Heavy metal

The Mercury rises above its strip-mall surroundings

Strip malls are excellent places to get microwave burritos, spandex fashions, lessons in ballroom dancing, and salon-caliber hair gels and foams by the barrel. But this kind of excellence is not the sort one generally associates with fine dining.

Plus, being in a strip mall can make restaurateurs--shooting for elegant distinction in a retail assembly line--do funny things. Like offer valet parking. Yet often there is little alternative to these digs. Largely a 20th-century city, Dallas was fashioned around vehicular mobility. It doesn't have block after block of architecturally interesting structures sewn with street-level retail spaces as do cities like New York or San Francisco.

Some operators turn these less-than-charming mall slots to their advantage. Because low expectations set the tone when diners pull up and discover the restaurant that has a dog groomer for a neighbor, interiors are designed to elevate the experience. The ability to transport diners out of cookie-cutter spaces is crucial to success.

The Mercury, a new restaurant in Preston Forest Square, illustrates this point. Wedged in an aging mall with cheesy plastic tenant signs near the entrance (interestingly, there isn't one for The Mercury),the restaurant shares its home with Grand Dame Full Figure Fashions, Vacuums Unlimited, and an animal clinic. Its adjoining neighbors are a dry cleaner and Supercuts.

Not that you would know it. There's no sign above the restaurant indicating its existence. Just a break in the monotonous storefronts where the windows suddenly go black, an effect created with dark screens. The moniker is unobtrusively painted vertically on the window.

It's almost like a speakeasy. And the interior, most striking at night, holds much of the venue's allure. The crisp, urban look is as sophisticated as it is unpretentious.

"I got tired of clutter," says partner and chef Chris Ward. "So I wanted a place with a clean look." Ward, onetime executive chef at the Pyramid Room, had been working in New England for the past few years when he was presented with an opportunity to operate his own restaurant in Dallas. "If this one works, we definitely have our sights on doing others," he adds.

The Mercury is shaped like a stretched L with a long stem that forms the narrow dining area reaching all the way to the back, where a private table is cordoned with draperies. The short foot of the L forms the bar area with a back bar encrusted in slate tiles. Booth seating lines the entire stretch of one dining room wall. The other holds an open kitchen sheathed in quilted aluminum.

The walls are gray, and the dining room has repeating black and brown accents including standard-issue black booth seating, black and brown linoleum tiles, and black chairs around glossy brown laminate tables. The Mercury's focal points are two odd chandeliers at each end of the restaurant--frosted bowls with bright red, elongated buds dropping phallically from the center.

This space is filled with hard, sharp surfaces. Yet it absorbs sound surprisingly well, making intimate conversation easy. Carefully focused lighting makes the room seem dark, yet well-lit in the dining areas. The effect is one of handsome elegance resourcefully crafted from an assembly of rather modest elements.

And the New American menu with Mediterranean touches maintains this tone for the most part, though it does have some loose rivets that need attention.

Foie gras flan with truffle essence and a morel, chanterelle, and shiitake mushroom ragout is a fascinating convergence of flavors and textures. Though the fois gras was less than silken and a little stingy on nutty, rich flavor, the resilience and lushness of the flan more than compensated. The mushroom ragout in a port wine demi-glace was savory, with firm, chewy mushrooms and a deep earthiness that drew the fois gras out a bit. This is the touch that makes the pairing work.

Duck confit on Alsatian-inspired braise of cabbage was crisp on the outside, moist and chewy on the inside, creating smoothly rich flavors. Smoky sweet without a hint of bitterness, the cabbage added a tender yet slightly crunchy liveliness, while a side of "golden mashers" was firm and tasty.

Despite the name, there was not a clove to be found in the 20-clove-of-garlic range-fed chicken. And there wasn't much garlic assertiveness either. Yet this rotisserie-roasted bird was savory nonetheless, with a stiff crust and moist meat partly plopped in a puddle of herb juice flush with taste. A side of mashed potatoes was creamy and fluffy without the slightest pastiness, and a crown of watercress sparked it with a tangy crunch of freshness.

With a pink interior encapsulated in a putty-gray shroud, the pan-seared, pepper-crusted tuna "mignon" was firm, flaky, and silky. But the pepper crust was too sparse, and the meat was plunked on a cranberry-corn potato galatte that mucked up its delicately distinctive flavors. A side of braised chanterelles deepened the dish with a fruity loaminess, and garlic spinach with diced tomato provided a nimble briskness. Eighty-six those taters, and you have an elegantly harmonized array of flavors here.

The Mercury's classic creme brulee is one of the few authentic versions of this dessert to be found in Dallas. A creamy, firm custard capped with a brittle, caramelized burnt sugar crust and a dotting of fresh, juicy berries, it had all of the flavor and textural contrasts that make this preparation sizzle in its simplicity. A grate of spun sugar gave it ornamental interest.

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