Plano puzzle

"Texas-French" Joshel has many pieces. Some don't fit

"A 1967 Raquel Welch romp," cookbook author and TV cooking-show host Nathalie Dupree says as I take a seat at Joshele, the new upscale dining and jazz spot in Plano. "Space, A, space, H, O, M, Do you know it?" she asks. "Wait a minute--I don't think you're old enough." Dupree is struggling with a USA Today crossword puzzle. "How old are you?" she asks our waiter as he arrives with menus. "Do you know a 1967 Raquel Welch romp?" The waiter doesn't. Before he can leave, she peppers him with questions about Joshele's chef, Todd Nelson, whose name is at the top of the menu.

"I think I know him," she says. "Does he have red hair?" He does. "Is he tall and lean?" No, he's short, maybe a little portly. "Is he from Boston?" Our waiter doesn't think so. "How old is he?" Maybe 30. "So he wouldn't know about Raquel either," she says, sighing dejectedly. Then she perked up. "Do you think anyone back there in the kitchen would know a 1967 Raquel Welch romp?"

Throughout our dinner, she fires more questions at me. "Do you think they really use Parmigiano Reggiano and white truffle essence?" The menu description said as much about the Angus beef carpaccio. I tell her I don't think they would season their dishes with falsehoods, but these suspicions are the least of her concerns once the carpaccio arrives. The thick, gray sheets of beef are cooked and warm, not cool, gauzy, and raw, as carpaccio should be. A plate of exiled deli-sandwich roast beef is what this corruption of the famous Italian dish looks like.

I tell her I had my eye on the stone crab claws. "You know, they cook them before they're shipped out of Florida," she says. When our waiter returns, she immediately quizzes him. "They're cooked and on ice when you get them, right?" No, he says. They arrive fresh on ice and are cooked in house. "I don't believe him," she whispers as he leaves our table with the appetizer order. Cooked on-premise or not, the claws are sweet and moist, with only a few fibrous strains.

Soup of the day, potato and celery root, is dead on arrival. It is creamy, smooth, and consistent, but helplessly bland. "It just doesn't sing," snaps Dupree. She scans the menu a good long time before she decides on an entree, reading the descriptions aloud and tossing questions, mostly rhetorical, about virtually every dish.

"I'll bet the pheasant is from South Carolina," she says, deciding on the pan-sauteed pheasant breast. It isn't. It hails from Wisconsin and is exceptionally moist and savory and paired with a delicious dollop of parsnip puree. "Speaks well for the kind of pheasants they're getting here," she says. But the pheasant pan sauce is slightly bitter, as if it had been singed. There is some sharp bitterness to the crust on my grilled mahi mahi as well. "Whoever's cooking tonight does not know when to stop with the heat," Dupree pronounces. "This is a second-to-second thing." A couple of the artichokes in the accompanying baby artichoke ragout are gray and off-tasting, but the side of basmati rice is moist and fluffy, and the lively rich sweetness of the Texas grapefruit-pink peppercorn sauce proves a brilliantly fertile framing for the firm, flavorful fish. Dupree disagrees sharply. She doesn't think much of my sauce at all. "I don't like pink peppercorns. I'm just over them," she says dismissively, with the air of one who's moved beyond a trendy rut.

A rut is where this culinary professional might have spent the rest of her life if not for the resourcefulness of the pharmaceutical industry. Dupree joined me for dinner as part of a 20-city public awareness campaign dubbed "Acid Control Comfort Zone," a project designed to raise awareness of gastroesophagael reflux disease, or GERD. Dupree suffers from the affliction, which, according to the Acid Control press kit, affects millions who mistake it for ordinary heartburn. Its effect, however, can be far worse than an addiction to fruit-flavored Tums. Stomach acid backing up into the esophagus has been linked to deterioration of the esophagus, asthma, and even dental erosion.

A drug company that just so happens to make a pill that gives GERD the gate underwrote Dupree's acid tour. You've seen the commercials: computer-animated people resembling shriveled produce grunt and sibilate while clasping their sternums as a pleasant voice queries them on their indigestion. Dupree swallows this pill regularly, which is a good thing, because she's probably saved herself from a life of eating nothing but Joshele's potato-celery-root soup.

