When the levee breaks

Cool River Cafe floods with flavorless monotony

A side of intensely garlicky Mercedes spinach with pecans in a cilantro Gorgonzola sauce perked things up a bit. The wilted leaves were tender and delicately crisp, while a scattering of resilient poached pear chunks added a sweet tartness and a provocative texture.

A second visit demonstrated Cool River's soul enervation beyond any doubt. Service was terse and desperately insincere. Like a glaze-eyed automaton, our server mumbled "excellent choice" after virtually every order. And while he would ask us, throughout the meal, if we were finished with various dishes, he would sweep away our plates before we had a chance to answer, or ignore us when we did. That table-turning drive was getting annoying.

At one point, a manager stopped by just as our entrees arrived. "Are you enjoying everything? Steak done to your liking? Is the chicken good? Is the venison satisfactory?" he asked. The only remark from our table was that we hadn't yet had a chance to taste anything. "Very good. I'm glad you're enjoying everything," he replied. Is there a Stepford Wife hospitality training program in the metroplex?

Location Info


Cool River Cafe

1045 Hidden Ridge Road
Irving, TX 75038

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Irving & Las Colinas

Not that he would have gotten overwhelmingly glowing reviews if he had caught us in mid-bite. The Shiner Bock ribeye, a tender, moist steak with gobs of extraneous fat, was out of whack. Marinated for a few days in a formula of beer, sweet soy sauce, and cilantro, the steak is glazed with additional sweet soy during preparation. It creates a tangy sweetness rich in caramel and butterscotch flavors. But the treatment seemed to cancel the meat's own sweet richness. Plus, the steak was too thin, barely three-quarters of an inch, if that. Grilling is pointless for a cut of this thickness because the meat cooks before it has a chance to develop a deep grilled flavor.

But perhaps the most perplexing menu item was the chicken-fried venison steak. Chicken-frying was originally created to make cheaper cuts of beef more palatable. So why in God's name would you pound a cut of lean, velvety venison and annihilate its mild, sweet nuttiness with this clumsy culinary treatment? The results were predictable. Crusted with a spicy, crunchy coating sparked with mustard and layered with portobello, shitake, and button mushroom cream gravy, the dish was eviscerated of any venison character. In fact, it had no meat flavor at all. Though moist, the flesh was mealy and chewy--like chicken-fried mystery meat from a school cafeteria.

Chipotle chicken, a breast marinated in orange juice with chipotle pepper, cilantro, onion, garlic, white wine, and olive oil and brushed with a hickory sauce, was by far the best entree tried. Perfectly grilled, it was tender, plump, and juicy with a sweet tang and an elusive spice kick. A side of smashed potatoes, however, had a good spicy spark but was plagued by gumminess.

Smoked salmon quesadillas were another highlight. Chunks of flavorful fish in a creamy Texas goat cheese were sandwiched between light, flaky tortillas. A side of creamy pecan tartar sauce with caper, dill, lemon, and a touch of anchovy, rounded out the flavors beautifully.

Another piece of this dining puzzle infused with thoughtfulness is the wine list, a deep, extensive selection of wines from most global corners including California, Australia, and France. Plus, it has a rudimentary flavor classification demarcated by wines of light, medium, and full body.

According to Hartnett--a hugely successful money-manager who, along with his firm, the Hartnett Group, has majority interest in the restaurant--Cool River represents "the best of all concepts that I've seen rolled into one." He has taken design cues--the rich wood paneling and trim, the 100-foot faux river with boulders and waterfalls in front, and the heavy use of smooth river stones--from his homes in Colleyville and Carmel, California.

The owner of Fox & Hound English Pub and Grille in North Dallas, Hartnett launched and operated restaurants in Lubbock, College Station, and Austin before he got into money-management. He calls Cool River "the last evolutionary step" in his development of restaurant concepts.

Just before breaking ground on Cool River, he hooked up with Gene Street of Black-Eyed Pea and Good Eats Restaurants fame to guide implementation of the venture in exchange for 12.5 percent interest. He also brought on Tristan Simon, who had been discussing a possible venture with Street, as managing partner. "They kind of almost came as a package," Hartnett says. While Simon has no restaurant experience, Hartnett says he possesses extraordinary people and team-building skills. He's got his work cut out for him.

It's hard not to be awed by the business acumen of the likes of Hartnett, or the uncanny restaurant industry shrewdness of Street. The proof is in the crowds that, for now, pack this upscale, 22,000-square-foot institutional feedery-amusement park for the high-performance mutual-fund set. But for my money, the best place to admire the prodigious talents of these gentlemen is from the business pages, not from a table in one of their restaurants.

Cool River Cafe. 1045 Hidden Ridge Road and MacArthur Blvd., Las Colinas; (972) 871-8881. Open 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Thursday-Friday, 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday, and 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Sunday.

E-mail Dish at markstz@juno.com.

Cool River Cafe:
Caesar caliente $5.95
Smoked salmon quesadillas $7.95
Eight-ounce filet mignon $20.95
Lobster tail $29.95
Shiner Bock ribeye $18.95
Chicken-fried venison steak $12.95
Chipotle chicken $9.95

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