Tuna surprise

A melding of menus breathes new life into PoPoLos

A column appeared recently in The Wall Street Journal about the increasing tendency among writers and journalists to make full disclosures about themselves. These disclosures, which often appear parenthetically, are ostensibly made so readers won't think the writer has a hidden agenda. The interesting thing is that they invariably confess exactly those things least likely to corrupt the story. They're little more than great pious globs of ostentatious integrity flung at the reader. They also broadcast how well connected the writer is. What is never confessed are the effects of peer pressure (commit certain things to print and watch those Beanie Baby swap party invites dry up) or the puffy, gushing profiles constructed as "beat sweeteners" so certain sources will return phone calls. Let me just say right here, in the interest of full disclosure, that I've never written positive prose to spark returned phone calls. No one ever returns my calls anyway.

Let me also say, in the spirit of the professional confessional, that I have the personal mobile phone number of David Holben, corporate executive chef of FoodStar Restaurant Group and one of the most highly acclaimed chefs ever to spank a Dallas grill with a spatula. And in the continued interest of slapping all prejudices and biases onto the cutting board, I must also confess that I passionately hate tuna fish sandwiches. You know what I'm talking about. The musty, mildewed particle-board-like constructions bulked up with tins of Bumble Bee filler coarsened by dull green rings of Spanish olive and tiny insect larvae-like half curls of diced celery held together with a knock-off mayo adhesive frocked in crumbles of hard-boiled egg. I don't know why the environmental battle to save the dolphins from tuna fishing nets didn't use tuna sandwiches instead of alarmist propaganda as campaign ammunition.

That's why it's peculiar that I can't get PoPoLos' albacore tuna and artichoke sandwich out of my mind. It's a simple thing, really: chunks of tuna sequestered in a lemon-caper aioli crowded by large sections of grilled artichoke heart, lettuce, and tomato between two pieces of French bread smeared with a dry-cured olive tapenade. But it's striking nonetheless. Hearty and compellingly lively and packed with assertive flavors that never got out of hand, this memorable sandwich had a subtle smokiness that layered its forwardness with grace. So simple and unassuming, yet so infused with culinary energy and approachable complexity. The thing had only one drawback: bread that collapsed into soggy limpness after just a few minutes on the plate. Perhaps a denser, stiffer bread or roll would work better. The accompanying gauzy, vellum-thin housemade potato chips were as delicate as fine pastry. But a clump of bland cole slaw proved a real letdown after nibbling the other occupants of this lunch plate.

The sandwich is one of the creations on PoPoLos' new menu, which was recently revamped by David Holben and chef de cuisine Britton McIntyre, formerly of Sipango. And it just goes to show that the mark of great kitchen work lies not in hunks of protein fussily dressed in coulis exotica, but in the core components of a sack lunch. When FoodStar Restaurant Group Inc., the company that operates Mediterraneo and Toscana, purchased PoPoLos last December, it had a low-fat menu stripped of cream and butter. Holben and McKintyre modified this roster to include items not restrained by fat-consciousness.

"We wanted to tighten the Mediterranean feel and round out the menu to offer a variety of preparation choices and make the spectrum a little bit larger for anyone coming in," says Holben. Traditional PoPoLos "no cream, no butter" preparations are marked with a little heart on the menu. And a few of the old items are retained, such as the smoked chicken lasagna and the turkey-black bean chili. The latter may seem an odd member in a cast of selections inspired by the Mediterranean. But it was a popular part of the old lineup, and its lithe heartiness--set off with cumin, cilantro, sweet and resilient kernels of corn, and generous chunks of ground turkey (slightly dry though they were)--squeezes well into the new menu.

Another item retained in a slightly modified form is the PoPoLos VIP platter, which includes smoky, succulent grilled shrimp; smoked salmon with grilled red onions; toast points and sour cream; and mozzarella-tomato bruschetta that had fresh, well-rounded flavors plopped on bread too thick and doughy to successfully carry it off. The real surprise on this platter, however, was the wood-fired-oven-roasted portobello mushrooms. Marinated in molasses, honey, garlic, olive oil, and soy, the mushrooms were stripped of the plodding earthiness sometimes apparent when this fungi isn't skillfully prepared. They were roasted into a smooth, almost buttery set of concentrated flavors sparked, heightened, and drawn out by the marinade.

Also from the wood-fired oven, the Toscana pizza with wild mushrooms, mozzarella, parmesan, marinated tomatoes, Italian parsley, and roasted garlic had a flaky, thin crust and flavors that blended well. It just--perhaps because of seasoning restraint and a skimpy mozzarella application--lacked pizzazz.

Grilled striped sea bass, lightly seasoned with parsley, tarragon, and chives, with grilled leeks and a roasted red pepper sauce, was hearty rather than delicately flaky and buttery. But the flesh was moist, and the flavors were round and well orchestrated. A side of perfectly steamed spinach proved a good counterpoint.

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