Towering confluence

The Chaparral Club is a metropolis on the plate

On my first visit to the Chaparral Club, I brought Peter, one of my wife's business associates. During the trip up to the 38th floor of the skyscraping Adam's Mark tower, I mentioned that the structure used to be the Southland building, and that the Adam's Mark spent $150 million to spiff it up into an 1,800-room hotel, the biggest in Texas. Peter looks a little like a finely featured Gary Oldman, and he gave me the Oldman look from Bram Stoker's Dracula. He wobbled and swayed, examining the thin simulated wood skin glazing the elevator walls. "It's a shame they didn't sink some of that cash into the elevator," he shouted over the train-like screeches echoing through the shaft. "First impressions, you know."

Peter knows a lot about first impressions. He has to. Peter travels around the world trying to cajole car companies--Volkswagen, BMW, Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini--into licensing their images and likenesses of their cars for other products. This grants him special access to the most molten forms of automotive exotica around the globe.

Peter told how he traveled to Sardinia to check out a one-of-a-kind Lamborghini prototype. The Italian test driver, with a flowing blond mane and a long kaleidoscopic scarf around his neck, offered to take Peter for a spin. He positioned himself in the driver's seat so that he was sort of half-facing Peter on the passenger side. He conversed with one arm on the armrest, gesturing and changing gears, while the other worked the steering wheel with that light, unconcerned touch you might apply when going down a straight highway at 60 mph in a Lincoln Town Car. But these were twisting Sardinian thoroughfares, and when Peter looked at the speedometer, he saw the needle locked at 180. Now there's something that should be pointed out here. Peter is from Vancouver, British Columbia, and when you converse with a Canadian, everything seems more intense than it actually is. The driver's speed was most likely expressed in kilometers per hour, which equals about 112 mph. And as for that million-dollar prototype, let's just say the Canadian dollar was worth about 66 cents U.S. last week. Still fast and expensive, but not as punchy when placed in the proper context.

But there was no devaluation in Peter's enthusiasm when he came face-to-face with the Dallas skyline through The Chaparral Club's expansive floor-to-ceiling windows. Second impressions must count for something, especially from one who hails from a city with scenery so luscious it could make a lifelong Dallasite faint.

The interior is handsome too in a restaurant-atop-a-huge-convention-hotel sort of way. The ceilings are relatively low. Walls are covered in brown carpet. Pieces by Erte hang everywhere. There's a glass wine cellar near the host station in front, and glass plates with chrome railings slice and dice the space. A section of the dining room is elevated several inches. The lighting is subdued. Live jazz leaks out of the nearby lounge at night. Is that your name tag on the floor?

The food, though, is like an exotic car prototype: striking, loud, stylistically busy, expensive. The press kit calls it "confluence cuisine," which sounds like an attempt to skirt the overused word "fusion." "It's a marriage of all types of cuisines, from Asian to Caribbean to American Regional," says sous-chef Cliff Ostrowski, who came to Dallas from Chicago. "Instead of international, we call it the confluence, because it has so many influences."

Some of it is even disturbing, or at least Peter seemed to think so. In addition to having a testosterone-taxing day job, Peter is an accomplished musician. His mother was a concert pianist, and she began teaching him to play at the age of 3. Now, he says he tries to tackle a Scriabin piece or two for an hour a day to relieve job pressures, which include being flung around Sardinia in a Lamborghini.

The disquiet erupted when dessert arrived, a collection of whipped cream-lathered berries: plump, firm blueberries; juicy, tangy strawberries; and mushy raspberries stuffed inside a chocolate concert grand piano. The keyboard was rendered in white chocolate.

"I just have no idea how to eat this," he said. "What do I do? Break the legs out from under it? Crack the case and splinter it? I can't do it." He seemed genuinely distressed. So I cracked and shattered the Godiva Steinway with my fork, hoping the allure of fresh chocolate would calm him. He barely touched it.

