Custer's grand stand

Chef Danielle Custer pushes the culinary envelope with Laurels

Extreme risk-takers are oddballs. They're the ones that ride rhinos at rodeos, skydive out of Lear jets, shoot dice with the agents during IRS audits, and talk about the president's seduction techniques on national television.

But extreme cookery is a hard thing to define. What does a daredevil chef do, dice vegetables with a lawn mower and saute calamari on a Ferrari engine block while the prep cook hurls it up Dallas North Tollway at 150 mph?

Of course not. Culinary envelope-pushing is much too refined for such gauche antics. Risks associated with gourmet kitchens rarely get beyond sliced fingertips and laryngitis caused by over-zealous French vowel pronunciation. Yet Laurels Executive Chef Danielle Custer could certainly be characterized as a risk-taker, perhaps in an extreme sense.

After all, she abandoned the tranquil sophistication of Seattle--where she served a seven-year stint cooking for the likes of that city's acclaimed restaurant Fullers--for North Texas. Here she has been attempting to get Dallasites hooked on her style of global cuisine--a fusion of "the flavors of Africa, Asia, and the Americas," as the press release notes.

"Custer fries celery leaves, smokes onions, and pickles grapes," the release continues. "She pairs licorice with lamb, prawns with a pomegranate-walnut puree, and builds an inspired Asian appetizer Napoleon." On the surface, plying this stuff on Dallasites stands about as much chance of success as an earlier Custer had winning friends among the Cheyenne. Danielle Custer admits she's had a tough time.

"I feel like I've been fighting to do what I want to do here," she laments. "In Seattle, it was not this hard." Custer watched a good chunk of her clientele go by the wayside as she implemented her esoteric style. The initial diner resistance put her in a funk, and she says she wondered if Dallas wasn't ready for her, or if the city simply didn't want her.

Over the last several months, however, she's watched a new crop of Dallas diners gradually embrace her menu with enthusiasm. Now, after opening in November following a complete restaurant makeover that includes a new cigar lounge, a menu tweak, and the introduction of a cutting-edge wine list, she admits she may have underestimated diners here, and wonders if perhaps it's the city's restaurateurs who lack imagination.

"Food doesn't really have a boundary with me," she explains. "I believe in layering the food...I'm trying to create an adventure in eating, where all of a sudden you pick up this other layer." Custer says her dishes have an average of 20 or so flavors each.

And this makes for meals flush with surprises and unsurpassed in dynamism. Rarely does one discover a dish where every forkful potentially has a different flavor profile, depending on how the utensil is swept across the plate. Smoked-mushroom-stuffed range chicken breast with coconut-orange collard greens, spicy currant corn cake, and a sauce with lemon grass, cilantro, epazote, and red mole is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Visually compelling, the arrangement of mushroom-stuffed chicken slices wrapped in pancetta around a center of greens atop a corn cake sprouting a chicken leg holding a thyme sprig seems irrevocably busy.

And it tastes busy too--until you spend some time with it and realize that through all of this culinary static, nothing clashes. In fact, it harmonizes with startling elegance. The intense currant puree sweetness, the aromatic lemon grass tang, the cayenne pepper heat, and the rich bacon spiciness combine with surprising ease.

And each forkful highlights different elements of this merging. The only drawback was slightly dry chicken meat and a severely burnt, slightly soggy corn cake that charged the dish with a jarring bitterness and an off texture.

Stilton and greens, a salad with pancetta, candied hazelnuts, and pickled grapes, was ripe with compelling contrasts. Though heavily dressed in a rich vinaigrette made from a roasted garlic-sherry vinegar puree combined with clarified brown butter and a touch of goat cheese, the leaves were supple instead of limp. The pickled grapes added fiery sharpness, creating a dramatic interplay with the crunchy, sweet hazelnuts.

Constructed like a piece of Chinese architecture with rising tiers and lengthy eaves extensions, the albacore & ahi tartar Napoleon has alternating layers of fish separated by sheets of potato mesh lace reaching horizontally over the plate. Clumps of yellow and green caviar dot the plate while a raw quail egg crowns the structure in a nest of shiso, a Japanese basil. Clean, lively flavors rendered from ponzu sauce and the shiso neatly frame diced bits of fresh, velvety fish that play off the crisp potato layers.

It doesn't take long, however, before you realize just how precarious Custer's culinary adventures can be. There were many points during my visits when I got an overwhelming urge to scream "enough already." Her creations are so forcefully fussy, so replete with complexity--seemingly, at times, for its own sake--that every mouthful begins to fight with the last. These endless flavor layers become exhausting, rather than satiating, leaving you lusting for simplicity after a sampling or two of her deft forays.

And sometimes things just crash under their own weight. Asian five-spice venison and ostrich contained silky slices of meat. The slices were resting against a ring of cooked oats and barley covered with a clump of rapini plugged with a tube made from thinly sliced, poached apples holding sprigs of rosemary, thyme, and red basil that rose out of the dish like an exotic head dress. The plate was covered in a marjoram game demi-glace infused with oregano, basil, and mint finished with a touch of cream. And the sauce often erupted with a shrill sourness--I guess from a drizzling of applesauce--reminiscent of turning limes. This tang coupled with the bitter pungency of the rapini crushed the meat flavors and steamrollered our wine. It was a Hogue Genesis Lemberger, a German red variety widely grown in Washington State that produces a peppery wine with flavors of tart raspberries and cranberries. But even this couldn't stand up to the sharpness in the dish.

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