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.

But The Mercury plunged in the glare of daylight. Service, smoothly attentive in the evening, got clumsy with gooey geniality and a hovering staff. At one point it seemed everyone from the busboy to the manager got in line to hit us with the same question in the space of three minutes (Are you enjoying everything?).

Actually, no. There was little with which to quarrel in the grilled asparagus with applewood bacon and black olive-caper vinaigrette. The dish was lively with a speckling of diced tomato among the perfectly grilled stalks and chunks of tangy bacon lightly hazing the dish in smoke. The only drawback was the oiliness, which swamped things a bit.

But the Israeli couscous carbonara with candied duckling and black truffle vinaigrette was equipped with a duck confit that--unlike the aforementioned appetizer--was mushy and suffused with off flavors, as if the bird had been sitting at room temp for a lengthy stretch. Only the firm and articulate couscous soaked in a rich, smoky carbonara effectively cut by a sprinkling of tangy capers saved the dish from utter ruin.

Crispy fried squid over spicy tomato risotto and green olive tapenade achieved a culinary milestone of sorts: potent blandness. Tender squid jacketed in flour and cornstarch was chalky and vapid--ill-equipped to stand up to the pasty glue of a risotto swamped in a tomato sauce charged with chili paste and red pepper flakes. The only saving grace was the lively tapenade drizzled over the squid.

The Mercury's wine list is adequate, if unimaginative, with far too many California Chardonnays among the whites, and a preponderance of California Cabs/Merlots among the reds. This is strange, because this eclectic, imaginative menu would profit from a few more Sauvignon Blancs, Pinot Noirs, and Zinfandels, and would be rounded nicely with a dry Chenin Blanc, a couple of roses, and a more diverse selection of reds that included more Italians (Dolcetto) and the addition of Spanish Riojas to complement the menu's Mediterranean and rustic elements.

A creation of the M Crowd, a partnership that launched Mi Cocina and the Mainstream Fish House (a new Mainstream location is set to open this week at Oak Lawn and Blackburn), The Mercury is the concept the group hopes to replicate at other locations. And it's ripe with potential. The look is good, the menu is provocative, and the heart of its staff is in the right place.

But it needs some tightening if it's going to prosper and multiply. Alchemists thought mercury, which they associated with the planet Mercury, had mystical properties and used it in their attempts to transmute base metals into gold. And the M Crowd has taken a rather homely mall slot and very nearly transformed it into something precious. But it will take far more than mysticism to turn The Mercury into the culinary equivalent of yellow metal.

The Mercury. 11909 Preston Road, corner of Preston and Forest, (972) 960-7774. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Open for dinner Sunday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m., Saturday 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. $$$-$$$$

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