Opened last fall, Joshele occupies the space in Plano that was once Bistro 1401, and before that, a PoPoLos.

"We gave Plano what it wanted," says Joseph Barbaria, president of First Republic Group, the oil, gas, and finance firm that operates the restaurant. Barbaria undertook extensive market research before developing the distinctive, upscale restaurant-nightclub concept he says high-income Plano residents desired but didn't want to scurry to Dallas or Addison to experience. "We took a little bit of the Mansion, a little bit of Morton's, and a higher-end jazz situation and rolled it into one," he says. The fare is defined as Texas-French, and I'm still not sure I know what that means, though Barbaria put forth as concise a definition as I've heard. "Texas-French is French cuisine with a Texas flair," he says. "Which means that it's the way Texans want it. The steak is as big as a small animal." I like that: French culinary techniques wreathing a centerpiece as big as a toy poodle, which is, I guess, the Texas flair.

The cuisine is not the only conundrum here. There's that name. What does Joshele mean? "It's just a name that we sat around and came up with," Barbaria says. "It sounded good." But that's not the only story behind the moniker. Barbaria says that at one point they planned to retrofit the restaurant with a 65-pound lobster for the kids to ride on Sundays. They eventually scrubbed the idea because they had no place to harbor the beast. "The name of the lobster was going to be Joe Shell," he says. "And with Texas-French, we came up with Joshele."

It's nice how everything sounds so seamless. Yet it isn't. Things perpetually hit on one count and miss on the next. Creme brulee was good and smooth with a warm crust lid and a cool, creamy custard. Yet the tiramisu turned out to be a soggy wad of mush that leaked when you pressed it with a fork.

Lunch items proved just as bumpy. Sesame seared ahi tuna over a sweet cucumber slaw with an Asian emulsion had nicely textured flesh. But there was no stimulating tension to the arrangement: The mixture of blond and black sesame seeds crusting the meat had no foil. The salad certainly couldn't do it. And the viscous emulsion of sesame oil and soy sauce sort of picked up on the understated tone and toyed with it instead of giving it sting. A few peppercorns on the crust, perhaps--or better, a surge of wasabi in the emulsion--may have made all the difference. Pieces of Washington state smoked salmon over Belgian endive, pear, and walnuts tasted like scented soap. But the grilled chicken breast with basil pesto and goat cheese was moist and yodeled with flavor appropriately bolstered with a fearless application of salt. A side of tasty roasted garlic mashed potatoes rounded out the dish.

Decor is freshly handsome. Two fountains flank the entrance. On the left is a dribbling thing with stepped layers of rough glass and dolphins at the base. On the right is a trio of descending white bowls, one pouring into the other, with a little fog wisping from the brew and tiny red lights providing illumination. White stone columns, bleached wood beams, and fake foliage garnish the dining room that holds cushy green carpeting and soft brown leather booths. Dupree maintained that the only ambient blemish was the pedestrian strip-mall view through the windows just before the patio. She felt latticework or some other delicate shroud should have closed off the patio to blur the view and add some mystery to the environment. I agreed.

Joshele also has an extensive cigar and single-malt Scotch menu. The wine list is mostly California, with a few Texas vintages tossed in to keep the Texas-French theme aloft. A few more French selections (there are just four sparklers and maybe five wines) would punch it up even more. Service here is impeccable, among the best I've experienced. It was uniformly gracious, efficient, considerate, and infused with menu knowledge, despite the glaring lack of familiarity with Raquel Welch's film legacy. (The answer is Fathom, by the way.) But no matter. As I was leaving, a server handed me an item left behind at our table: a well-worn crossword puzzle dictionary.

Joshel, 1401 Preston Road, (972) 713-0383. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m Monday-Saturday, Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Open for dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 5-11 p.m. Thursday, 5 p.m.-12 a.m. Friday & Saturday, and 5-9 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$

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