Pleasure chained

Mediterraneo at the Quadrangle is even better than itself

There's one thing that you can almost always count on in the restaurant business: A fairly decent, reasonably priced dining concept will inevitably evolve into a chain and go public, or its chef will become a licensed character and star in a Saturday-morning superhero cooking cartoon.

This sort of evolutionary process is precisely what David Holben, Michael Caolo, and Franco Bertolasi--the trio behind the Riviera, Toscana, and Mediterraneo--are engaged in as they prepare to clone two of their restaurants. And if the imagination, energy, and luster this trio seem to slather effortlessly on their venues isn't diluted and made banal by the process--something that is perhaps too much to hope for--the result could be one of the most interesting restaurant companies in the country.

In August, the three restaurateurs launched the FoodStar Restaurant Group, a company that aims to open as many as 40 restaurants nationwide over the next few years patterned after Mediterraneo and Toscana. The expansion will be broken down into four phases of 10 restaurants each with a focus on cities in the South and West. With Bertolasi as chairman, Caolo as president and chief executive officer, and Holben as executive chef, the group has the backing of two multimillion-dollar venture capital funds and has ambitious plans to take the company public in the near future.

Restaurants are planned for Phoenix, New Orleans, and Birmingham, Alabama, over the next year, and the company is in the process of acquiring an additional North Dallas location.

The first restaurant birthing for the new company took place in November as Mediterraneo at the Quadrangle. If this new venue is a clear indication of what is to come, any city that gets a restaurant from this company should count its lucky FoodStars. In a general sense, this Quadrangle incarnation isn't that much different from its Plano sibling: It has some of the same design touches and has inherited some 70 percent of the menu. But while the Mediterraneo up north is little more than a crisp, loud, chic shack, this new installation feels warmer, cozier, and more sophisticated.

Much of this is the result of simple design elements such as lower ceilings and generous use of carpeting and fabric wall coverings, which cut down on noise. Materials such as Murano glass chandeliers, glass mosaic tiles, and terrazzo floors, plus wave forms that weave through the bar and in the walls, create a clean, understated Mediterranean feel. On one wall covered in blue fabric, sconces filled with water and holding fresh flowers are mounted with focused spotlights beaming down from above, giving the illusion the light is emanating from the bottom of the vase.

The food, a fusion of Southern French and Northern Italian, is equally engaging--even charismatic, if food can be described as such. David Woodward, chef de cuisine at the Plano location, is chef de cuisine at the Quadrangle. He says they borrowed some of the more popular items from Plano whole and transformed other selections by modifying sauces and presentation. "I wouldn't say it was a style change. It was more of an item change," he says, describing the subtle differences. "What we didn't want was too much of a comparison between the two menus. We wanted each restaurant to be individual." He describes the menu as "comfort food," a term I usually associate with raw, forceful appetite suppression wrapped in teddy-bear fur. But what Woodward seems to mean is familiar foods and flavorings twisted and tweaked just enough to generate interest. "We are not looking to be cutting-edge," he adds emphatically.

You can see this thinking in one of Mediterraneo's most popular creations, the horseradish-crabmeat-crusted halibut. The goal with this was to marry a familiar pairing--horseradish flavor from the cocktail sauce that often accompanies crab or shrimp--with the delicate seafood flavor of halibut. At first glance this might seem like culinary sadism, and Woodward admits there was a tremendous amount of trial and error before this dish was ready for prime time. But the results are subtle and creamy, with piercing horseradish flavors that keep it from getting offensively soft and cute. A champagne-leek sauce features fish stock and champagne vinegar in heavy cream with sauteed leeks.

One of the more successful new items here is an appetizer, the savory grilled shrimp and Maine lobster-toasted quinoa (a rice-like grain that was a staple of the Incas). The shrimp, veneered with a rub of chile, ancho, and serrano peppers in oil, was moist, tender, and succulent with a firm, but not overbearing, kick of seasonings. The lobster-toasted quinoa, diced tomatoes, and mangoes, along with arugula in a balsamic vinaigrette, slapped an engaging framework around the assembly.

Another Plano standard that is even more dazzling at the Quadrangle is the beef carpaccio with shaved parmesan. The silken, nearly translucent slices of sirloin were cool, rich, and delicate. But the addition of fried capers proved a brilliant stroke of contrasting interplay, dotting the subtle rose-raw meat with potently flavored balls of black ash.

Roasted tenderloin of beef Provencal, another addition, was a tender, well-aged piece of beef with rich, moist flavors that dazzled with their meaty assertiveness. But again it was one of the old standbys, a pork chop rubbed with coriander and black pepper, that really encapsulated the collective imagination of the place. Aside from flooding this chunk of meat with alluring flavors, the coriander-pepper rub, which is applied to the meat and left to work on it for 12 to 24 hours, cures it, drawing out moisture while it adds density. The result is a silken piece of meat void of chewy, mealy grain. A cherry-maple glaze and sage sauce propels it with a rich tanginess and herbal breath.

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