Hell's paving stones

The Winds' heart is in the right place, but even the best intentions can make a lousy meal

As an example of "fine dining in an upscale, yet comfortable and inviting atmosphere," as the press release describes it, The Winds Bistro is a noble stab. Its chief instigators--Tom Whittaker, former manager of the original Rusty Pelican in Orange County, California, and chef Bruce Stein, formerly of The Cock & Bull in Lakewood--seem desperately sincere in their desire to create a potent New American venue stripped of distracting pretensions. But even such noble efforts can stumble into a Martha Stewart gone Kmart syndrome, where attempts at the highbrow are just another blue-light special, albeit in a faux sapphire hue.

Wedged in a North Dallas strip mall that was most recently the short-lived Mediterranean Bistro, this tiny white-tablecloth spot positions itself as a diner of understated, innovative elegance. Yet the decor is anchored in loud teal. The color infects the blinds, the polyester napkins, and the vinyl seat cushions. It's all grounded on a black and white checkered vinyl floor, which must be the "inviting and comfortable" part.

The Winds' sonic ambiance also leans heavily on the discount side. Aging top 40 hits screech into the room from a tinny boom box radio, and every pop hook is followed by endlessly shrill commercial rants and jingles. (Why did the panty-liner ad have to hit just as the waiter was pulling the cork out of the zinfandel bottle?)

But for all the cheesy upscale lunges, the service is graciously earnest, if slightly nervous. Plus, the servers know a bit about the food and, more surprisingly, the wine. The tiny list is a tight roster plugged with unexpected selections including an Alsatian Riesling, a richly berried Hendry zinfandel for 31 bucks, and a '79 Chateau Petrus at $600. (The Winds will introduce monthly wine dinners later this month and will dabble with beer dinners.)

But it all strikes as so much fruitless window dressing in a place with the soul of a sub shoveler, and though the menu looks on paper like a creature dressed in simple elegance, on the plate it hits like another designer knock-off.

An appetizer of sauteed smoked quail tortelloni was gummy with an off taste, suggesting freezer burn. Veal teriyaki--medallions marinated in teriyaki sauce, garlic, and red wine and sauced in a reduction hit with pineapple, ginger, and orange juice--was as dry and tough as twine.

Pepper shrimp proved an interesting, if dubiously successful appetizer. The batter-less, shell-on sea beasts are deep-fried and coated with white, black, and cayenne pepper. Wading in a lemon-butter sauce, the shrimp have a softened, yet crunchy edible exoskeleton, adding compelling textural interplay. But the preponderance of pepper clobbered whatever subtle sweetness was there.

The classic Caesar, however, was another matter. Prepared tableside with all the right ingredients (and no wussy anchovy restraint), the dressing was alive with flavor and texture--though it could have used a bit more lemon.

Things dipped again with the roasted duck in ginger-orange sauce. The meat was gray and cooked into flavorlessness notwithstanding the sauce.

But a deep-fried calamari steak coated in ground cashews and corn flakes was moist, resilient, and tender, though its side of vegetables included face-scrunchingly-bitter broccoli.

In a sense, The Winds has sketched all the right moves. It just executes them with a blurred vision and a certain deafness. Yet with the right gust blowing through, The Winds could easily be the crisp, cozy destination bistro imagined at its conception.

Nestled next to one of those do-it-yourself car-wash ports on Maple Avenue, El Gallo de Oro looks like an interior design project executed by a group of burnouts from high school auto shop class. The whitewashed building has a peeling tar roof, bars on the windows, and a white iron gate on the front patio that's barely hanging on by its hinges. A torrent of paper--receipts, checks, invoices--is scattered senselessly on the front table near the cash register like haphazard strings of dining-review metaphors.

And if--like Roller Girl in Boogie Nights--you enjoy life's most important experiences with wheels strapped to your feet, you'll appreciate the layout, because the floor sags into the center of the dining room, making prompt seating a breeze.

Just don't slide too vigorously into the booths. The vinyl seat cushions, well striped with duct tape, crack, peel and flake like severely chapped lips. In fact, duct tape is a highly functional decorative focal point in this restaurant. One booth would no doubt collapse into a pile if the long strips of silver tape stretched across the gray herringbone fabric booth backs--which could very well have been another color at one time--were yanked.

Walls of buckled gray paneling with sloppily glued seams hold colorful shrink-wrapped Guatemalan souvenirs, presumably for sale. Rooster trophies are lined up in a row atop the opposite wall separating the kitchen from the dining room. A crude landscape mural covers the wall.

More rooster trophies crowd a dark corner at the rear of the restaurant, a space that, judging by all the liquor bottles clustered in a small alcove, was once a wet bar. A junked juke box and busted tables and chairs stacked high with packages of buns and rolls of paper towels add decorative interest.

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