By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
Maybe this is an evolution of some sort, the kind where the mutations and variations creep at such a slow pace that you barely notice. But Tramontana, a cozy little restaurant in Preston Center with the walls painted to look like the poster-infested bedroom of a café-cultured Francophile, is changing. Slowly.
Sure, it has a few leftovers like plush green screens cordoning the entrance that look as if they were put together with casket upholstery. And though my memory is faulty from years of absorbing blows to the forehead from Champagne corks, the velvety burgundy window treatments look the same as they did on a previous visit long ago.
Among the precious few things chef James Neel and his wife, Lisa, did when they took over Tramontana last fall was change one of the poster-like murals on the wall in the dark dining nook in the restaurant's recesses just off the kitchen. "It used to be lady with some long legs sitting there up on the wall smoking a cigarette," he says, explaining how this spindly-limbed woman was painted to serve as an artful smoking-section placard.
8220 Westchester Drive
Dallas, TX 75225-6119
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But since cigarettes are no longer the appealing cosmetic accessory they once were, Neel painted over the long-legged ash-flicker with another mural, one that was a more than fitting replacement -- a picture of a fireplace. Tramontana, named for a cold northern wind that blows across the Western Mediterranean, was opened five or so years ago by Jean-Michel Sakouhi, a Mansion refugee who also helped launch Sipango and now operates the much-lauded Le Paris Bistrot on McKinney Avenue. Tramontana slipped away from Sakouhi in a divorce and was picked up by Jade Synhorst and Gary Barnes. From there it went into the hands of Neel and his wife, who immediately began tweaking its quasi-French bistro fare, replacing it with one of the countless menus wearing the "New American" designation. Neel describes his version as a little French, a little Italian, and a little Texan.
"I felt the only thing this place was missing was a nice fireplace," says Neel, perhaps reflecting on the restaurant's name. "And I couldn't afford a real one. So I painted one on."
Brushed into this homey fireplace facsimile are a couple of duck and pear likenesses roasting in the flames. The model for part of this image turns up on the menu, though even with tasty grilled pears, the buttery walnut-cluttered salad in port-wine vinaigrette ($5.95) still suffered, seemingly from a chilly northern wind. The salad, obviously pre-assembled and tossed in a deep-chill box, was so cold that it frosted any hope of successfully meshing the flavors locked up in the apple-smoked bacon, the Roquefort cheese, the nuts, and the vinaigrette.
Fortunately, the soups were spared the same chilly fate. Tomato-dill soup ($3.95) was scalding hot and tangy but a little thin with only modest dill taste coupled with a flavor reminiscent of dishwater. Chicken- pasta soup ($3.95) was searing hot and seething with richness, flavors no doubt rendered from the shiny little polka dots of fat floating over the surface. It was a hearty slurp, despite the paucity of chicken and the mushy, overcooked pasta, which might have been orecchiette, but was hard to discern in its disintegrating state.
Which is also the condition of the mural featuring a large bottle of Chateau Margaux painted on the wall around the time of the restaurant's inception. Like the woman with the shapely, spindly limbs and the smoke, this bottle of wine will be painted over. Neel says the mural was severely damaged New Year's Eve after the guitarist from the blues band they had hired for the evening smashed the wall with the head of his guitars.
To the remaining Toulouse-Lautrec-ish murals that contain beer advertisements and cancan girls, Neel has added some framed art of Mediterranean scenes. But these are the only apparent differences from the old spot. There is still the planked wood paneling around the base of the bar, the basketball-sized lighting fixtures, and the general dusky ambience. Bottles line the back bar on shelves supported by chains anchored in the wall.
In addition to liquor bottles, these shelves hold a few of the selections from Tramontana's brief, casual, and very bistro-ish wine list. There's a good scattering of comfortable, non-confrontational California wines -- Mondavi Sauvignon Blanc, Chalk Hill Chardonnay, Clos de Bois Merlot, Jordan Cab -- with a fistful of French bottlings tossed in to make that guitar-damaged Margaux depiction feel at home. Chilean wines are served mostly by the glass.
It's easy to appreciate the efforts of Neel, a chef who most recently was in the kitchen at Al Biernat's after stints at the Brookhaven Country Club and the French Room. In fact, it's sometimes hard to differentiate Neel and his wife from the rest of the Tramontana staff, so prominent are they in the dining room, mingling with guests, personally overseeing service. At the same time, it can be difficult to appreciate the results of these efforts without a lot of squinting and twitching.
No facial expressions were necessary to nudge appreciation of the Absolut pepper diablo sauce that came with the potato-crusted calamari ($6.95). Robust and rich with chunks of barely scalded pieces of plump, hearty tomato, this house-made condiment was without question among the best tomato-based dipping sauces I've stumbled across. It was full, broadly flavored, and lively. Too bad the calamari lacked the spine to match it. Not that there was a problem with the coating, which was fine, if a little shy on herbs and spices. But the squid meat was little more than rings of spongy mush, like bits of flaccid, overcooked pasta.