Grand hotel

The Adolphus' French Room offers courses in dining elegance

In the wake of the pomp and ceremony of the Academy Awards, it's certain we'll be seeing many more Titanic tie-ins, at least until the James Cameron flick hits the previously viewed bin at Blockbuster. Perhaps we'll get a concert from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra showcasing the last pieces played on deck by Titanic's musicians as the ship took on seawater. Or maybe someone will compose a one-act play incorporating the final wire transmissions from the doomed vessel as dialogue.

If this all sounds far-fetched, consider that the French Room recently replicated the final meal (at $175 a head) served on the Titanic in first class, complete with authentic music, recipes, and in many cases, period costumes. It even had dinner guests assuming the roles of famous passengers--such as John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim--with a historian navigating among the guests providing mini-bios.

This got me to thinking what a swell restaurant concept this would make--creating menus composed entirely of famous last meals. You could have Nixon's last meal in the White House, Barry Switzer's final chow as a Cowboy, even the last meals of famous ex-Death Row inmates. The problem is that the food would be all gimmick--a Happy Meal for the macabre. Yet while a replica of the Titanic's last meal is thoroughly stewed in gimmickry, albeit for the moneyed class, dining at the French Room for a normal formal feeding is anything but.

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The French Room

1321 Commerce St.
Dallas, TX 75202

Category: Restaurant > New American

Region: Downtown & Deep Ellum

There's a joke floating around these days that if Willie Jeff Clinton collided with an iceberg on the North Atlantic, the iceberg would sink. A collision between an iceberg and an entree from the French Room would no doubt yield the same result. This stuff is grander than any inverted snow cone bobbing on the high seas.

Grand, of course, is a word that scares those of us who don't wear ascots to our shih tzu's psychotherapy appointments. So the French Room should be approached with caution. Just don't let it blind you to the upper-class glory of the place.

The French Room is slathered in elegant, baroque decor, with green marble floors, simply swagged window coverings, high arched ceilings painted with pudgy cherubs, sparkling Italian chandeliers, stately columns, and split-leaf palms on elaborate pale green pedestals. The room drips with shades of ivory, salmon, and blue trimmed in gold.

Created by Executive Chef Brent Wuest, the menu is firmly grounded in French bedrock. Yet it's lively and agile, shedding the weight of traditional French sauces while Asian and other global touches delicately elbow their way into the void. A native of Santa Barbara, California, Wuest, who has been at the Adolphus for six years and in his current position for about 18 months, says his menu has been virtually purged of cream.

One exception to this claim is the French asparagus-and-leek soup with Jonah crab. Rendered from pureed asparagus and leek, this vibrantly green, slightly sweet pottage is lightly creamed and holds three asparagus stalks, fried leeks, and crabmeat. The soup itself is short on pronounced flavor, a deliberate attempt to frame the core ingredients without tangling them in "ain't we genius?" flavor clots. But the soup is so skimpy on asparagus, fried leeks, and, most notably, crab, the restraint seems to have little purpose.

Another wavering item is the organically grown escargot sauteed in truffle oil. Which raises the question: What's an inorganic snail? A slug raised on Lexus oil-change sludge?

Wuest says his organic Pennsylvania snails spent the better part of their lives munching on dandelion greens. He sautes these delicately flavored snails in truffle oil with fresh mushrooms, onion, garlic, and wine. They're then plopped in a flower fashioned from fleur de brik, a light, nutty French pastry, before being plunked in a brown sauce rendered rich in flavor and light in texture via repeated reductions cut with shots of chicken stock.

The result is a sauce that is light in texture and so intensely flavored--if overly salted--holding juicy mushrooms, tomato preserves, and basil, that it can't decide if it wants to pummel those snails or glorify them.

But this is where any menu problems--slight or otherwise--end. Smoked Georgian quail filled with forest mushrooms and dotted with golden raisins offered multi-layered, rich flavors coupled with sweet succulence. A petite salad of alternating layers of red oak and curly endive was splashed with a potent, nutty sour mango nectar vinaigrette composed of red and rice wine vinegars, grapeseed oil, shallots, lemongrass, and pickled ginger.

Sauteed yellowtail snapper showed its brilliance through simplicity. The flesh was simply salted, peppered, and sauteed on high heat before an oven-bake finish, creating a paper-thin crunchy crust flush with delicate sea-flavor overtones shrouding a flaky, buttery fish core. It was charged with sprightly plum tomato rice wine vinaigrette dotted with tender morels that added an elegant, deep earthen nuttiness. An accompaniment of sugar-cured diced butternut squash folded with caramelized onions, however, struck with a gust of concentrated sweetness that was a bit jarring.

One of Wuest's most interesting and successful creations is venison chops with cracked pepper and rosemary. Amazingly, instead of using a rich demi-glace, he couples the meat with a cherry jus--a completely stockless sauce created by simmering cranberries, tart cherries, shallots, garlic, cinnamon, and nutmeg in cranberry, orange, and pineapple juices. The savory, full-flavored result is stunning. But the meat is even more surprising: dense, sweet, and earthy, with a velvety texture that integrates beautifully with this light touch of a sauce. A side of risotto lightly glanced with butter and a spinach-basil puree flavored with Romano cheese and applewood bacon, had fluffy, articulated grains and a light richness that made it tough to leave alone.

A simple dessert of juicy, intensely flavored strawberries, raspberries, and boysenberries laced with dribbles of mint coulis plus mango and raspberry sauce was as visually compelling as it was tasty. Accompanied with a dollop of cocoa-berry pot de creme under a chocolate lace cage, the plate offered the stark contrast of the fruit and sauce briskness with the almost choking richness of the pasty pot de creme, a creme brulee-like goop pumped up with cocoa.

