Mouth Jump

What's in a name? At Saltimbocca's!, it's the best dish on the menu.

Saltimbocca's! is billed as a bistro. A bistro is a small cafe, usually serving down-to-earth food and wine. But let's look a little further: The Food Lover's Companion says the word is also deployed to describe a small nightclub (the French bistrot means pub).

Let's scan the place. The main dining room flows into a series of pockets through brick archways. Sinatra bellows from the sound system, bistrot-like. There's a shiny black grand piano near the front, next to the sitting area with a stone fireplace. That fireplace is in need of a good chimney sweep, hearth scrubbing and stone blasting, such is the intensity of its brooding soot--also very bistrot-like.

It's dark, too; so dark that menu reading is painstaking. You can pull out the headings easily enough: antipasti, pizza, pasta, carne, pesce, pollo, desserts. But the words tucked below twist the face into a tight squint. We move the votives (with lampshades) closer. Doesn't work. The plastic-coated cream menu tones conspire with the amber glow to cancel out the letters. Through the blur a dish is described as "a generous portion of the Ravina family." This can't be right. This is Arlington, not New Guinea.

Saltimbocca's! is a bistro. That means plenty of Sinatra on the sound system.
Tom Jenkins
Saltimbocca's! is a bistro. That means plenty of Sinatra on the sound system.

"We're going to install some lighting over these tables," the manager says sheepishly. He offers us a penlight. The little metal tube is eagerly passed from hand to hand around the table; its narrow beam instantly melting the menu's dark secrets. It's only then we discover that a generous portion of the Ravina family is not on the menu; their lasagna is.

Saltimbocca's! is operated by Randy and Brett Russell, a father-son team that also owns Italianni's in Hurst. They've lodged their bistro in a former Harrigan's restaurant. The pub part is in there, too.

This under the heading "pesce" is an eye-catcher: salmon piccata. Piccata is usually made by sautéing a very thin piece of veal or chicken, meat that's been pounded senseless until it reaches the thickness of a panty liner. It's hard to imagine doing this to a salmon fillet. Pounding salmon like a piece of veal would give you nothing but a pile of pink mulch. You could press it under weight for hours into thinness, à la gravid lox, but this is time-consuming. Better skip.

Yet where salmon piccata fails to entice, salmon oreganato proves too compelling to pass up. Look at that word: oreganato. In the early '70s, that would have been a breakthrough in stealthy cannabis bud terminology. Now it's just a word that gives a simple piece of fish (or clams, bread and olive oil) the cache of a Puccini overture. You can almost hear the "ganato" undulate piercingly from a mezzo-soprano throat.

But this piece of fish doesn't sing. The fillet is moist. It flakes. Between the teeth those flakes have resolve. But it's bland, with just a faint water spot of rich flavor. A coin of oregano butter rests on the surface, threatening to melt and ooze richness all over the surface before it streaks the sides. It never does. It just sits there maintaining its shape. The fish is ringed by slices of roasted potato, but a spud has never rescued a fish.

But daylight can rescue from eye strain and penlight menu blur. Take a seat in Saltimbocca's! indoor atrium just as the sun sets. The tables are glossy granite. Chairs are metal. Large curving windows wrap the room, glassing over the ceiling. This provides a stunning panoramic view of Interstate 20 and the power lines strung alongside the guardrails. Hundreds of starlings descend on the wires in a great cloud of ornithological soot. They line up with perfect marching-band precision. Maybe the key to ordering chaos in the universe is to string the galaxies with power lines.

Saltimbocca's! service is eager and accommodating, which doesn't necessarily make it as precise as a starling swarm. The wine service, in particular, is rife with glitches. On one visit, the waiter deploys a flock of smeary, water-spotted glasses. He quickly shuttles them off once we hold them up to the light streaming through the atrium glass. The smears turn those starlings into disturbing Rorschach Clydesdales. The replacements are much better. But after filling our glasses, he places the bottle on the buffet across the room. This is a fine bit of service strategy when one anticipates a crush of appetizers, bread plates, entrées and glasses of Bud Light for our table's outlier. But it only works if the glasses and bottle are monitored relentlessly.

