Bubbling up gold

Champagne and Gold Bar bring a touch of class to downtown

Maybe beauty is only skin deep, but it sure makes everything taste better. Yes, many Dallas venues serve food good enough to make your taste buds do a Rockettes line dance. But far too many of them are lodged in strip malls. These locations often suffuse me with this overwhelming feeling that the waiter will ask if I would like a replacement vacuum-cleaner belt with my sauteed foie gras on his next pass.

You won't get this feeling from Champagne and Gold Bar. This nouveau-French restaurant and champagne caviar bar is in the building that once housed the Titche-Goettinger department store, with its circa 1929 "Renaissance Florentine palazzo-style," as the press release relates. So it has genuine urban character with thick, ornate plaster pillars, high ceilings, and a classic feel.

Art deco detailing includes gold brocade booths and seat backs that reach upward at sharp angles, gold-toned walls with silver trim, and a flood of indirect illumination including angular sconces that rise out of the separators between booths, projecting light onto the walls. Barstools are placed at angles facing the same direction around the long, black granite bar, which sort of floats between a row of booths and the windows looking onto St. Paul Street. A thick glass, triangular back bar glows with silvery, indirect light, bottles stacked on each ascending level in geometric symmetry. It's slick surrealism at its best.

This eclectic ambiance almost bristles with potent, shadowy energy--a hauntingly provocative hint of gritty urban underbelly looming just below the carefully crafted sheen. This is the kind of setting that makes urban darkness so compelling: when it's hidden and unspoken rather than flaunted in an ain't-we-hip fashion.

Sure, this place is populated with a fair number of beautiful people. But if a dazed Lou Reed strolled up to the bar in a tattered flapper dress and ordered a cognac, it wouldn't seem so out of place here. Not like it would in a North Dallas mall mess hall.

Even if in reality this place doesn't shroud authentic dangerous citadel mysteries, it's easy to imagine it does. You could easily slip a scene in here from, say, L.A. Confidential and watch forked tongues rustle insidiously from expensive French bubbles and sturgeon roe.

Hell, why eat? Just sit and watch and imagine. Champagne is even outfitted for culinary voyeurism, with large windows on the corner of Main and St. Paul Streets exposing the kitchen to the slowly dissipating anemia that has infected Dallas' downtown street energy for years.

And the food is very nearly as compelling as this restaurant-bar combo's decor, though at nearly $50, the caviar sampler with chilled vodka was a disappointment. The plate was dotted with microscopic clumps of beluga, osetra, and sevruga caviar, while thick buckwheat blinis occupied the center. Though it seems a crime to muck caviar's elegant richness with accouterments (caviar is best when left to perform a cappella in tandem with champagne or chilled vodka and a good helping of unbridled lust), the plate also held little piles of finely diced red onion and sieved egg yolk and egg white. The three hearty, cold blinis seemed a bit too brawny for this assembly. Though capped with a dollop of cream, they were also girded with a mix of cream and shredded lettuce, which made the bottom pancake unpleasantly soggy by the time it was reached.

Plus, the caviar was served just a sliver below room temperature, which left the beluga, a soft roe to begin with, a bit too mushy. For optimum freshness, these caviars should be served in tiny cups imbedded in crushed ice. That, plus a little plate editing (a more delicate blini, perhaps) would make all the difference in the world for this signature item.

Pate maison, a plate of house-made pate with toast points, field greens, and mango-comice-pear chutney, fared far better. Made from rabbit, pork, venison, chicken livers, and roasted pistachios ground and left to marinate in red wine, cognac, and herbs for a few days, this coarse, chewy pate was lean and rich in hearty flavor. A few cornichons would have punched this plate up to top-tier appetizer status.

A dessert of strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries with whipped cream was refreshing with full-flavored berries that were ripe but firm and gushing with sweet juice.

Champagne's dinner offerings proved consistent, with surging moments of compelling allure. Baby spinach salad came arranged in a triangular configuration with blue cheese tortillas serving as the shape's points and a mound of spinach filling in the center. The smoky, sweet, viscous dressing--a blend of apple cider, eggs, olive oil, balsamic and red wine vinegar, pecans, and onions--was rich and lively, while oven-roasted plum tomatoes offered a concentrated sweetness polished with a zing on the finish. There are many effective flavor contrasts here. The only drawback is those tortillas (really more like quesadillas), which were served cold instead of warm, leaving them stiff and closed-up.

Dill and tequila house-cured gravlox in lemon-garlic beurre blanc sauce was perplexing at first. The salmon was coiled in strips over a red onion comfit (roasted with lemon, butter, and chicken stock) in pool of white sauce speckled with diced tomatoes. The plate was hot, as was the sauce. But the temperature of the salmon was disconcertingly inconsistent, with the lower layers smothered in heat while the upper layers moved from warm to cool. Was this dish the victim of a microwave?

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