of an exacta that includes Luby's.

Silks. Club House Dining Level 4, Lone Star Park, on Belt Line Road just north of Interstate 30, Grand Prairie. (972) 263-7669. Open Thursday & Friday, 4:30 p.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday & Sunday, noon-4:30 p.m. through November 30.

Readers with comments may e-mail Mark Stuertz at markstz@juno.com.

Clubhouse dining entrance fee $5
Lone Star Nachos Grande $8.95
Daily Double Steak Sandwich $11.95
Silks Buffet $16.50

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