My glass is drained. Two waiter passes fail to trigger the service reflex. So I get up from my seat and execute the self-service dance. I completely drain the bottle, engorging our glasses just shy of the rim to avoid the horror of more harrowing shortages.

Wine is a critical component of Saltimbocca's! repartee. Perhaps the most unlikely example is this: spinach and artichoke formaggio. It's a boat ringed with toasted garlic bread. The cargo is a smooth blend of cream cheese, Parmesan and white wine with strips of spinach, mushrooms and artichoke heart petals. Artichoke was hard to come by. After a dogged search, we pulled just two petals from the ooze. Still, the mix was velvety and thick, with a tangy edge that gently cut through the richness.

Stuffed mushrooms employ wine as well. This dish has always been fraught with risk. Most recipes never seem to strike the right balance. Either the ingredients overwhelm the buttons (relatively rare), or the fungi caps themselves are far too clumsy to dance with the stuffing. Here's a suggestion: If you stuff a mushroom, focus as much attention on the caps as you do the stuffing. Taste the filler, and then figure out what needs to be done to the mushroom (if anything) to permit a successful mesh. Does the mushroom need a little sting to balance it out? Try marinating it or sautéing it in wine. Is the mushroom texture too watery and spongy for the matrimony? Try grilling it vigorously or sautéing it until it sweats profusely.

The buttons arrive upended on a platter, resting in a vast reservoir of roasted garlic cream and wine blended with Asiago and Parmesan cheeses. The underside of the cap is stuffed with spicy sausage, bread crumbs, ricotta cheese and spinach. A smear of tomato sauce tops the filler. It all comes together well, and you can make the stuffing a bit richer and more unctuous by spooning the cheese over that red smear. It trickles off the spoon like hot fudge. But here's the beef: Those mushrooms are too spongy and watery, though most in our dining pool sharply contested this assessment, relishing the just-picked forest-floor component.

This was amusing, though: potato ravioli. First question: Is this some sort of weird gnocci projection? Or is this really a pasta pillow stuffed with spuds? "You'll like it," said our server. "It's like steak and potatoes." Well, yes it is, I suppose--except you don't need a knife. Heck, you barely need a fork. This is what you get: supple loose pasta that billows in the middle before it drops off into large flaps, like grouper fins. They're stuffed with creamy garlic mashed potatoes. They're sauce-less.

Next to them is a stew of beef tenderloin strips, mushrooms and bell pepper slivers in a dark, rich Chianti sauce. The meat is a bit chewy, but that doesn't detract. This won't be bringing the steak-house armada to its knees, though.

Chicken portobello is a juicy breast topped with cheese, slices of portobello mushroom and a brutal pounding of peppercorns. But it's bread that really tortures this dish. Badly singed bruschetta, topped with pesto, tomato and capers, is so sopped with port wine sauce it has to be drained off to the side.

Then there's the headliner, a designation reinforced by the interior design. The word saltimbocca is stenciled phonetically over the soffit above one wall. Over another soffit reads the definition: "1. Jumps in your mouth."

Veal saltimbocca (it also comes in shrimp and chicken versions, economically utilizing the sauce across three entrée platforms) is delicious. The thin scaloppine is draped in prosciutto and thumped by a thick blanket of mozzarella cheese. The meat is tender and moist. Yet it's the sauce that proves riveting. Composed of veal stock, garlic, fresh basil, sautéed shallots and a couple of hits of red wine, it's smooth and rich, with little threads of sweetness tossed off from the shallot minces--a jump shot. In the mouth. 5900 W. Interstate 20, Arlington, 817-561-1117. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday; and 4-11 p.m. Saturday. $$-$$$

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