Protein's protege

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

Al Biernat is a lot like Coca Cola, Disney, or General Electric. He's a rock-solid stock, the kind you might sink cash into if you had any hope of realizing a clean return on the financial grease trap that is the restaurant business. Just walk into his place some evening and watch him work.

There he is--tall, dark, lean, charismatic, well-tailored--seating some well-preened guests. Now he's setting a cleared table before he bolts to a booth to check the happiness quotient of guests who have just begun probing their entrees. Watch him swoop into the bar to transport the barely sipped glasses of wine for bar guests whose dining-room table has just been readied for seating.

But wait. What's that piercing squawk that sends Al scurrying back to the front of the restaurant? "Al, Al, Al, cumeer," chirps a desperately unrelenting gravel voice emanating from the center of the bar. Yet, despite this bird-like call, the speaker is not a trained upscale dining parrot. It's a makeup-caked, high-rise-hair blond, with an activated cell phone in one hand and a fork in the other, stabbing at one of Al's salads. Maybe she's found a June bug in the mesclun mix. Or maybe she just wants the rest of the bar to know she's on a first-name basis with the owner. Whatever the reason, Biernat treats this abrasive chirper with the same sincere grace with which he treats guests who come to gush over his new upscale dining hovel.

Al Biernat is the consummate professional, and fine-dining hospitality seems to rush through his veins. So it's no surprise that after a long stint as general manager of the Palm, he would be itching to chart out on his own with his new restaurant, Biernat's.

And what a course he has set. After he and a partner acquired Joey's--that Dallas-chic spot owned by the Vallone family in Houston that seemed to sink in the goo of its own self-fascination--he made subtle structural modifications that seemed to radically alter the feel of the space.

The outside is washed in pale yellow, and at the entrance, two slate tile-encrusted walls protrude outward at gentle angles. These walls serve as barricades to keep the wind from blowing out the gas lamps just inside the bar. At the front of the restaurant, the pizza ovens stuffed behind the bar have been removed, opening the dome over the front section that has been painted with a mural of bright-colored bubbles and elusive, watermark-like faces.

Joey's chaotic tile-work and cartoonish murals have been stripped from the walls. The broken tiles that encased the columns in the center of the dining room have been stripped and replaced with a texturization treatment to make them look like rough-hewn stone. The columns against the walls have been torn out so that the green leaf-patterned fabric booths could be installed flush along the north and south walls. Seating capacity has been expanded from 170 to 230.

Much of the rich woodwork as well as the backlit wine racks have been retained. But as a whole, the place is brighter, simpler, more approachable and appetizing.

To structure his menu, Biernat enlisted James Neel, former Brookhaven Country Club executive chef and onetime pastry chef at the French Room. For Biernat, Neil's timing couldn't have been better. "I was about to open my own place when Al and I hooked up," he says. "So I gave him all my dishes, pretty much everything I've been working on."

The pricey menu emphasizes steaks, chops, and pastas with a few seafood selections splashed in. But unlike the smooth elegance and calm authority of Biernat the man, Biernat's the restaurant is a bit rusty. It's a venue of two minds: One embraces flawless elegance, while the other is rattled by clumsy execution. It's schizophrenia due perhaps more to the frustrating kinks of business infancy than any strategic flaws. (Biernat's opened in late June.) But these ripples will have to be ironed out, and fast. Because at these prices, forgiveness will be in short supply.

Al's salad, a collection of hearts of palm, crab, shrimp, and slivers of red bell pepper scattered in a mound of greens, lotioned in a mayonnaise-based-dressing, primed me for the entrees to follow. The shrimp and crab were tender, moist, and rich, and save for a few fibrous chunks of palm heart, everything was light, crisp, and balanced.

But the Caesar salad with a sesame-lavosh cracker gave me pause. Arranged over a large, flat plate, the lettuce was fresh and crisp, but the rather shallow-flavored dressing was spiked with too much lemon, transforming this potential example of simple elegance into a wobbly culinary ballet in work boots.

Since the fattened steer is the foundation of the Biernat menu, I expected perfection in the flesh. I almost got it too. The aged New York strip, a prime cut held back a minimum of 30 days, was seasoned with just salt and pepper. The thick, perfectly grilled meat was juicy, tender, silky, and rich. But one end of it was coated in tough, pearly white connective tissue, making this section particularly difficult to chew. Perhaps this is a minor dining distraction in a lesser venue, but it becomes a serious breach in a place that charges $29.50 for a hunk of protein slapped on a plate with just a garnish to keep it company.

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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