Protein's protege

Unlike the calmness of Al Biernat the man, Biernat's the restaurant is a bit schizophrenic

The herb-crusted rack of lamb delved even further into upscale rattiness. Seasoned with Dijon mustard, rosemary, garlic, and thyme, the rack is seared on the grill and then finished off in the oven. But there must have been a derailment in kitchen traffic control somewhere along the line. The meat was unevenly cooked; it was hard, bitter, dry, and mealy on the outer ribs, and cold and raw at the center (could this have been frozen?).

And it's a shame too, because the tart cherry demi-glace rendered from a reduction of caramelized aromatic vegetables, tomato, fresh herbs, and wine speckled with cherries was lively and rich. It was easy to taste what might have been. A side of goat cheese-whipped potatoes was creamy, fluffy, silky, and rich.

Which is in sharp contrast to some of the other sides. Roasted garlic-whipped potatoes were chunky and dry, and got stiff after just a couple of minutes on the table. Sauteed wild mushrooms, served cold, had to be sent back twice to get them to the optimum temperature. And though tender, moist, sheened in olive oil, and seasoned with garlic, shallots, white wine, and salt and pepper, they were slimy and void of any striking--even mildly interesting--flavors.

But maybe there was something in the water on this visit. Or perhaps the founding steer kicked the sous chef in such a way that he could only focus on his future descendants. Because the second visit was as close to flawless as you'll find in Dallas or anywhere else.

An appetizer of baked goat cheese with roasted garlic and grilled portobello mushrooms was so flush with flavor, it actually whetted the appetite instead of simply killing time before the entrees hit. The baked goat cheese was creamy and rich, while the garlic was roasted to a smooth, sweet nuttiness. A marinara sauce holding chunks of tomato provided a sweet tang that sparked the flavors into balance.

Biernat's salad nicoise is emblematic of the attention to detail that will eventually make this a great restaurant. With tiny halved red and yellow pear tomatoes wreathing the plate, this salad is a mound of fluffy, fresh greens speckled with moist feta cheese, sliced kalamatas, crisp haricots verts, and clean, silvery chunks of diced Yukon Gold potatoes in a roasted garlic-black-olive vinaigrette.

The only shortcoming in the herbed pasta--basil pepperdelle in a roasted tomato and white wine sauce--was that it was a bit undersauced. And while the lushly aromatic pasta compensated ably, a little more moisture would have meshed the flavors better. A side of grilled asparagus, yellow squash, and bell pepper were resilient and crisp.

And if Biernat's slips on its meat, its seafood preparations provide more than enough grip to regain its footing. Grilled red snapper and shrimp with sweet corn risotto was a rush of firm, well-balanced flavors. Coated with an achiote-seed paste, which toned the dish with a layer of musky savoriness, the fish was flaky, moist, and grilled to perfect resilience. A crown of large, like-treated shrimp was rich, firm, and juicy, while a bed of creamy, articulate corn risotto beautifully amplified the seafood sweetness.

Neel's stint at the French Room as pastry chef shows. Warm sourdough chocolate cake with amaretto cream formed in the shape of a star was moist and rich with a creamy, molten center of chocolate--a potent, imaginative finish. On a lighter note, a plate of seasonal berries--arranged in a rosette with thin slices of strawberry forming petals, a center of blueberries topped with raspberries, and bulging blackberries dotting the perimeter--was juicy and refreshingly tangy.

The wine list is well focused with the expected major-league selection of Bordeaux and California cabs and chardonnays plus a scattering of Pinots and Burgundies, zins, Italian reds, and other French and California reds to keep things interesting.

Service is uniformly efficient, attentive, and keenly aware of the delicate rhythms inherent in a successful fine-dining experience. While it wasn't perfect, there were no glaring time gaps in course presentation.

Biernat's has all the pieces in place. The ambiance is clean and bristles with sex appeal, the commitment to service appears solid, and the kitchen is devoted to elegant simplicity. Couple this with the charisma and gracious attentiveness of Biernat the man--who seems shrewd enough to realize longevity is forever elusive to those who lean heavily on "hot spot" cachet and star power--and you have the makings for a perpetual packed house.

That is, if the formula is fortified with a good dose of relentless attention to detail. Otherwise, the whole thing will come crashing down under the weight of its average check. And that's no bull.

Biernat's. 4217 Oak Lawn Avenue; (214) 219-2201. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; open for dinner Sunday-Thursday 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 5:30-11 p.m. $$$-$$$$

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