Dining in the dark

Hotel St. Germain forgets a culinary dictum: "The eye has its rights"

Dining at Hotel St. Germain is odd in a haunting, Ross Perot sort of way. While the space is rich and says all of the right things--historic elegance with an engaging personality derived from comfortable turn-of-the-century furnishings--little crazy-aunt-in-the-basement details and daughter's-wedding-disrupted-by-Republican-operatives missteps crop up, making you wonder what the heck is going on here.

Opened in 1991 by businesswoman and former New Orleans resident Claire Heymann, Hotel St. Germain has an amusing past. It was built in 1906 by Dallas real estate developer John Murphy, who desired a Queen Anne-style mansion as a monument to his success. Since ceasing service as a residence some 50 years ago, the structure has at different times been an insurance office, an art gallery, a doctor's office, and a computer school, among other things. The building housed a discotheque in the '70s called The Haunted House, where the current dining room served as a dance floor while an alcove in one of the parlors did duty as a coffin receptacle.

Heymann discovered the property in the late '80s, then a foreclosed, boarded-up hovel facing a wrecking ball, while scouring the area between McKinney and Turtle Creek for an old house worthy of conversion into a small, stylish hotel similar to those she had visited on numerous jaunts to San Francisco. But unlike San Francisco, where boutique hotels are often sandwiched between historic buildings of some architectural note along streets of breathtaking tourist appeal, the original Murphy mansion neighborhood has transformed into an area of high rise office buildings. Hotel St. Germain even has the imposing Crescent complex across the street.

This is not to say that Heymann's vision is not boldly imaginative for a city like Dallas. The seven-suite hotel is named concurrently after Heymann's French grandmother, the St. Germain area of Paris, and the patron saint of Paris. It is cluttered with refined, elegant furnishings. Heymann's mother, an antiques dealer, helped fashion Heymann's lust for exquisite acquisitiveness, and many of the hotel's furnishings came from her mother's collections, with the rest selected through various auctions. The result is an odd mix of romance, quaintness, European-style finery, and antique-collector busyness. The parlors are stuffed with fabrics fussily pleated, puddled, lashed and tasseled, as well as handsome furnishings seasoned with art deco accents and shabby chic touches. But the ambiance is marred by a seeming lack of attentiveness to detail revealed in the out-of-place faux-painted woodwork and a scattering of votive candles forced into service as lighting centerpieces instead of accents. The sparsely furnished (just over a half-dozen tables) dining room with an elaborate chandelier looks out over a leafy walled courtyard with several more tables and a dribbling fountain.

Weaving through this boutique-hotel sumptuousness are the hotel's "butlers"--as the servers are called--dressed in black tuxedos, white gloves, and blank, Stepford-wives grins. These pretentious trappings, however, did little to set service apart from the ordinary. It fact, the staff seemed to be butlering with learners' permits. When we arrived for dinner, a desk clerk--after some prodding--ushered us into a parlor and said a butler would be by in a moment to take our drink order. Ten minutes later, we were still watching votive candles flicker alongside a table with used glasses and crumpled cocktail napkins. Several minutes after reminding the desk clerk we were still there and as yet butlerless, a sardonic-looking server arrived, and we asked him about the wine-by-the-glass selections. "We have red, and we have white," he said.

Hmmm. No wine-list presentation, no verbal explanation of specific wines, just "red and white." Is this level of condescension current butler chic? (Maybe so. A recent Wall Street Journal article reported that in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, boutique hotel snottiness and indifference to guests is the current rage. St. Germain may be on the cutting edge.)

We pried Hotel St. Germain's wine-by-the-glass offerings out of him, however, and after placing our order, another butler stopped by to ask us if what we said we wanted was really what we wanted. Several minutes later, still another butler delivered our wines--only they weren't the ones we had ordered despite the contrived confirmation process. Our original selections were finally served by a different butler. Is there a surplus of white gloves in Dallas? Fortunately, the service improved markedly once we were seated in the dining room.

Late in the summer, former St. Germain executive chef William Guthrie was replaced with Quang Duong, while dining-room service was expanded from three to five nights per week this October. Quang, 31, is a graduate of the Ecole Hotelliere de Chamalleres Institute in France, and he apprenticed under Alian Ducasse in Monte Carlo and Paris before a stint at Citronelle in Washington, D.C. St. Germain's prix fixe menu--which requires an entree selection made in advance from a choice of three offerings--is showing some interesting leanings since Quang's arrival.

A "surprise du jour" opens the six-course menu. On this occasion our surprise was a shrimp strudel: sweet, tender shrimp wrapped in a delicate, flaky pastry cut at a sharp angle. Dribbled with a light, creamy salmon caviar and sun-dried tomato sauce and dabbed with salmon roe, the creation was like a slice of Frenchified sushi. The salmon roe provided a gripping burst of intensity in contrast to the core construction of subtle flavor layers.

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