Food play

Nana Grill's new chef toys with compelling flavors

Nana Grill's tasting menu experience isn't nearly as smooth. Choreography and pacing are critical to tasting experiences and rely on an intuitive reading of the guest. Too often, my companion and I found ourselves interrupted.

Our experience ended with a coda of missteps. Two of three desserts--the Chocolate Grand Marnier Gianduja decadence and the cheese plate--had been pre-prepped and chilled before serving. Consequently, the plates and food broke out in a cold sweat when served. This glitch made for a decadence with drying cake over hardening chocolate sauce, while the chill effectively shut down the flavor of the cheeses (smoked Gouda, mild cheddar, and sage Derby).

Despite these stumbles, Brown maintains a disciplined culinary touch. French chef Alain Ducasse, the sole survivor of a 1984 plane crash who went on to earn six Michelin stars for his restaurants in Monaco and Paris, has a philosophy that Brown seems to emulate instinctively. "What counts above all for me is to release the natural flavor of a dish," Ducasse said in a recent Washington Post interview. "Now, to reveal it in all its truth, it is often necessary to employ very complicated processes."

This is the beauty of Brown's cuisine. He often employs complicated processes, but there's little doubt it's all in service to the truth of the basic ingredients.

Yellow tomato and golden watermelon shrimp gazpacho, the opener to our tasting experience, showed how a seamless mesh of tastes can amplify and broaden what are normally mild flavors. This refreshing puree merged the mild sweetness of the watermelon with the moderate acidity of the yellow tomato and spicy heat. This dynamic was also present in the succulent braised langoustine with leeks, heirloom tomatoes, purple potatoes, and chanterelles in a saffron broth. The broth pulled out and blended with the earthiness of the chanterelles, creating a contrast with the briny langoustine.

One of Brown's most refreshing practices is his fearless use of salt. Overblown health concerns have contributed to a blanderizing of American cuisine over the years. And his application techniques can be creative. Pan-seared yellowtail snapper with fingerling potatoes is slathered in caviar butter, which disperses the brininess and subtly pulls out the sea flavors of the fish. The moist, chewy soy-marinated quail over resilient wilted arugula in coconut cardamom sauce had just the right amount of saltiness to kick the flavors into place without overwhelming their more delicate components.

Perhaps the most striking dish on the tasting excursion was the grilled antelope loin in huckleberry-bourbon sauce with Gorgonzola polenta. It had everything you could want in a dish: intense aromas, beautiful presentation, and a broad bandwidth of flavors that didn't overwhelm. It was as if Brown had devised his own natural habitat for this moist game meat. The aromas wafting from the plate come straight from the wild: tree sap, spice, and smoke with an underlying layer of floral sweetness. It's rare you find such imaginative understanding of the truth inherent in a cut of flesh.

Wines paired with the tasting menu--all Dallas Morning News Wine Competition gold medal winners--were selected by Nana Grill general manager and Dallas restaurant-industry veteran Paul Pinnell. And his work is skillful. My instincts tell me that Sauvignon Blanc with langoustine and Chardonnay with yellowtail snapper is a pairing that is exactly backward. But after tasting the delicate leanness of the Guenoc Chardonnay and the rich firmness of the St. Supery Sauvignon Blanc, these matches made perfect sense.

The only pairing I would take issue with was the tiny lemon-curd Napoleon with the delicate St. Supery Moscato. The intensely rich citrus flavors of the Napoleon seemed to flatten this wine irretrievably.

All in all, Brown's menus show that his freewheeling food play is well tempered with intelligence and restraint. It's not up to Michelin three-star standards (the plush, gaudy decor rich in brass and burgundy could use a makeover), but then who wants to sell the air-conditioned doggie bungalow just to pay the dinner check?

Nana Grill, Wyndham Anatole Hotel, 2201 Stemmons Freeway,(214) 748-1200. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; open for dinner Monday-Thursday6-10 p.m.; Friday & Saturday6-10:30 p.m.; Open for Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. $$$-$$$$.

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