Fog is lifting

Fog City Diner clears a clouded focus

Procter & Gamble discovered long ago that you could breathe new life into a product, such as a box of Tide or a tube of Crest, by slapping the words "new" and "improved" on the package. The actual improvements may be little more than a sprinkling of little green "fresh scent" granules that make your clothes smell as though they were line-dried at a French bordello or a new shade of translucent gel that adds a loud, Las Vegas hue to your gingivitis.

But we swallow the packaging hook, line, and sinker, and walk around with tingling smiles and smelling like a car air freshener. This is the sort of trickery that came to mind when I received a press kit hailing the new and improved Fog City Diner.

"Fog City Diner in Dallas, the popular Uptown restaurant, just commemorated three years in the city, has unveiled a new menu and has returned to its parent company," says a news release. Buried in that sentence's tangled syntax is the suggestion that more than a few people recognized that Fog City wasn't up to snuff in its Dallas incarnation. (In addition to the San Francisco original, there is a licensed version in Osaka, Japan; a corporate version in Las Vegas; and another one scheduled to open in Chicago in April.) A dramatic rebirth seemed necessary via a purchase by the restaurant's founder, San Francisco-based Real Restaurants Inc.

Real Restaurants, which had licensed the Fog City concept to a group of Dallas investors that included Dallas Cowboy Troy Aikman and Texas Ranger Will Clark, determined that the food and service here had slipped irrevocably, muddling the crisp, creative approach of the original. With menus under the eye of acclaimed California chef Cindy Pawlcyn, Real Restaurants has some of the nation's finest and most provocative dining venues. After sampling the original Fog City and a few of the company's creations such as Mustards and Tra Vigne in Napa Valley, and Bistro Roti and the Pan-Asian beer house Betelnut in San Francisco, anyone could conclude that this Dallas component was little more than a foggy imitation. That's a troubling contradiction for a company named Real. The food lacked focus; the service was erratic. "It's been a realm of trial and error," says Executive Chef Tomas Lee. "We're trying to get to that point of being consistent and people coming back."

On the surface, the changeover seems as deep as the new-and-improved starburst packaging splashes on a box of reformulated laundry soap. A few Texas-inspired menu creations have been dropped, while others have been added, and a few more have been tweaked. Nothing dramatic, really.

The perceptible shift here is in attitude. The service is crisply efficient, congenial, and seemingly attuned to customers. On my second visit, a manager, a waiter, and a busboy each recognized me from a previous stop and inquired about my experience--which, honestly, wasn't very impressive.

A seared rare tuna, avocado, and orange salad--a big hair mound of watercress over sections of orange, less-than-tender avocado, and a trio of tuna slices--suffered from a lack of freshness. The tuna had a grayish hue instead of the deep pink characteristic of the freshest rare flesh. The flavor was limp, tired, and void of crisp cleanliness, which is essential if rare tuna flavors are to come alive. A crust of crushed peppercorns was mushy, perhaps because the peppercorns were ground too finely and easily absorbed the moisture of the fish.

The truly surprising dynamic of the dish was the tang tug-of-war between the sections of tart orange and the dribbling of bright orange achiote (a chili seed) vinaigrette across the tuna slices. But this liveliness was not enough to rescue the fish. With riper, tenderer avocado and fresher cuts of tuna, this preparation would have been a stunner.

Slathered with a single slice of perfectly melted New York cheddar on a square bun, the hamburger also had its drawbacks. The thing was so soggy, it gummed the lower portion of the bun into a gooey mess. Plus, the meat had the sharp bite of grill grit coupled with an off flavor reminiscent of rancid grease--a burger definitely not dominated by rich meat flavors. A side of hearty fries was adequate, but lacked seasoning. Interestingly, this was the preparation that turned me off to this Dallas venue two years ago.

But subsequent visits elevated the experience significantly. According to Lee, one recent menu tweak is the replacement of straight chicken quesadillas with a version made of cambozola, grapes, and almonds, a swap that emphasizes a simple but vibrant layering of flavors over straight chew goo and caloric weight. The soft, flaky tortilla holds a restrained application of sharp cambozola (a German blue cheese) that provocatively plays off the tang and juice of the halved grapes, while bits of almond lend a heartiness and firmness.

A Fog City signature, the salmon BLT is a veritable poster dish for the brilliance that's possible when simplicity is coupled with relentless attention to detail. A grilled slab of salmon exploded with fresh richness, while thick, chewy slices of hickory-smoked bacon lent smoke and heartiness without clouding it with fat. Fresh spinach, tomato, and a restrained application of a caper-tarragon mayonnaise on focaccia bread provided the flavors a medium for mingling without choking the construction.

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