Bold Fish

Chef Chris Svalesen perseveres with 36 Degrees

The really profound thing about 36 Degrees, longtime Dallas chef Chris Svalesen's newest venture, is the appropriateness of the name. Not simply that the name represents the optimal holding temperature for fish, but also that it perhaps describes the number of stages Svalesen's vision will pass through before it is actualized. Of course, there is always the possibility that 36, like Hearst Castle, will be a never-ending series of tangential ambitions stapled onto a core dream, a vision that will never be completed and ultimately will be turned into a state park, or maybe a branch of the Dallas Aquarium.

But this is pure speculation. It's hard to imagine anyone in the Dallas restaurant community more tenaciously welded to a personal dream than Svalesen. Yes, there are restaurant dreamers who will drip sweat, spill blood, outlast colitis and endure an endless serious of setbacks and heartbreaks that would drive the rest of us to a strict diet of martini olives. But how many of them would have the intestinal tubing to risk coming off as a desperate fool in the process? In a "glamorous" industry turbocharged with ego and the ever-present possibility of hitting the big time as one of the whisk-whipping glitterati on cable, not many.

But Svalesen perseveres like no one else, undeterred by slim funds, boarded-up windows, capricious potential partners and looming lease payments. Two years ago, when he didn't have the money to fully outfit a kitchen and furnish a dining room in his Lemmon Avenue space--a T.G.I. Friday's before it was the gauche and short-lived Venus Steak House & Supper Club--he opened The Net Result, a fresh fishmonger slipped into a tiny back corner of the space to generate cash. When his little seafood case couldn't slough off the necessary loot, he started serving lunch and jumped into the thick of the holiday catering frenzy, all in the entrails of the gutted Venus. He boarded up the windows with plywood and splashed a faux brick finish over them. He assembled tables and chairs on the patio. He converted the bus and service stations in front of the kitchen into dining nooks through the use of that billowing muslin, snaking Italian lights and purple draperies. He converted a closet into a vestibule complete with a guest book. Through this sleight of hand, Svalesen cobbled together a 62-seat-of-the-pants seafood restaurant done up in duds he once described as Cirque du Soleil gone wrong. On a tour through the dining room, at the time little more than concrete and wall guts, Svalesen enthusiastically pointed out the locations of the dramatic serpentine bar and the circular sushi bar that would be marks of distinction for 36 Degrees. But it was difficult to track with his vision. The room was pitch black, and Svalesen didn't know where the light switches were.

Set piece: 36 Degrees' glowing bar is an early addition to the restaurant's evolution.
Kristen Karlisch
Set piece: 36 Degrees' glowing bar is an early addition to the restaurant's evolution.

Details

214-521-4488. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday. Open for dinner 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m.-11:30 p.m. Friday & Saturday. Open for Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. $$$

Brunch: $24.95/person
Steak tartare: $12.50
Crab cakes: $9.95
Warm frisťe salad: $7.50
Grilled salmon: $21.50
Pan-fried trout: $18.95

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That was a few degrees ago. Now 36 is well into its incremental evolution.

The latest incarnation looks like a talk-show set that could easily accommodate Katie Couric if Katie Couric were Dean Martin. There is an angular bar with a piano off to the side. Just a third or so of the space is given over to dining. The rest of it seems devoted to the portal leading to the rest rooms, a kind of endless passage before the passage. It isn't clear what will become of the rest of the space, but Svalesen is talking about putting a nightclub somewhere behind a dining room wall that looks like it could be tumbled by a sneeze. The room is accented with blond woods, and the walls are washed in cheery muted yellows and greens. The concrete floor is stained to an aggressively blanched asparagus hue. This is not an ego trip. This is a vision getting dressed in public.

The food, like the room, is more promise than bold actualization. Yet the promise is tasty. Steak tartare was a puffy mound of taupe. Yet the flavor, nudged along with anchovy, caper, Dijon mustard and cognac, was full and pleasant. But it's hard to get aroused by raw beef that, drained of its rosy hues, resembles a Hushpuppy upper.

This sort of ennui afflicts the crab cakes as well. The problem with most crab cakes proffered in Dallas (and mostly everywhere else) is that they're too heavy on ingredients that never had to spend their lives scuttling sideways. Thirty-six's pan-seared crab cakes are no exception. Sure, the subtle bite from the tamarind chipotle glaze is engaging. Sure, the cakes are moist (leaning a bit into mushy, we'd say). But those traits would be even more welcome if the little patties burst with large lumps of clean, sweet crab instead of pulverized meat socked in a fog of filler.

This fishmonger can work wonders with vegetation. The warm frisée salad is a mark of distinction in a swath of delicious potential. Though it looks like a plastic fern, frisée is a swell candidate for a warm wash because it has the spine and resilience to keep from becoming limp. The spindly greens were given expanded presence by Gorgonzola, apple-smoked bacon and a hot and sweet Dijon vinaigrette with port balsamic glaze.

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