Eating a Life

With George Restaurant's austere environs, the food is even more alluring

"Food is life."

Promo materials for George Restaurant attribute the above quotation to George Brown, the lauded Dallas chef who just opened his own restaurant in the spot that was once home to the Riviera. Not only that, he has adopted the words as his personal motto. Though Brown may embrace the sentiments, it's hard to believe he actually coined the phrase. Indeed, plug the line into Google and you get 689 results. The Upanishad texts say it. So does Case Western Reserve University history professor Alan Rocke. But Rocke also says this: "There is no rational reason why we in the U.S. shouldn't eat insects. They're nutritional and clean, once you cook them." Food is death, too.

"Food is Life" is the title of a paper by the South African Council of Churches outlining their sentiments on genetically modified organisms (caution, concern, plus inherent unequal power relations are mentioned several times). It is also the title of the grand prize-winning submission to the Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Contest (2003) by Philip Z.A. Nazareno, who is 37 years old, weighs 255 pounds and says: "I love food. I was born to eat."

George Brown tries for "clean and pure flavors" at his namesake restaurant. Mostly, he succeeds.
Tom Jenkins
George Brown tries for "clean and pure flavors" at his namesake restaurant. Mostly, he succeeds.

Details

Lobster soup $7
Crab salad $14
Foie gras $15
Roasted chicken $22
Prime fillet $34
Lamb T-bones $32
Branzini $27
Grits $5

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Stating a particular passion is life is not just isolated to food. "Wine is life" draws 2,620 Google hits, with the Roman satirist Petronius credited with the original utterance. "Sex is life" gets 1,710 hits, the most prominent being the "Sex is Life" Nokia logo for mobile phones (is sex life or are phones sex?). "Golf is life" gets 4,520 mentions, while "Poker is life" generates 970 hits, such as in the Poker Playing Degenerate's Primer by Peter "Slappy" Rjinswand. Even "Knitting is life" coughed up 27 hits.

Let's be honest here: The quote is trite. So it's odd that Brown would lay claim to it, especially since his food is anything but. Right from the start you can see his food is composed with an eye slightly askew from the rails of convention. Instead of lobster bisque, Brown and his kitchen troops march out a lobster soup. It's a thin broth, knotted not with cognac and cream but laced with coconut milk and lemongrass. Dots of pepper oil float on the surface. Under the surface lurk ovals of lobster meat sliced as thin as decals. This seems like a conscious plot to allow lobster richness to dominate with minimal bloodshed. Instead of composing a broth to go toe to toe with it, piling on butter, cognac cream and flour, the kitchen created a fluid of subservience; one that crackles with a little electricity (lemongrass) while it soothes and frames (coconut milk) the marquee (lobster). It's a brilliant piece of understatement.

This thinking erupts in the crab and strawberry salad as well. This is a loose crowd of disparate elements. Razor-thin slices of strawberry are tattooed on the plate among frisée. Pellets of sweet crab mingle with radish, toasted almonds and Meyer lemon to give the sweetness another slant. But for some reason the parts never seem to bond; there is no unifying principle whereby they transcend their sliced, lumpy and toasted selves.

Brown has come a long way since his time at Baby Routh, the Melrose Hotel, The Mansion and his stint as chef of Seventeen Seventeen, the latter at which he was named one of the 10 best new chefs of 1997 by Food & Wine magazine. He was confused back then, he admits. Now the fog is clearing. "I'm not trying to make confusion food anymore," he says. "I think I'm just trying to make clean and pure flavors." A snowballing wine passion is what drove his decision, he says. Lard up a plate with 25 flavors from 36 countries and 12 commonwealths and you're bound to splash icy water over delicate wine and food intimacies. Better to pare things down to four or five flavors so the dish can settle down with a glass of Chablis instead of scrimmage with a tumbler of sour mash.

What would mesh seamlessly with the Sonoma Valley foie gras au poivre with figs would be a tiny glass of hoary Madeira, but there is none to be found in the "nips" section of the menu, where the ports and sauternes are stored. The meat is firm, rich and creamy and rests on a tiny mattress of green apple nut bread. A macerated fig, drooling port juices, rests nearby among Maytag blue cheese debris. It's hard to overestimate the potency of this match-up. Fruit and foie gras is a worthy pairing on its face, but so often it manifests in vinaigrettes in tutti-frutti tints or a few scattered berries. But George's treatment takes the fruit and discards the youthful brashness while it concentrates the essential elements of the fruit-liver harmony: meaty-sweet richness. The blue cheese foils this finely honed linkage to keep the palate focused. But this well-composed drama is rattled by the classic au poivre treatment. The peppercorn grit embedded over every square millimeter of the foie gras surface functions more as culinary noise, at least in this context.

Yet plumb the menu further and the marriages even out. Moist pan-roasted chicken drinks its flavors from braised pearl onions, kalamata olives and apple bacon, which leach their personalities into a puddle of sauce crafted from pan drippings. A tall and firm prime fillet is crowned with red onion confit. It looks like a wedge of coal resting in an ivory puddle of horseradish cream ringed by a dark spill of bordelaise. The progression to the bordelaise creates a compelling series of concentric circles with onion as the axis. The outside of the fillet is crispy, while the interior is juicy and tender.

Brown says he strived for a neutral backdrop upon which to showcase his flavors with George. "The focus of the restaurant is food," he insists. "We wanted a blank canvas to work on. We want the food to be the color of the restaurant."

To this end the restaurant is done in hypermodernity: intensely neutral, ferociously clinical. The floor is planked in blond timber, but the rest of the dining room drips bright white sterility and frosted glass disinfection. The chairs, which slide perilously across the slick floor, are upholstered in white leather. White curtains frill the windows. You wonder if your order will be taken by servers or phlebotomists. If food is life, why serve it among such impotence? Stark contrasts perhaps?

Food is arguably better served in an atmosphere of dirty fecundity-- tortured woods, crimson bordello fabrics, tasseled wrought-iron lamps and garish doilies--to aid the absorption of the life it carries and the digestion thereof. George gets color from contemporary art and a two-ring binder menu with bright tabs: blue for food, an unfortunate warm pink for wine, green for desserts and purple for cocktails such as lavender cosmos. While the food is tightly composed, it is not stripped to bare essences by any means. The menu is small, with just a handful of appetizers and entrées that change frequently. But there is creamy coziness, as in the smoky grits in chanterelle broth.

Lamb T-bones are crowded by firm beans, herb pistou (a sauce that often includes garlic, basil and olive oil) and balsamic. The meat is rich, satiny and slightly racy.

Yet the most impressive entrée is impressive precisely because it was stripped--or should have been. Crisped branzini (Mediterranean sea bass) is three fillets, loosely stacked. Fried capers pebble the plate. The fish is just about perfect: salty, flaky, moist, crispy. But the dish is cluttered with ham hock, its smoky intensity distracting from the clean, sublime branzini notes.

But the stated George essence is clear: Food is life (as is wine). White paint is life, too, one would suspect, though a Google search doesn't bear this out. 7709 Inwood Road, 214-366-9100. Open for dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. $$$

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