Ten-gallon beret

Charolais is a steak house with a French kiss

Naming a restaurant after a breed of cattle might seem like a perfectly reasonable thing to do in Texas, the No. 1 state in cattle production. But when you look at the Charolais, a breed of cattle originally from France (and named for a district in that country), you have to wonder. It doesn't have the striking stature of the longhorn or the cuddly composure of the Holstein. It's a strange-looking creature that's white and rippling with a thick neck that nearly resembles a camel hump. It looks like the kind of beast that could comfortably roam in a Star Wars sequel without additional costumery. Charolais cattle are known for their rapid growth spurts and robust height and weight gain in relation to their food intake -- the steroid-pumped linebackers of the beef industry. And like linebackers, a lot of hay is made concerning their virility.

A March issue of Farmers Weekly trumpets how semen from two British Charolais bulls -- Olympian and Maerdy Impeccable -- had been exported to Sweden in a bold attempt to put more meat into Swedish cattle herds. The British Charolais Society reports that Australia, Canada, South Africa, and Zimbabwe have also shown keen interest in the liquid legacy of Olympian and Maerdy Impeccable.

Yet Charolais cattle can be mean as well as prolifically beefy. The London Daily Telegraph reports that Donald Mottram, a Welsh farmer, was assaulted in 1996 by a Charolais bull. It charged him when he was in his fields attending to a calf and hurled him 30 feet into the air. He recovered from a daze only to find the bull trampling him, eventually kicking him into unconsciousness. Mottram says he owes his life to Daisy, one of his favorite cows. He says when he regained consciousness, his herd -- apparently marshaled by 14-year-old Daisy -- had surrounded him, creating a protective dairy cow chain, while the bull stamped and bellowed in frustration. Some of Mottram's favorite cows in this heroic group have names like Megan, Amy, Bethan, Mary, and Kitty -- none of which would make good steakhouse names, especially in Texas. But neither would Holstein or Hereford. Does Charolais? Charolais cattle produce meat that is leaner than conventional beef cattle, with less exterior fat and marbling. Yet when was the last time you heard a Texas steak eater moan about exterior fat and marbling? Doesn't happen.

Charolais cattle originated in France. They tend to be a bit ill-tempered -- surprise, surprise.
Tracy Powell
Charolais cattle originated in France. They tend to be a bit ill-tempered -- surprise, surprise.

But Charolais (pronounced sharlay) produces a sound that rolls off the tongue when placed in front of "steakhouse," creating elegant, upscale vocal textures. But how do all of these Charolais characteristics translate into flavor? Hard to say. Our examples were acceptable, really, but the flavor was nothing to drive a dedicated steak eater to stamping and bellowing in passionate adulation. Charolais uses only beef from Charolais cattle raised in the Midwest, and its mixed grill ($26.95) looked like a trio of meat pucks -- lean meat pucks. Thin cuts of sirloin, rib eye, and tenderloin were black on the outside from a smothering of rich rosemary demi-glace and grayish pink on the inside instead of the ruddy medium rare shade ordered. Although the meat was tender, it was dry and only modestly rich, shortcomings the demi-glace couldn't conquer. Nuzzled next to the beef trio was a scattering of crisp green string beans and slices of too-thick potatoes, also taking on a puckish posture. Maybe this has something to do with all of those Stars flags that are flapping from car windows these days.

The lamb took on the same ho-hum composure. Rib lamb chops ($25.75), two small double chops crossed on the plate, were dribbled with rosemary demi-glace. This stark, minimalist composition left all of the culinary heavy lifting to meat, which was in possession of precious little flavor. Though the meat was moist, chewy, and firm, it lacked luxurious silkiness and piquant sweetness.

Maybe that's because all of this flavor work was left to the trio of sauces delivered with the entrées: mushroom-red wine, béarnaise, and peppercorn brandy. All were exquisitely smooth and balanced. The mushroom-wine was lush and adroit, the béarnaise smooth and tangy, while the peppercorn brandy was potently pungent.

But the wish for richer, more savory cuts of meat upon which to slather these sauces prevailed. So I turned to the more prosaic offerings to see whether they cut a more flavorful swath. They did. Chicken-liver mousse ($6.75), three spokes of grainy glandular organ purée, is smooth and rich -- near decadent. Pretty good for a chicken giblet. A crisp simple dressing laps a sheaf of supple greens and clean rings of red onion.

Caesar salad ($5.50), tossed tableside, was equally fresh and well executed, though the dressing is a bit timid, lacking lusty streaks of anchovy and lemon.

Jean Rubede, the longtime Dallas chef who founded Clair de Lune restaurant nearby, owns Charolais. Its elegantly rustic décor includes rough brick walls, candelabra chandeliers with iron hoops and arrows, large candle sconces on the walls, and mauve crocheted curtains. It's charming, something I don't think you can say about Charolais cattle, though they have been successfully bred with yaks and buffalo (beefalo), which might make them cuddlier. Spotlights shoot pink from the ceiling, perhaps to cast a glow on the crocheted window dressings. A curvaceous nook near the front of the restaurant holds a semicircular leather banquette in a handsome mauve tint. On the opposite side of this concave notch is a textured wall imbedded with urns and vases holding live plants, a kind of foliated pottery wall of fame. Or maybe it's a verdant streak to play off of the mauve and pinkish tones, just like the Charolais lunch menu has a few interesting forays to play off of the Charolais dishes, though maybe not as interesting as a potted plant growing cockeyed out of textured sheet rock.

Duck salad ($12.95) is a collection of freshly supple spinach leaves scattered with red onion rings, brisk marinated mushrooms, wads of clean, creamy goat cheese, and tomato wedges that have the promising look of red lushness but don't follow through with the flavor. Moist pieces of fleshy smoked duck were also short on lustiness, stretching across the tongue with a timid wood-fume flavor. But the thick vinaigrette, a green pesto-like substance rendered from puréed mesclun, was delicious in its own subtle way.

Lobster and crab burger ($12.95) was pricey. Inserted in a split toasted and buttered baguette, the expansive thin patty of pulverized lobster and crabmeat crusted with crumbs had precious little sweet, briny flavor. There was none of the luxurious flavors and textures of these upscale sea-floor crawlers, just a vapor trail trace of their opulence. A patty coarsely sown with lush scraps of this flesh that could be chewed and nibbled would have made this sandwich seem more posh, and perhaps create the perception that the price is justified. If you're going to use lobster, show the lobster. It's hard to get excited about something that comes across like shellfish farina.

The intentionally pedestrian stuff really showed well, though. Pommes frites, a side with the lobster crab burger (also served in generous portions with entrées), are thin, crisp, moist, and well seasoned.

Charolais' service is generously -- though not obtrusively -- attentive and gracious. But it's rippled with distracting missteps. A side order of spinach sauté ($5.50) (no, offering only creamed spinach in steak houses is not an FDA regulation) with chewy leaves (a few with brown edges) in rich garlic butter arrived just as our entrées were being pulled. And though we ordered bread pudding ($4.25) for dessert, a crème brûlée was delivered, a misstep that was quickly corrected. Maybe too quickly. The bread pudding had a distracting rubbery texture. Yet despite the texture, which made the jaw bounce like a land yacht with bad shocks, it was still ripe with smooth richness that came mostly from a the caramel sauce and a bright rippled dollop of brilliant white cream.

Maybe that cream was rendered from Charolais cattle, though I fervently hope the British Charolais Society had nothing to do with it.

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