By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
Once you pass through the Abbotsford front door, things get even more cryptic. There's no one at the door, no one to tell you that yes, this is a restaurant and not a catering cranny or a ballroom appendage. But someone eventually does appear, if you stand there and make a little noise, to seat you and shuffle out menus. It could be a startled bartender with that caught-in-the-high-beams look, who crushes a cigarette in seeming surprise that someone has intentionally swept through the special-events facility decoys for a dining experience; or a woman of cheery composure, who briskly approaches you, menus in hand, and guides you down a long dark channel with paintings on the walls until you spill out into the multilevel dining space.
And there you sit. Except for the high ceilings, the dearth of patrons and the AWOL service staff, "a" looks like your typical overpaneled restaurant (an insider admitted it was cheap wood paved over with dark veneer). The tables are neatly dressed. There's even table real estate set aside for those clear cylindrical bottles of Voss artesian water from Norway, which must be riding the trendy razor right now as it shows up in places like Steel and Sense.
Salad buffet: $12
Foie gras: $14
Grilled Caesar: $5
Kobe burger: $11
Chicken à la Wendy: $17
Rib eye steak: $24
Crème brûlée: $5
At lunchtime there's a salad buffet, one that wasn't assembled until roughly an hour into the lunch phase, which began at 11 a.m. That doesn't mean it isn't good. It is. It's just that most people don't have an afternoon to wait for the cherry tomatoes to appear. Yet the expanse features lush vegetation--fresh, sweet and crisp baby corn and an artichoke salad with tender baby long-stemmed artichokes in a brisk marinade. At the head of the buffet table are stacks of bread slices and piles of sliced meat: roasted turkey breast, corned beef, house-smoked ham and Wagyu beef (from Wagyu cattle, the same cattle that produce the Kobe grade of beef). At the other end of the table is a plank of deep ruby prosciutto, supple, stained-glass slices that ring sweet in the mouth and leave a wake of racy tang in the fat film skidding across your tongue. Next to this are layers of salmon. Though a bit sinewy, the sheets are rich, with clean smoke wisps that gently saturate the flesh.
Still, buffet engorgement is not everyone's idea of midday refueling. So "a" offers an array of sandwiches and appetizers on a menu scrunched onto a little slip of cream paper. The grilled Caesar salad was a stubborn thing, a near-perfect ensemble that obstinately resists its own latent brilliance. It comes in three versions: buck naked, studded with chicken or littered with calamari. We went the seafood route, expecting rings and limbs of mollusk sautéed milky white and gray. Instead, we got a well-integrated strewing of body rings and tentacle knots, floured and fried, well-seasoned and greaseless--perhaps the best fried calamari we've come across in Dallas in a long time (though the pile of garlic croutons was an annoying redundancy among the squid). Scorched romaine leaves were tender and dressed in a lively lemony dressing (though the anchovy edge was distressingly blunted), and tangy slices of Reggiano Parmigiano cheese were shrewdly tumbled into the mix, creating a delicious tug-of-war between the tangs. But instead of a scattering of leaves, the salad bedrock was served as a pair of romaine bundles, with the leaves still joined to the head core, making it cumbersome to eat, even with a steak knife.
The Kobe beef half-pound burger with tomato slices, lettuce, pickle spears and a batch of buttered fries, isn't what you might expect. Kobe beef conjures up visions of lusty richness and unparalleled flavor on account of the exquisite marbling sown through the fiber. Unfortunately, the best thing about this Kobe burger wasn't the ground beef, which was ordered medium rare but delivered closer to medium well. It's the tangy cheese that welds the burger to the bun top. This medium Wisconsin cheddar, carved from a wheel, is so tangy and rich that it shows up the richness of the meat--exactly what you don't want to have happen to a burger named Kobe.
The restaurant makes a fuss about its beef, pointing out on the menu that its steaks, carved from locally raised Wagyu cattle, are available exclusively at this restaurant. We didn't see what the fuss was about. The prime center-cut Wagyu rib eye on a scattering of sourdough croutons was perilously thin. And the 14-ounce steak was fatty, though not in a tasty marbled kind of way. Instead, it was pocked with fat globules, which add nothing memorable to the taste, especially this patty--a tough, mundane brute.
"a" restaurant emerged earlier this year from the belly of Abbotsford Court, the catering mill created after Wall's Catering purchased Yvette--the Addison continental restaurant/cabaret opened in 1996 with the involvement of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and former coach Barry Switzer--in late 1999 to enlist its enormous kitchen and ballroom in its catering and special-events business. To nudge the restaurant arm of the operation out of its assembly line mentality, Wall's brought in restaurant consultant and food writer Christine Carbone to give it some fit and finish.
Yet the décor remains the same, complete with Yvette's perspective-challenged mural featuring a crowd of Dallas celebrities such as Jones and Switzer. There's the same brass railings, the acres of paneling, the candelabra chandeliers and the burgundy velvet drapes that kind of wrap the place like a spooky boa. There are some differences, though. Yvette's personal wine lockers have been converted into single-bottle wine displays. It's strange looking at a single bottle of wine perched upright in a glass case with a lock on it.
Still, despite the has-been décor, the food weaves some adventurous twists. Foie gras comes with a skinned whole apple that's been glacéd in a mustard-sugar sauce. The appearance is odd, like a piece of fruit wearing an oatmeal mask. The liver itself is nutty and smooth--if a little too cool--and firmer than many Dallas foie gras attempts, which tend to spill like a punctured poached egg.
A trio of tartares resembled hash brown cakes, albeit with wontons wedged between them. But unlike hash browns, these held little surprises. The blond snapper, blended with fennel, was cool and velvety, while the salmon, a pulverized cake mash of dill, orange and lemon, was savory and brisk. The weakest entrant, tuna blended with sesame oil and a squirt of wasabi on the edge, was a little warm and dry.
The strongest entrant on the "a" menu oddly wasn't a steak or a fish or a piece of pounded veal. It was a chicken, the free-range kind, which means the chickens can run around in open spaces and get the cellulite out of their thighs before they fulfill their destinies as restaurant entrées. Chicken à la Wendy, a grilled half-chicken stuffed with fresh artichoke hearts and button, chanterelle and portobello mushrooms soaking in a Marsala sauce, was a damn chicken home run. The meat was moist, and the sauce was rich. Fresh baby artichoke petals were so tender and piquant that their sassy essence reached far into the chicken meat, creating a savory flood of juices.
Crème brûlée was naked beauty. Most places can't resist playing with it, dressing it up with berries, fruit, coconut or hooch. This was a simple warm crisp lid sheltering smooth, cool custard that was firm and substantial instead of runny or cold and stiff as if it had been pre-prepped and left to age in a cooler.
"a" is a great big dartboard with a couple of bull's-eyes, and lots of near misses and wild tosses. There's a simple lack of resolve here, as though the place hasn't yet decided if it really wants to do the restaurant thing or just stick to banquet buffets, rubber-chicken circuitry and finger sandwiches. As a restaurant, "a" is a cavern of gamut-running food, long waits and alarmed gazes from the service staff when patrons actually appear at the door.
Are we really all that scary?