Food play

Nana Grill's new chef toys with compelling flavors

Nana Grill, the aging eatery perched atop the Wyndham Anatole, has a new chef: 25-year-old Doug Brown, a Culinary Institute of America grad and veteran of such spots as Mark's Place in Miami, venue of celebrated chef Mark Militello. A sous chef at Nana two years ago, Brown returned as executive chef after a brief sojourn at the Hyatt. He promptly scrapped Nana's steakhouse-grub-with-Southwestern-sensibilities and replaced it with what he calls "progressive American fare," a freewheeling grab bag of "select" American ingredients slapped silly with any culinary influence he sees fit.

"We just let it all fly," Brown boasts. "I like to play with anything I can get my hands on."

Brown's flights of fancy are illustrated by his treatment of foie gras. He wraps Hudson Valley bird liver in a sheath of smoked buffalo meat, then lays it on a pad of cauliflower pudding in a pool of deep red roasted-beet sauce. His creation resembles an enormous tongue resting on a jewelry pillow and a scarlet bordello hankie. To add a little humor, Brown tops it with a fried quail egg, sunny side up.

Bizarre as it sounds, all of this worked brilliantly. The pudding was as delicate as savory mist, while the roasted-beet sauce harbored a foie gras ghost within its sharp, earthy essence.

And even though the moist, pan-seared black striped sea bass worked fine on its own, Brown saw fit to decorate its well-seasoned, soulful sea flavors with extraordinarily tender green fava beans and a porcini reduction sharply focused and uplifted with the tangy sweetness of Champagne grapes.

But these kitchen ambitions don't stop with simple high-minded food play. Brown has also implemented a daily seven-course chef's tasting menu consisting of smaller portions "so the dining guest can experience multiple food items and flavors within one dinner," as the press release states.

Tasting menus are notoriously dicey affairs. In the first place, it's hard to find one that sustains high notes from start to finish. Second, unless you are familiar with the chef's work, it can be risky to plunk down generous sums ($65 per person, $85 paired with wines here) on a potentially ruthless culinary ride with no emergency brake.

Brown's tasting excursion isn't a blind plunge: The menu offers ample descriptions of each course. But there's still the issue of relinquishing control to a chef's whims.

My first stab at a major-league tasting menu was at Pierre Gagnaire in Paris. Gagnaire is the chef notable for owning the first three-star restaurant (the highest rating from the vaunted Michelin Guide, a designation only 20 or so restaurants in all of France have earned) ever to declare bankruptcy.

This is odd, because traditionally, a three-star designation has been the equivalent of a license to print money. No more; a crisis appears to have developed in three-star territory. High standards such as constantly evolving menus, luxurious fixtures in elegant surroundings, and the insistence on maintaining a ratio of one waiter for every diner have resulted in crushing costs for the operator.

Add to that a predilection for cheaper tables at local bistros among many who once displayed an insatiable lust for three-star opulence, as well as the dulled palates of a new French generation (among the most popular restaurants in all of Europe is the McDonald's on the Champs Elysees), and you have the makings of gastro-genocide. (Don't get too weepy over Pierre. After losing his restaurant just outside of Lyon, he went on to pay off his debts by giving cooking classes in Japan for $5,000 a day.)

Incidentally, some say Gagnaire was the victim of the "play with anything I can get my hands on" sensibilities Brown currently espouses. That ethos made Gagnaire the target of relentless criticism from chefs lamenting the shrinkage of traditional French gastro-turf. This was all before he opened another restaurant in Paris, where he quickly won back his three stars. And it's where I first came into contact with his cuisine through an endless tasting menu. (This excursion was truly blind, since my French is extremely limited.)

This culinary assault probably lasted some four hours--though I don't exactly recall. After the third appetizer and the fifth splash of Grand Cru Burgundy, time had as much significance to me as the hologram on the credit card absorbing the bill.

I can't even catalog what I ate. I vaguely remember Asian influences, a fishy thing swimming in musky broth, a tiny vegetable dish dotted with caviar, and foie gras that made similar stuff served here seem little better than a fried liver sausage Pop Tart (Brown's version excepted).

But I do recall how I felt. My body went from a kind of gentle, sanguine ecstasy to sheer trembling terror. I broke out in the feverish sweat of sensory overload, the fear of not knowing from which orifice my body would voice its protest. My hands shook, my mouth twitched. I leaned back and allowed a waiter to dab my brow. And this is the odd thing about three-star dining: You're so well-served, you're hardly aware of the comings and goings of people and food. Courses appear and dishes vanish without any disruption of your personal space. Every scrap of flatware is removed and replaced with a fresh set after each dish. (It's a wretched, inexcusable practice to remove dirty flatware from a plate during the clearing process, then return it to the place setting. Yet all too often, this is what happens in Dallas' version of fine dining.)

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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