Going back to the well

Did Newport's fish its menu from a deep hole?

Our server says that in the summertime waiters strip and dive in--plunge 35 or so feet into that dark, stagnant water hole that seems a portal to Hades. I cringe. "Oh, it's 60 feet deep," he says. (Actually, the well at Newport's Seafood is 50 feet deep and holds some 35 feet of water, according to the press release.)

"But the look of it," says my companion. "It's dark, and you don't know what's in there...or where it's been."

Strange how this comment looped through my head during my time at Newport's. I never expected that the famous waterhole in the middle of the dining-room floor would become a metaphor for my experience, but it did.

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Newport's Seafood Restaurant

703 McKinney Ave.
Dallas, TX 75202

Category: Restaurant > Seafood

Region: Downtown & Deep Ellum

That brick-lined puncture in the earth was once an artesian well feeding a brewery. The building dates to the late 1880s, when it was constructed as the Dallas Brewery and Bottling Works, the first such operation in the area. In 1918, the building was converted into the Grain Juice Co., which produced a non-alcoholic beer substitute called Graino during Prohibition. The company went broke in 1926, which raises a question: Who was buying Graino in sufficient quantities to keep the company afloat for eight years?

It wasn't until 1983, during renovation of the old brewery, that the well was discovered beneath the concrete floor. Divers were dispatched. They found smooth brick walls and another 12-foot well in the center of the hole. There was seemingly no current and no source for the fresh water. Later it was discovered that the well was fed by a spring, once very active. Today, the well allows only seepage of water in and out, with the level varying roughly six feet per year, corresponding to the Dallas water table.

And this is what those waiters were diving into in the midst of Dallas' summer swelter. Our server says that if you look close at the railings, you can see the abrasions in the paint where ropes were slung and then dropped into the hole to fish out the service personnel. So we did, and we found a few scuffs on the railing behind the wooden platform near the back of the well that holds an old model ship. The ship came from Copenhagen, from a seamen's chapel where seafarers prayed for safety before setting sail.

Some praying would have been in order for those diving servers. The water is black and covered with what looked like a film of some kind. Maybe it was just how the light swept across, but who knows? You don't know where that seepage has been, or what's been in it.

At the start of my first visit, I didn't let my companion's comment worry me or reinforce some frightening metaphor, because the service was so good. Our server was crisp, professional, and thoughtful, and he noticed potential inconveniences before we did. Here's another reason: The tri-level dining room, with its old brick walls, roughened wood-plank floors, the thick scent of smoke--not to mention the oddity of that huge hole in the ground--was so inviting.

And the menu, while it wasn't startling, seemed fine. OK, maybe a little lazy. Lobster-crawfish bisque was adequate, not strikingly clean and harmonious with a sea-washed surge, but the flavor was good--just not what it could have been. But crawfish-spinach spring rolls with a housemade barbecue sauce lumbered. Cut in four pieces, the cakey, deep-fried rolls had a coating that was corn-dog thick and reminiscent of a hushpuppy. A dry one. This thick coating and the sweetly pungent, viscous barbecue sauce made the rolls seem clumsy. Spring rolls connote lightness, freshness, and agility. This preparation was the opposite, though the side of spicy cucumber relish sparked and stimulated the palate in a way those rolls could only hope to.

Herb-crusted Dover sole over mashed potatoes had the same problem. The delicate flavor and texture of the sole were choked in a stultifying, mushy crumb veneer that seemed to have been constructed to camouflage inferior product. Seared sesame-crusted tuna, served over mashed potatoes and swamped in a puddle of cilantro-soy vinaigrette, was better. A little. Ordered rare, the fish was mostly gray and stiff without any silkiness or clean richness. Not bad, but there are far better examples of seared tuna in town, and a heavy dose of vinaigrette turned those creamy mashed potatoes into watery mush after just a few minutes. Dessert barely reached adequacy. The roasted apple crisp was a bit flat, and the topping was soggy and doughy instead of crumbly and crisp.

Things went into a marked free-fall on the next visit. The service was slow and indifferent. The conversation was dark. The food was scrub and worse. A small Greek salad with sweet peppers, feta crumbles, and kalamata olives was the best thing tried; everything was fresh and tasty, though it took great effort to locate the lone pair of runt kalamatas buried beneath the greens. But New England clam chowder, a "rich house specialty," as the menu describes it, tasted like a Campbell's cream soup cut with half-and-half--a style of richness I could pass on. Plus, the surface of the soup was rippled and topped with skim, as if the pottage had been sitting for a long time without attention--even after it was ladled. Small curry-and-corn crab cakes were dry and cool, and other than having the pronounced flavor of curry, bland.

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