By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
City Café is one of those Dallas institutions that is perpetually in danger of laurel-resting, of desperately clinging to the vigor for which it was known in an earlier time. Back then, its reputation was established simply by serving up new American cuisine with the edges tweaked just a bit, by drafting an intelligently crafted wine list with names that must have seemed exotic 12 or so years ago (who ever heard of a pinot blanc from Oregon anyway?). This is when new wasnt so hard to come by. There was even a time when these little nips and tucks could get you a cadre of fierce followers.
Not so today. City Café has had its share of ups and downs. In existence for roughly 14 years, this restaurant managed to serve sublime fare when the kitchen was under the supervision of Katie Schma--near perfect execution at every juncture. But then she packed it in for Northern California, near the shore where the sea foam is really suds and the lights go black at unpredictable intervals. She left behind a City Café that became susceptible to dreary lows and a kitchen that frequently defaulted to uninspiring, pro forma cuisine.
But that seems to have changed recently, and the transformation can be summed up in two words: Jason Gorman. Chef Gorman has spent a lot of time in Dallas' more hallowed kitchens. He cut his Big D teeth at the Grape, the venerable Lower Greenville Avenue restaurant that is often voted Dallas' "most romantic" restaurant, seemingly only because it makes generous use of low-wattage lightbulbs. After the Grape, Gorman moved to the now defunct Stephan Pyles/Michael Cox upscale fish shack known as AquaKnox.
5757 W. Lovers Lane
Dallas, TX 75209
Region: Park Cities
Fresh tomato soup: $4
Warm cabbage salad: $6
Crab cakes: $10
Mint grilled lamb tenderloin: $26
Potato Stilton agnolotti with shrimp: $18
Green olive-rubbed whole baby chicken: $16
Steak au poivre: $29
Carrot cake: $6
But Gorman found he didn't have the temperament for being part of the corporate scene at Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, which purchased AquaKnox. He left, and his timing seemed prescient. AquaKnox was later swallowed whole by the hungry jaws of Fishbowl, the restaurant's lounge, which spit the whole thing out as the overly clever Asian Fusion foray known as zen den.
Gorman's Carlson uprooting brought him to the Mercury, where he worked the line under the stern stare of Chris Ward. But he didn't find compatibility there either.
So he hiked down to City Café, and here he seems to have found his stride among the green carpet and lacy curtains. Here he not only crafts new entrants to monthly menus, his touch embraces old menu inhabitants as well, such as the warm cabbage salad with apple smoked bacon and blue cheese. This dish is a nice merging of subtle contrasts. Visually, the milky green remnants of the conventional cabbage head flirt almost menacingly with the deep purple hues of a red cabbage head, or maybe it's the other way around. And then there's the temperature. The warm (but very crisp) leaves seem to draw out the sharpness of the cool, blue cheese crumbles as perhaps no other flavor sensation could. This is comfort food with verve.
Fresh tomato soup was the work of indecisive execution, though it was still good. On one visit it was reddish and clear, save for the thick pulp suspended in its depths. Its flavors hinted faintly of cream, yet no milkiness was evident. On the second visit, the soup had the same pulp but was clouded by a thicker application of cream. Both versions were fresh and brimming with brusque tomato flavor, the kind that seems impossible to find in those waxy things sold on grocery store produce tables. But I preferred the raciness of the first version. It seemed to function more effectively as an appetizer; you could feel your mouth waking up after just a couple of spoonfuls.
Little has changed visually at City Café over the years. The walls are done up in nondescript shades, and there are a few antiques with white, chipping paint. The tables and chairs seem on the last legs of their wear-and-tear life span, a condition that is masked somewhat by white tablecloths. One chair on our first visit could actually be made to waver like a rocking chair with minimal pressure.
The tables are equipped with little cups of crudités (carrot, celery and kalamata olives) and wire baskets of toast and lahvosh that were sculpted into the shapes of cats and horses and other quadrupeds. It's all cozy and casually warm, the kind of place that seems to have been unwittingly crafted as a Dallas mainstay for loyal regulars.
Service reflects this philosophy. It is gracious, efficient and knowledgeable when it was there. But on one visit, we were left without attention for inordinately long periods, even though the dining room was only half-full. Sometimes it seems as though City Café has gotten a little too comfortable, a little too slow.
But maybe this is because these flaws were so striking when contrasted with the food, which showed few if any gaffes. The crab, shrimp and crawfish cakes were tiny but tall pucks of moist seafood meal covered in a crispy crust. They were gently pushed against a berm of cool avocado salad with tomato and a dab of saffron aioli. The cakes managed to avoid the mushiness that can sometimes infect this ubiquitous meal starter. Plus, the crawfish gave them a distinctive pungency that left them hovering above the ho and the hum.