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.

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.

Palomino Euro Bistro. The Crescent Atrium, (214) 999-1222. Open for lunch, Monday-Friday 11:15 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Open for dinner, Sunday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5 p.m.-midnight.

Palomino Euro Bistro
Herb-crusted portofino dip $8.95
Portobello mushroom soup $3.95
Spinach salad with walnut-crusted goat cheese $12.95
Butternut squash risotto $11.95
Morangos sea bass $17.95
Hardwood-grilled Atlantic salmon $18.95

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