This is the only part of the meal that caused him trauma. Though not immolated at tableside, Peter was genuinely consumed with his cognac-flamed lobster bisque. The problem was, so were the rest of us (we rudely dipped our spoons in it). This delicately robust soup with sweet briny breath and silken smoothness was among the best lobster bisque any of us had ever sampled.

He approached his bone-in tenderloin with equal fervor. The meat was flavorful and velvety smooth--tender would be an understatement here. But he was annoyed by the tall mashed potato silos sheathed in a golden brown coating that rose vertically from his plate like phallic symbols. Tightened with egg and flour and rolled in breadcrumbs, the tops of these fried tubes were carved off at 45-degree angles. "They detract from the plate. I mean, they seem so fast-food," Peter said. I disagreed. What kind of corporate fast-food mind would construct such things for a Happy Meal? Plus every mashed potato theme this kitchen chose to twist seemed to burst with brilliance. The roasted garlic mashed bonita potatoes (a white Mexican sweet potato) that accompanied the shrimp appetizer forced me to ignore the trio of lushly succulent jumbo decapods--striped with char marks and torched with spice--resting against the smooth, whipped puff. The creamy-sweet green chili mashed potatoes (spiked with roasted green poblano chilies), sharing space with the satiny, ruby red Texas center-cut venison chop, were immensely satisfying.

But I wondered about the menu, which I suspected was the victim of Manhattanization. A fried plantain rose out of that Texas venison chop's mashed potato clump like a hotel skyscraper. One dessert was a chocolate lattice tower pumped full of mango cream. There was even an appetizer dubbed arugula and marinated portobello tower, a salad that, though splashed with a lively roasted-shallot white balsamic vinaigrette, was painfully shy on the namesake ingredients. Maybe Executive Chef Frederic Stevens and his kitchen crew are a little too enamored with the restaurant's striking view.

Amusingly tall elements arose even from the specials. One such production,described as lobster medallions, was draped with a shelled, slightly spongy tail with four tiny, deeply sea-flavored mussels paired off on each side. There was a tasty fluffing of sticky rice infused with coconut milk and ancho pepper. Little clumps of wasabi-tinted tobiko caviar (flying fish roe) were plunked in a puddle of gingered Asian vinaigrette. Fried potato strings were sprinkled on top. Within this busy melange rose a pair of thick, statuesque sashimi-style tuna silos encased in nori (seaweed), lightly dipped in tempura, and fried. All of the above were on one dish. The immense bulk of the tuna presentation created dissonance with the nearly raw fish, which tastes best when delicately sliced or carved into small pieces rather than gnawed from a log.

Mouth-meltingly rich seared Hudson Valley foie gras was more successful at engaging the palate. Yet the bed of wood-roasted plum tomato risotto upon which it rested was cool and pasty. Honey duck breast with cashew-scented sticky rice should be skipped. Served virtually cold, the slices of slightly pink duck breast were a little shy on tenderness.

Opening in 1958, The Chaparral Club was originally a members-only private clique. Celebrities--LBJ, James Garner, Phyllis Diller, and Ann-Margret--often frequented the place, at least according to the press release. The club was shuttered in 1993.

Private or not, service at the new Chaparral Club was mostly elegant and graceful, if a little rickety. Menus didn't appear for several minutes after we were seated, and there was a long stretch between the wine list presentation and the eventual wine order. A charger on our table setting was filmed with smeary goo.

Yet the staff wasn't above a little clubby poke-poke, nudge-nudge. The next table over, a busboy dropped an armful of plates, piercing the dining room with the clamor of smashing dinnerware. The crash startled us. Seeing we were a little unsettled, a manager stopped by and apologized profusely for the distraction. He saw we weren't annoyed, so he lightened up. "You know, at first I thought maybe one of our guests dropped an earring," he said while kneeling on the floor. Peter locked on my eyes with a look of befuddlement. Maybe Canadians have the upper hand in the humor exchange rate.

The Chaparral Club, 400 N. Olive St., (214) 922-8000, Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Open for dinner 6-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 6-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$$-$$$$

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