The wine list has a good sampling of bottles from California, Italy, and France, plus some good window-shopping selections such as a 1961 Lafite ($2,000), a 1928 Chateau Mouton d' Armailhac ($3,000), and a 1928 Chateau Haut Brion ($3,000). There is also a single bottle of 1899 Haut Brion reserved for New Year's Eve 1999. Sommelier Cesar De Los Reyes says the hotel has had the wine, which lost its original label long ago, for the past 17 years and asserts that it has only been recorked once. No price is listed, but expect to pay $5,000 (about $1,000 per glass) for the century-old drink on that millennium-turning eve.

In retrospect, there really is a floatable Titanic tie-in with the French Room. Built by beer baron August Busch, the 435-room hotel opened in 1912, the same year the great ship went down. Today, Seattle-based Noble House Resorts owns it, one of 14 properties in a chain with eight fine-dining restaurants. The French Room, however, is considered the crown jewel. No mystery here.

But some casual restaurant really needs to do some digging and put together a replica of the last Titanic meal in third class. If Cameron's film is accurate, there was a lot of beer flowing there, and with the Leonardo DiCaprio link, you could pack the place with young women. It's a Dallas brewpub natural.

What's an even better morbidity-marinated event than a reprise of the last supper on the Titanic? Doing it on the anniversary of the ship's premature exit from active duty. Which is what the Pyramid Room is doing April 14 with a nine-course dinner ($129 a head) derived from one of the two surviving menus. You can even arrange for an overnight "stateroom" package that includes a one-hour "captain's reception." In the spirit of authenticity, it should also include a late-night swim in a pool filled with 28-degree water.

But if the regular Pyramid dining experience is any indication of these Titanic events, you would be advised to bring along a palate preserver, because the regular menu is underwhelming, especially when considering the price.

Meals can be ordered a la carte or as a prix fixe menu with a choice of two appetizers, soup or salad, three entrees, and two desserts for $39, or $64 paired with wines.

Thoroughly perplexing was the tempura shrimp in butter-wasabi sauce. The cakey shrimp coating was soggy, and the sauce--actually a beurre blanc spiked with sweetened wasabi--seemed a forced combo. Wasabi is a stark, potent flavoring, ideal for Japanese cuisine because it contains so little fat to transport taste that intense flavors are a must. To pummel it into submission to facilitate a marriage with butter struck me as pointless, and it was difficult to ascertain exactly what the wasabi added. Not to mention that a buttery-rich sauce with deep-fried shrimp is pretty much overkill. A side of carrot-daikon relish provided a much-needed surge of liveliness.

Maine lump crab cakes with a clean, fresh cilantro pesto started out as a welcome surprise. With almost no breading, these thick cakes were composed primarily of coarse shreds of sweet crab. But after plumbing the depths with a few bites, the meat revealed itself cool and soggy.

Lobster bisque--made from a lobster-and-shrimp reduction with caramelized veggies and seasoned with saffron--was overly salted and lacked a cleanly distinct seafood flavor. Equally disappointing was the Caesar salad, which was limp and lifeless.

Between courses, the Pyramid serves a scoop of blueberry sorbet in a tiny cup on a lemon leaf atop a large illuminated ice swan sitting on a folded napkin. Lift the swan, and you'll discover a battery pack with a penlight bulb protruding from its center: a culinary creature teetering precariously between elegance and campiness.

And precarious was the roasted maple leaf duck breast. Slices of breast, pale and cooked medium-rare, were framed with a thick layer of white fat that didn't appear adequately cooked. And the taste confirmed it. The meat lacked rich flavor, and chewy layers of fat unabsorbed by the meat detracted from the dish. Executive Chef John Edwards says cooking the duck long enough to crisp up the fat and render out the flavor would have precluded medium-rare flesh. But to my taste, the trade-off would have been more than worth it.

Herb-crusted rack of Sonoma lamb, beautifully presented, was loose and mushy. Plus, the accompanying demi-glace--a reduction of lamb and veal juices with sweet red wine, rosemary, and other herbs--was mouth-puckering sour and overly peppered, distracting mightily from the flavor of the meat.

The Pyramid's wine list has a good selection of wines, and it's organized three ways: traditionally by country, region, and varietal; by price; and by flavor profile. Cross-referencing back and forth among the categories made for a surprisingly easy and effective selection process. However, our 1993 Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel was served warm, indicating shabby storage standards.

But perhaps the most confusing item was the dessert, an apple tarte tatin--a layered and inverted tart topped with caramelized apples. The crust resembled a spongy cake instead of pastry and was soggy with the juices and caramel. Plus, the five thick apple slices, a short stack of sorts, was difficult to cut with a fork without dissembling the whole construction.

Maritz, Wolff & Co., an L.A.-based investment firm that owns a 50 percent stake in Dallas-based Rosewood Hotels, recently purchased half interest in the Dallas, New Orleans, and San Francisco Fairmont Hotels along with half of Fairmont Management Co., which operates the chain's hotels. The company already held a stake in the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose.

Edwards says that while the 550-room Dallas Fairmont will undergo a massive multimillion-dollar renovation, the Pyramid Room will be left untouched, as it underwent a $1.8 million renovation several years ago. Maybe they should rethink this.

French Room, Adolphus Hotel. 1321 Commerce, (214) 742-8200. Open 6-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.

Pyramid Room, Fairmont Hotel. 1717 N. Akard, (214) 720-5249. Open 6-10:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

Dish it out at markstz@juno.com.

French Room:
Courses include choice of appetizers, soup & salad, main course and dessert:
Two-course dinner $45
Three-course dinner $55
Four-course dinner $65

Pyramid Room:
Table d' hote (four course) $39
Maine crab cake $10
Caesar Salad $8
Herb-crusted rack of Sonoma lamb $29

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