By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
Chef Joseph Maher insists the color that drenches his North Dallas restaurant is not orange. "Actually, it's papaya," he corrects. "Papaya is my favorite fruit." Whatever the hue, the textured color soaks Mirabelle's walls, trim and, clumsily, the ceiling acoustical tiles.
17610 Midway Road
Dallas, TX 75287
Region: Carrollton/ Farmers Branch
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Quail breast: $9
Duck breast: $20
Hawaiian king prawns: $25
Passion fruit crème brûlée: $6
There's a novel relationship between color and fruit swirling in Maher's head, one that has unexpected results on the plate. The young chef has clad the walls of his restaurant in impressionistic paintings from his personal collection, one he says he started building when he was a teen-ager. They burgeon with vibrant licks of color, a detail often obscured by the restaurant's dim lighting. "I look for color," Maher says. "I love paintings that speak to me through color."
He carries this lust to the saltwater fish tank imbedded in the wall at the back of the restaurant. Maher says he selected the fish, especially the yellow tang and the tomato clown fish, to blend with the surrounding paintings and the restaurant's papaya hue.
The vibrancy of these fruit tones is carried over into Maher's food, but not in ways you might think. Though educated at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, Maher doesn't go much for butter and cream because he says the inherent fats blunt and obscure the intrinsic flavors he seeks to draw out. In their place he employs fruit, a substitution he says heightens the freshness of the food. Yet unlike the color in his art collection, Maher's food is not drenched in bracingly intense fruit colorings. Rather, his sauces are pervious cloaks that embrace rather than drape.
His quail breast is an apt example. Though engulfed in a busy rutabaga puree cranberry vinaigrette, the flavors of the bird (not at all livery, but moist and clean) easily slipped through. The sauce simply added a subtle spark that invigorated and balanced the flavors on the plate, which were broadened by brandy-flambéed golden raisins studding the sauce and a tangle of fried leeks crowning the bird breast.
Where Maher does employ cream, he does it with restraint. Pacific mussels came steeped in a broth of wine, chicken stock, garlic, shallots and just a touch of cream--enough to add a milky richness to the flavor, a barely perceptible viscid tackiness to the texture and a gauzy opaqueness to the aspect.
When Maher seeks to completely displace cream without sacrificing its body, the substitutions can get inventive. His sweet, delicate hamachi, secluded under an herb shroud of cilantro, parsley, sage, tarragon and chives, is bathed in a sauce rendered from roasted bell peppers, red onions and garlic flooded with coconut milk. But not just any coconut milk. Maher acquires a special coconut milk from Bangkok, one with a much higher fat content (20 percent) than most coconut milks sold in Dallas (13 to 14 percent). This would seem to run counter to Maher's philosophy, which stresses austere leanness when it comes to fats. Yet the structure of the coconut milk adds richness that enhances the sweetness of the fish rather than obscures, as animal fats might do.
Maher even plays tug-of-war with his preferences, pitting restrained richness against fruity briskness. His duck breast is sliced and glazed in bourbon and molasses. This seems like more than enough stress to heap upon a bird. But on top of that, Maher adds a kumquat-vanilla sauce. That's a lot of flavors to pile onto a flesh that has potent richness on its own. Yet this business somehow manages to merge without any collisions or struggles, though some of those slices were inordinately fatty. The meat was perched on a disc of crispy polenta, which skillfully magnified the earthy tones of the silky duck.
Maher's culinary path to Dallas and his own restaurant is riddled with just as many novel twists and turns as his food, though certainly not as subtle. He was born in Nicaragua, but he never lived in the Central American country because his parents were diplomats. He claims he lived in 36 countries growing up, often for no more than six months at a stretch.
The exception was the United States. He attended a military academy in North Carolina for high school and college in Texas at the University of Houston. His culinary training took him from Hokkaido, one of the four main islands of Japan, to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and on to the Culinary Institute of America. He globe-hopped through a series of internships that included stints at the Mandalay Hotel in Jakarta, a stop in the city of Perth on Australia's West Coast and Buenos Aires. His last internship was in Reykjavik, Iceland, where he discovered the subtleties of Nordic cuisine. "I learned how to prepare salmon in many different ways," he says, laughing.
He ended up working with Houston chef Mark Cox and after that stint addressed an urge to work in a steak house. A steak house? "I wanted to work in a place that seated 600 people," Maher explains. "I wanted to master food at a very fast pace and still make it quality." So he worked at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston before coming to Dallas to work as a pastry chef at the Pappas Bros. installation here.
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