Joey's wobbles

But it doesn't fall down

Dessert also revealed those two sides of the coin. The banana-and-peanut butter cream pie (a Joey's signature dish) was mushy and syrupy--a huge sweetness collision without much delineation among flavors. Faring far better, the Key lime pie topped with meringue (instead of whipped cream) and ringed with dribbles of lime, raspberry, and strawberry sauce was fairly close to authentic, with a skillful mingling of the requisite flavors (sweet and tart) and textures (creamy and crunchy).

Despite this schizophrenia, Joey's is eminently worth visiting. When the food works and the place is humming in sync, the experience is spectacular. But all too often, Joey's humming sounds like Lou Reed yodeling the "Star Spangled Banner" before a pro wrestling match.

Sipango is a place for the sveltely sexy; the conspicuously primped; the elegantly hip. It's also a good place to watch foreign cars get parked.

I spotted a brand-new red Ferrari Maranello, a Porsche Carrera, and a Mercedes CL600 put through Sipango's rigorous valet paces in the short time between the placement of our appetizer order and its arrival. And when I first walked up to the restaurant, I met a young woman in a short skirt and strappy Italian pumps as sultry as the Maranello's body creases who pointed to a brand-new Audi Cabriolet parked on the sidewalk to her left, just under Sipango's windows. "You can win this tonight," she said excitedly. "Buy a raffle ticket. If the Cowboys return a kick for a touchdown, there'll be a drawing. You can win this."

It was Monday. The Cowboys were splattering their particular shades of blue and silver all over the wide screens in Sipango's bar. And Deion Sanders and a little luck were the only things standing between me and a new ragtop. I quickly realized that Sipango isn't so much a place to explore menu composition as it is a venue for showing everyone how smartly you can accessorize a pair of Ferragamo loafers with the leather interior of a Lotus Esprit.

But menu composition was what I came for--especially since I drove up in a Ford. And this is a particularly opportune time to explore Sipango, considering all of its recent changes. Former executive chef Matthew Antonovich, who owned the restaurant with Ron Corcoran and Keith Jones, sold out to his partners. Wichita, Kansas-based Lone Star Steakhouse and Saloon (owner of Del Frisco's) quickly filled the void by acquiring a 50 percent stake in the venture, and the partnership has tentative plans to expand in other cities such as Houston, Phoenix, and Chicago. Britton McIntyre, formerly of the Hyatt Regency Dallas, the Anatole, and the Monte Carlo in the Grand Kempinski Hotel before becoming Sipango's chef de cuisine, is now executive chef.

McIntyre, who says he has no plans to dramatically alter Sipango's Cal-Ital style, admits that his technique differs significantly from Antonovich's and that he would like to shuffle the menu a bit more often. "I'm not going to try and go down the road to some Asian influence, or all of a sudden become a French place," he says.

Then how does he explain the tuna steak with wok-charred vegetables and red curry sauce? Whatever his answer, the steak was tender, silky--if a little mushy--and ripe, with a potent smoky flavor garnered from oak-fired grilling. The nutty, savory sauce, borne of sauteed onions, curry powder, chicken stock, and coconut milk, seemed to absorb the smoke from the tuna and then assault the vegetables--including red and Napa cabbages plus grilled baby bok choy--with its flavor and salt.

Slipping more easily into Sipango's stated theme, the salmon carpaccio was arrayed like a flower with disks of paper-thin salmon as petals. Coarsely chopped romaine and a relish of finely chopped tomatoes, onion, cucumber, and red pepper were dolloped into the center of this floral assembly. Dribbles of bright green cilantro-and-lemon-infused grapeseed oil accented the striking construction. But the taste lacked distinction. The salmon, slightly mushy, was void of clean, fresh flavors, and it seemed texturally disjointed, with the coarseness of the chopped romaine stepping on the delicate salmon like a clumsy dance partner.

A chef friend of mine in Northern California laments that far too many restaurants there take a pass on invention and instead embrace a formulaic approach to their menus. The recipe includes a wood-fired oven and offerings such as pizzas, a roasted half-chicken, a slab of grilled fish (tuna, sword, mahi mahi), a piece of game, and some variation on the grilled pork chop, along with sides of daring French-fried potato constructions.

Sipango doesn't have game or fried potatoes, but it does employ the rest of the formula, albeit with a barely perceptible Southwestern touch here and there. The wood-fired pizzas fare pretty well. Our gorgonzola pizza with grilled artichokes, asparagus, tomatoes, and shreds of basil had a moist, chewy crust with a thin layer of crispness holding up a light, well-balanced assembly of ingredients.

The double-crown pork chop, however, was a disappointment. Moistened in a rich demi-glace and accompanied by a menage of sweet potatoes, potatoes, haricots verts, baby carrots, baby beets, and pearl onions, the pork was dry, a little tough, and very tight on flavor.

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