By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
Longtime Dallas chef Kent Rathbun says he and partner Robert Hoffman, a former Coca-Cola distributor, ruminated over and ran trademark searches on a long list of names before arriving at two choices: Abacus and Onyx. Rathbun was partial to the latter, Hoffman the former. The tiebreaker came after Hoffman had dinner in California with one of his favorite artists, Jasper Johns. "So Robert comes back and says, 'Jasper Johns likes Abacus,'" Rathbun says. "That's as simple as it was.
"And it seems to have been a good choice. I mean, I haven't had anybody come in here looking for Chinese duck for five dollars."
Question two: Why is the food so dizzyingly complicated and pricey that it would make that five-dollar Chinese duck pass out? Rathbun denies his menu is expensive. But he doesn't dispute the high volume of flavors and elements interacting on his plates. Take one entrée: grilled beef Rossini with seared foie gras and Madeira herb glaze ($29). Sounds not much different from a simple Rossini. It arrives like a double-stacked ice-cream sandwich, or maybe a beehive hairdo before a good bluing. A brioche mattress girds a small, thick, ruddy tenderloin disk that's topped by a baby portobello mushroom and a piece of seared foie gras. The flavors are voluptuous. But why the brioche? It didn't seem to add anything, and it sort of got in the way, making the thing topple over every time it was cut.
During a discussion before his McKinney restaurant opened, Rathbun said the menu would be adventurous, but below the cost of most upscale restaurants in town. Sort of middle upscale, or upper mid-scale.
Here's his thinking: The menu is divided into two sections -- small plates, essentially a list of appetizers ranging from $7 to $20; and big plates, entrées ranging from $24 to $34. Rathbun sees this structure as offering diners an economical option for dining at an upscale restaurant. "You can come in here and spend some money," he says. "But there are a lot of people who leave here with a couple of appetizers under their belts and they're thrilled."
I suppose. But I tried a pair of those small plates, and I was less than thrilled with the price-to-belt-stressing ratio. Garlic roast lobster in golden tomato-lemongrass broth was beautiful to look at. A pool of smooth yellow broth held four mushroom cap slices placed symmetrically around the bowl. It also held a battered, deep-fried lobster claw and a small piece of lobster tail among some watercress. Texturally, the dish was flawless. But the broth, spiked with sambal (Thai chili paste) and the lobster, sautéed with butter melded with chili sauce, bristled with too much heat for my taste. It seemed to cauterize the meat, sealing off its sweet succulence. And the dish seemed so busy: tomato tang, fungi earthiness, pepper heat, briny sweetness, fried brittleness, pungent greenery. Not that Rathbun's other creations aren't busy. But instead of transcending this complexity, this one seemed to shamelessly indulge in a quest for eclecticism.
"Yeah, there's a lot of things going on in the menu," Rathbun says. "But it's because it's representative of things I've done in my career." He ticks off his flings with New Orleans, Asian, Southwestern, and New American cuisine.
Now maybe this buzzing over busyness is a minor quibble, especially when most everything at Abacus is rarely less than dazzling. But at 18 bucks for a pinch of food in a puddle, you've paid for the right to quibble.
Then there are the spoons: four large, shimmering silver spoons fanned over a reddish square plate that was smudged, smeared, and otherwise spotted, disfiguring a seamless presentation. Bowls cradle a fried oyster, daikon greens, and a dab of wasabi cream all crowned with a clump of tobikko caviar (flying fish roe). Everything meshed, making for four bites of tightly packed, explosive flavor. But at 12 bucks, this put the total for my small plates at $30.
I could have picked parsimoniously, trying to put tension under my belt for under $20. There's a baby field greens salad for $8. It's fluffy and well assembled with understated touches of balsamic vinegar and herbs. It also has slices of firm, juicy golden and red tomato and a nice salty punch. Garlic potato chips are $4. But come on. Do you really want to go to a flashy Rathbun place and nibble on greens and chips?
"I'm not interested in doing a $20 check average," Rathbun emphasizes. "I want to do things that are unique and presented in ways that not many chefs do."
Question three: What's behind the design, and why does it come across like the starship Enterprise meets Tony Manero's disco bordello?
There's a lot of thought behind the design of Abacus, and the best place to start is the dishwasher. It's the thing that gets Rathbun the most visibly tickled -- other than the force of the burners in his wok station, which can vaporize months of patient Rogaine treatments in a nanosecond. He got the idea for his dishwasher layout from a book written by the kitchen master of an aircraft carrier. This swabbie calculated that the optimal amount of silverware that should ever be put through a dishwasher equals half a hotel bus pan. Any more and the utensils won't get clean. Any less is inefficient. So Rathbun customized his dishwashing line with special trays with volume equal to half a hotel pan. Then he designed a racking system with little faucets that pipe soaking solution to each pan, and labeled and arranged the pans to precisely match the way the pieces are set on the table from right to left. This structure economizes on motion, maximizes sorting accuracy, and minimizes the chances of gunky flatware.