Pooped-out pony

Palomino blows its wad on style, forgets food

Meals open with slices of sourdough bread served at room temperature accompanied by a chilled spread made from chunks of tomato, bits of kalamata olive, feta cheese, and basil in olive oil. The flavors are very nearly appealing, but the pairing rendered the bread cold and soggy--urban Mediterranean jail food. A serving of herb-crusted portofino dip, a creamy dip roughened-up with chunks of artichoke heart, Dungeness crab, parmesan, and onions, was rich and satisfying with a nice, offsetting tang. But the accompanying vincenzo crisps, seasoned with Italian flat parsley and sun-dried tomatoes, were unnecessarily slathered with olive oil, dangerously tipping the dish into richness overkill.

But the portobello mushroom soup, a chicken stock-based pottage finished with heavy cream and garnished with port, had a beautifully forward mushroom flavor and a smooth, satiny texture. Equally compelling was the spinach salad with warm walnut goat cheese. Sprinkled with bits of spit-roasted duck, this salad could have easily been kicked out of balance with all of the intense flavors in play. But the pancetta vinaigrette added a clean, lively backdrop to the goat cheese and the chewy, succulent duck.

Palomino's wine list is a bit monotonous and lacking in diversity, peculiar for a venue boasting broad Mediterranean roots. It has a fair selection of Italian wines, and even one from Spain. But it's roughly two-thirds Californian, and there are virtually no French red wines on the list--astounding for something calling itself a bistro. Plus, while the list includes a wine from Chile and another from Washington state, it has no wines from Texas, an indication that localization efforts are half-hearted at best.

The wine service, however, like Palomino's service in general, is stellar. When ordering wine by the glass, your server will bring the bottle along with the glass and present the label for your inspection. Not only does this give you the opportunity to make sure the wine you ordered is the one you want, it eliminates any suspicion of "bait and switch" at the bar. Plus the ceremony of having the glass poured at your table adds elegance to the meal.

But the food has a tendency to toss a wet blanket on this elegance at times. Perhaps the most disappointing item on the menu was the Morangos sea bass, a Chilean version of this fish plopped in a swamp of dull, creamy polenta and served with Prince Edward Island mussels. The fish was mushy, slimy, and without much flavor while the mussels were overly chewy and void of sweet succulence. Because of a lukewarm response by Dallas diners, Price says he is going to rework the dish by encrusting the bass with fresh horseradish, herbs, and bread crumbs and oven-roasting it before painting the plate with a fresh infused rosemary-chive oil. Anything would be a welcome change.

Another disappointing selection, one that Price says undergoes the most intense preparation process of any item on the menu, is the butternut squash risotto with roasted baby pumpkin. It consists of roasted butternut squash and onions with mushrooms over Arborio risotto prepared with white wine, extra rich Italian chicken stock, and vegetable stock. But it was texturally out of whack, with huge chunks of onion and dry, overcooked squash overwhelming the tender, creamy risotto finished in parmesan sage butter. Despite the ingredients and elaborate preparation (or perhaps because of them), no flavor was able to break free from the morass to engage the palate or harmonize the dish.

There were no such problems with the hardwood-grilled Atlantic salmon. The fish was flawlessly balanced between rich salmon succulence and the sharp smoky flavor rendered from the hardwood grill. A vermouth-garlic basting oil added a layer of subtle richness and a hollowed half-artichoke bud held a tangy, chunky artichoke tartar sauce for dipping. A bed of baby greens in a light, perfumy raspberry vinaigrette set the whole thing off with a gentle surge of raciness.

Perhaps the best excuse for a sandwich I've ever tasted, the iron grill turkey sandwich--a true bistro preparation--was as interestingly complex as it was rustically satiating. Smoked turkey basted with a garlic vinaigrette is layered with provolone, thinly sliced prosciutto, and red onions between two slices of garlic mayonnaise-slathered bread before the full assembly is inserted into an iron grill that chars both the top and bottom at the same time. The finished sandwich is hot and crisp on the outside while the inside is moist, chewy, and slightly chilled. A side of well-seasoned, crisp, chewy waffle fries makes this one of the most lunch-worthy plates in Dallas.

A dessert of cranberry-apple tart again set things back into the disappointing side. Resembling a vending-machine sweet roll, it was almost inedibly sour from the seemingly unworked cranberries. Nothing--from the textures to the flavors--balanced on this cranberry pillow with a dollop of vanilla-nut bean ice cream on top. But the disappointment was quickly dispensed at the conclusion of the meal with the presentation of Palomino's "thoughts for good friends," a kind of a bistro fortune-cookie fortune. Mine read, "A great meal is like a fireworks display, nothing remains." I thought about this as I pondered the barely touched sea bass while studying my tart with a single bite out of the corner. Irony savored.

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