Go figure

Enigma is a dazzling puzzle of utter befuddlement

"What the hell is this, and why does it cost so damn much money?" These are the only truly engaging questions that dining at Enigma provokes. Not that this place isn't baffling on many levels. It's just so strenuously contrived that instead of wondering what kind of eccentric mind is at work here, you find yourself asking who would devote so much cash and effort to fabricating a restaurant designed to fill us with wonder. Somehow, the place has everything backwards. So it's no surprise that the wonder dissipates, and you're left with a persistent question: Why?

After its lease expired late last year on the McKinney Avenue space that was the restaurant's home since it opened in 1993, Enigma moved to the huge, two-level property on Routh and Cedar Springs that once housed Americana and Routh Street Cafe. Having purchased the building, Enigma's owners immediately set about to field-dress the place, taking it down to the studs and concrete and installing new plumbing, wiring, and a telephone system. The walls were covered with textured wallpaper and painted white. A new staircase--a surreal, undulating thing with a hand-carved banister that looks as if it were composed on an Etch-A-Sketch by Timothy Leary on peyote--was supposedly scrawled out on a piece of paper by one of Enigma's managers. The contractor told him he was out of his mind. But money talks, and the thing was built--an oddity that adds to its allure.

Yet the most puzzling thing about Enigma is the silly lengths it's managers will go to create an aura of obscurity. "We don't have any sign out front," says General Manager Bob Bablu. "We never expose ourselves." Bablu goes so far as to say that he doesn't want Dallas to know Enigma even exists in these new digs, at least until this currently operational restaurant is completed with a fresh infusion of artwork, which he estimates will take anywhere from one to two years. (After making repeated requests to pull this review, Bablu also refused to let me interview his chef and would not allow Dallas Observer photographers on the premises.)

Legitimate obscurity comes from what often are ingenious adaptations to restrictive circumstances (speakeasies, Harlem jazz clubs, wealthy business people desiring distance from a threatening public), not from unnecessary secrecy generated in the hope of creating a provocative aura of eccentricity. The fact that Bablu wants to shrink into some contrived fine-dining underground culture shows that he either doesn't understand the enticement of the genuinely enigmatic, or someone in the operation is suffering from acute bank-account obesity--or both.

Which brings us to the one mystery in which the Enigma staff consistently loves to indulge: the identity of Enigma's owner. Manager Ramsey Elissa fingers Robert Childress, a 33-year-old Londoner and heir to an oil fortune, as the deed holder. But this seems little more than a puff of smoke. Shortly after Enigma opened five years ago, Bablu reportedly claimed the owner was a 36-year-old wealthy London businessman, who he also added was handsome. Oil wealth may make you erratic or insanely arrogant, but it certainly won't reverse the aging process. There was even a rumor floating around that the owner was Elton John, and this speculation may have some legs. Could the vigorous expansion of Enigma so closely following Princess Di's rescue of Elton John's musical career be more than mere coincidence?

In the end, we'll probably discover that the proprietor is the dishwasher's mother.

And dishwashing at Enigma is a deadly serious business. Everything is hand-washed and delicately handled--a fairly challenging business considering that the tables look as though they were set by a Vegas blackjack dealer trainee. Glasses are set on their sides with mismatched flatware fanned out from the bowl. Place settings vary wildly and are deliberately shuffled and assembled seemingly at random. Settings include pieces by Erte, Versace, Lilly Dodson, Rosenthal, and Baccarat, some costing as much as $1,500 each, and a good number of them costing several hundred dollars. A few of the glasses are extraordinarily odd, with one resembling a miniature bed pan and several others with a series of tentacled stems jutting out from the bottom of the bowl, like a set of legs on an X-Files extra.

Tables of Italian marble are surrounded by black laminate chairs or bright suede bucket seats on three legs, the third limb a wooden protrusion slithering out of the back of the seat like a quivering tongue. Bronze statues by artist Bill Mack--mostly of naked or semi-naked women in various positions with stretched and flexing limbs and torsos--give the place the feel of a bordello yoga class. A number of similar brass reliefs by Mack, along with other pieces, will slowly seep into the new space over the next year, making their way primarily to the second level, which will be used for private parties. The art and other artifacts are supposedly stored in a tri-level condominium somewhere in Dallas where the mysterious owner catalogs his eccentricities--all in the service of Enigma.

Enigma's service is impeccable, with execution as warm as it is deft. Fortunately, the food picks up on this cue and sends it on a gust of loftiness. Despite the fact that the menu reads like the cast of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom--ostrich, kangaroo, alligator, buffalo, elk--each dish is meticulously prepared and assembled, with no two preparations ever presented in exactly the same manner. The rabbit with mixed greens, an assembly of yellow tomato, mesclun, mushroom, and generous chunks of juicy, firm rabbit slathered in an Asian-like sauce, offered a wisp of smoke and a subtle balance of contrasting flavors and textures.

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