Pooped-out pony

Palomino blows its wad on style, forgets food

The first thing that struck me about Palomino Euro Bistro is its name: Why would a place ostensibly patterned from a European cafe name itself after a horse popularized by Roy Rogers and his ride Trigger? General Manager George Korbel assured me there's no special meaning associated with the name, other than that it supposedly evokes the feeling parent company Restaurants Unlimited was after when it created the place in Seattle back in 1989. The fleeting horse connotes swiftness and fun, says Korbel.

Of course, the press kit contains a liberal sprinkling of headlines like "A Show Pony is Born," "Palomino: The Euro Bistro that 'Shows, Places and Wins,'" and "Palomino Bistro riding in..." to introduce folks to the concept. But I don't know. Roy Rogers' horse and European bistros don't seem to have much in common unless cold Flicka filet and cheese plates are signature dishes. Even then, Palomino still seems a bit out of kilter, like a pointless effort to turn a plow horse into Prince Charles' polo steed. A bistro is supposed to be a small, modest cafe serving down-to-earth, localized vittles. But Palomino's press kit makes quite an effort pointing out that this 11,000-square-foot restaurant, exquisitely extruded into the old Le Chardonnay space in the Crescent Atrium, is jammed with high-cost touches including rich woods (American ash, African sapele, mahogany, makorie), exotic marbles (Spanish rojo alicante, Italian vagali calacatta rosa, Portuguese estremoz), and oversized wall art in the manner of Matisse and Leger. (Presumably named for the Spanish conquistador Don Juan de Palomino, this chestnut-colored horse is a color type rather than a breed in the strict sense, because it does not breed true. Perhaps there is some special meaning at work here after all.)

The restaurant also has handblown art-glass chandeliers, pendants, and vignettes by Louis Owen and Martin Blank, who are, presumably, a regular pair of Joe DiMaggio's in the art-glass handblowing world. The press kit, and the menu for that matter, also makes quite a fuss over Palomino's "sinuously curving bar," Tuscan red columns finished with hand-rubbed crackle varnish from France, and hand-painted (think of all of the blowing, rubbing, and stroking hands working this horse over) roses and other flowers, silk-head yucca Rostratas, and live Raphis palms. This aptly illustrates how the bistro has gone the way of sex on the eve of the 21st century, annihilating any hint of modesty and unpretentiousness. Just as sex has evolved from a simple act of procreation and post-Saturday-night-shower vandalism into endless rivers of exotic jellies and oils, flurries of Duracell double A's, yards of ribbed latex, and ceiling-joist-stressing swings and harnesses, so has the bistro moved from a simple, neighborhood cafe with solid food into a sophisticated eye-candy carnival emphasizing an "urban and energetic" stylishness.

This is not to say that Palomino isn't beautiful; it is--in a slick nip-and-tuck sort of way. It sparkles with lots of little halogen spots, sleek curvaceous forms, a preponderance of deep lavender and rose hues, dark booths, marble-topped tables, and floors that move from rich tile into dark carpeting with multicolored little worms moving through it. Simplicity and down-to-earth dining this is not, though somehow this fresh, sophisticated glitziness creates a warm, inviting ambiance that's surprisingly conducive to conversation.

The Dallas Palomino is the seventh installation in this upscale dining chain with links in Seattle, San Francisco, Honolulu, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, and Palm Desert, California. Plans call for a dozen or more additional bistros nationwide over the next three years, with other Texas restaurants planned for Houston and San Antonio. Most Palominos have downtown locations because the founders believe these environments have the right dynamic for the concept to thrive. They seek to link the dining experience with the ebb and flow of urbanity by including up-to-date events listings, such as opera, symphony, and sporting events, on the menu.

The Dallas spot is flush with staff from other Palomino locations--including executive chef Jim Price, who has spent anywhere from six months to two years in just about every one of the locations--working to get the operation up to snuff. And it's obvious Palomino takes service seriously. As soon as you're seated, a server will ask if you are under any time constraints and then make appropriate service adjustments and menu suggestions--a simple touch that will go miles in Dallas. If you're in no hurry, the servers allow you to set the pace--without rushing, ignoring, or obtrusively hovering--keeping wine and water glasses filled and dishes cleared almost without notice: They politely get in, take care of business, and get out.

In contrast to the service, however, the food often doesn't get much beyond adequate. The creators of this Euro bistro make much of the fact that they scoured Italy before the restaurant's inception, honing a menu they dub "urban Mediterranean," another one of those old world/new world fusion concepts that seems comprehensible only on press-release paper. The kitchen has a grill, oven, and rotisserie fired with white oak (other locations use apple wood, which imparts a richer flavor), while the menu itself features an assortment of pizzas, pastas, roasted chicken and pork, and grilled fish. Price says the goal is to incorporate local ingredients as much as possible in each restaurant, using, for example, Pacific salmon in Seattle and gulf snapper in Dallas. Yet the only beef that shows up on the Dallas menu is spit-roasted Black Angus prime rib and honey-garlic-crusted Black Angus tenderloin.

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