Stogie's last gasp?

Lone Wolf sends it off with class and taste

Equally disastrous were the aurore quesadillas filled with shrimp, gorgonzola, and smoked chile in an aurore sauce. Nothing here meshed well. Served almost cold, the gooey, limp rolls held shrimp that were mercilessly clobbered by the musty-sock pungency of the gorgonzola. Plus the sauce, made with marinara, cheddar cheese, and jalapeno, had no bite to cut through.

Service was adequate on one visit and abysmal on a second. It was 15 minutes before our first server contact, with large spans of time between visits speckled with numerous frustrated requests for attention. But this seemed more the result of poor floor management than server ineptitude. Instead of focusing service in the den and dining areas separately, servers were shuttling back and forth between spaces, which are divided by a long stretch along the entrance and the bar. We had more visits from the cigar hostess who strolled around with a cigar box and a lighter--perhaps an illustration of where the markups in this place lie.

This Dallas venue is a prototype for a lounge Norris, Belushi, and their investors plan to expand in other states, targeting secondary cities, such as Denver, rather than major metropolitan areas. As it stands, it should be successful--as long as the cigar craze doesn't choke badly enough to smog out this mostly fine menu.

It's hard to pin down exactly what makes Tarantino's work. Every component in the place, from the atmosphere, to the location, to the menu, to the service, has its share of flaws--some of them striking. But the whole thing wadded up and bound together makes for such an eclectically entertaining experience that you find yourself wanting to return just to figure out exactly what it is that has you hooked.

Located in the former State Bar space across from the State Fair Music Hall, Tarantino's is in one of Dallas' few stretches of sophisticated urban grittiness. It's home to a few loft-residing artists and other cultural underground types as well as some oddball bars and shops basking in the art deco aura of Fair Park--perhaps the most depressingly under-appreciated urban jewel in the metroplex. It is long, narrow, and dark with black booth upholstery, tables, chairs, and other trim, and large abstract paintings on one wall with a pair of compelling portraits on the other by Dallas artists. Eclectic sounds--supposedly soundtrack cuts from 1970s European porno movies--are piped in at levels that are both crisp and conducive to conversation.

It's ripe with stark urban hipness void of the contrived, snotty remoteness that often makes these haunts just plain silly. The reason for this is the inviting appeal of Matt, Patrick (chef), and Peter (manager) Tarantino, the brothers/owners of this Exposition Park space who are from the same family that once ran Tarantino's Cafe and Deli on Abrams and Mockingbird a few years ago.

Tarantino's is really little more than a bar offering a small but well-thought-out wine list featuring selections from Spain, Italy, and Chile coupled with a selection of simple and sophisticated appetizers. Curiously demarcated by headings such as Act I, Scene II through Act III, the menu includes uncomplicated items such as an antipasta plate with a fresh selection of meats, cheeses, fruits, and daily additions; and the lively hearts of palma salad with artichoke hearts, hearts of palm, and olives in a light vinaigrette.

A selection of bread spreads constitutes what is perhaps one of the best watering-hole snacks ever assembled. Spreads include roasted garlic, a lively basil pesto, black olive pate, a lemon-caper cream cheese that surprisingly lacked assertiveness, a drippy pureed roasted red bell pepper coulis, and a light, smooth apple butter.

But things start to fray once the preparations get beyond the elegantly simple. The ceviche, with tender chunks of cod served in a martini glass, was thoroughly unappealing and suffered from a debilitating clash of acids and flavors that blanketed the mouth with an aftertaste reminiscent of reconstituted lemon juice. The bottom was doused with roasted red bell pepper coulis that, through the inexplicable wonders of food chemistry, foamed slightly, leaving a texture as off as the taste.

Stuffed with sausage, wrapped in smoked bacon, and slathered in a balsamic-molasses reduction, the quail featured a titan clash of concentrated flavors that fought each other into a blur of gustatory intensity while smothering the quail in the scuffle.

The pastry-coated beef, a special, featured an overdone, slightly tough bit of tenderloin with a dollop of horseradish pureed goat cheese with roasted shallots, sweet apple mango chutney, and roasted red bell pepper coulis painted on the side of the plate. You don't even have to taste this to anticipate the confused collision of flavors at work here. The rich, fruity sweetness of the chutney virtually canceled out the beef, while the bite of the horseradish goat cheese had a devil of a time breaking through to offer anything interesting. That dollop of puree with a better cut of meat and a splattering of the coulis toned of its sweetness would perhaps have been more successful.

Though eating here can be a hit-and-miss exercise, Tarantino's is a simple place with an edgy, compelling urban aura and an engrossing spirit that appears to be genuinely sincere. A menu tightly tailored to elevate, as well as shrewdly contrast, these characteristics would make this one of the best evening spots in Dallas.

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