Eclectic Boogaloo

At Tutto Eclectic Italian, the menu doesn't fail to seduce, but the food falls flat on delivery

His business card is simple: Chef Joseph. His trajectory is not. He trained at La Gastronome in the Basque region of France and Spain. He practiced at the Arizona Biltmore L'Orange and the Ritz Carlton in Spain. He was installed at the hip upscale Voltaire before it became that downscale Asian tumbleweed known as Bamboo Bamboo.

Bamboo Bamboo busted. So Joseph Gutierriz opened his own Spanish restaurant in the Lovers Lane spot that was Buddha Bar before it was Bali Bar. Tutto is his expansion, or is it his reanimation? Gutierriz says that Tutto was a restaurant he opened in Scottsdale in 1994, before he lost it in a 2000 divorce. So he reopened it on McKinney Avenue in the spot that was once Watel's.

Hmm. Weird. Yet maybe that's what you would expect from a chef who invented port flamed sweetbreads served in a leek pouch--an odd place to tuck a thymus gland when you think about it. Gutierriz is resurrecting "eclectic Italian," which is perhaps as hard to decipher as Bamboo Bamboo ("cuisine from the bamboo regions of the world," which these days includes hair salons). Maybe it's dubbed so because it grabs and pinches from a tight Mediterranean circle. Or maybe it's because Tutto has a tryst-ish power lunch: "in and out in 30 minutes."

Chef Joseph Gutierriz's latest restaurant has promise, but it's betrayed by some stale-tasting food.
Tom Jenkins
Chef Joseph Gutierriz's latest restaurant has promise, but it's betrayed by some stale-tasting food.

Details

Stuffed calamari $8
Artichokes with crab $9.50
Tomato salad $9
Bean soup $7
Veal chops $28
Black risotto $18
Ricotta cake $7

Or maybe it's because of dishes like calemaretti al forno: squid stuffed with prosciutto and ricotta, aromatized with thyme and garlic and served in a bowl. The squid resembles bulbs, throbbing with potency on the edge of bloom. They rest in a pool of "spicy" plum tomato sauce, though the sting is severely blunted. The meat is tender; it's almost hard to distinguish between those buds and the ricotta spread. And if it weren't for the cured tang of the prosciutto, those buds would collapse into a smear of overplayed monotony, the textures indulging their similarities while the flavors are left gasping. The prosciutto gives it youthful vigor and maturity, all at once--a surf and turf for the thinking diner.

Nothing eclectic about the traditional bean and pasta soup. Perhaps it was installed as a breather. It is light, fogged with a clean earthiness. There's no overbearing thump of heartiness. The pasta is highly functional.

But wander from the gentle appetizer/soup terrain and danger confronts the lips; errors that smell suspiciously like crimps in the cash flow spigot. Not that the menu prose fails to seduce. Cervo agrodolce spins thusly: red wine cured venison loin sautéed with pancetta, berries, balsamic and chestnuts. This could be a stunning prize.

But it went booby.

The plate is a black tar pit, the loin bumps barely perceptible in the dim Tutto illumination. The danger is that the balsamic berry tar would be overbearing, thwacking the sliver of racy loin sweetness with a fruity fist--leaving nothing but a soup with a camel hump. Instead of tender, the meat is tough and mealy, though the center is a rosy pink. Flavors are even more disturbing. The flesh is livery and stale, tasting as if it were carelessly frozen and thawed, or otherwise neglected. So powerful is its hoary insistence that these off flavors are able to pierce the heavy balsamic blanket conspicuously.

This was not some isolated deviation. At Tutto the young, too, are made old. Like the deer, the veal reads well: veal chop with spaghetti squash, prosciutto, capers and garlic. But like the venison it creaked and wobbled, though on delivery it pouted with promise. The chop is thick and creamy white, save for the pinkish pancetta scraps pimpling the surface, right through where the bone curves out of the slab of meat. A quick sweep of the knife proves the meat tender; the center blushes. Yet in the mouth everything went awry. Despite an apparently skillful cooking, the chop is cold. Fat trim is distressingly glutinous. Meat grows spongy as the outer layers are traversed and the knife burrows toward the bone. And like the deer, this calf tastes stale.

These flaws are not limited to those with hoofs, because even fish (this despite the excellent calamari) goes ripe. Branzino alla Romana is baked sea bass with eggplant, onion, capers, olives and scorched mozzarella garnished with bright green basil leaves. The prose promises something tight, understated and alluring. What we get instead is something that throttles all of the lust valves. The fish is mushy, and it smells like...well, fish, with a whiff of drained tide pool to broaden the aromatic rainbow.

But not all Tutto things disappoint so robustly. Unfortunately you have to skirmish to the end of the meal to find hope. Chilled ricotta cake is moist and rich without beating with the truncheon of sweetness. It treads a light--though not delicate--footprint across the tongue. Texturally it is more fluffy than dense, and it balances a provocative pose between sweet and salt, rounding a creamy cheese flavor without slipping into dairy abuse.

More islands of respite bud at the beginning of the meal. Tuscan tomato salad with mozzarella is littered with deep red tomato slices that go where such slices seldom tread: flavor. The vinaigrette is gentle, respecting the tomato richness. Yet mozzarella is stingy, with just a single slice of cheese crowning the crimson.

Maybe it's predictable that the tar pit should return, except this time it sings, if a little off key. Risotto nere con vongole is a bowl of firm risotto with clams and squid, all stained into invisibility with a flood of squid ink. The risotto is slightly undercooked and freckled with grit most likely from fragments eroded off the clamshells. A strange black hole this is; one that hides not only the seafood, but the garden tomatoes as well. Riding on this abyss rim are sprays of green: pineapple sage and savory.

Crab-stuffed artichokes wrapped in a Gorgonzola crust and dripping with honey aioli have beautiful artichoke petals that are tender and supple, but the crab's a little fishy and the cheese a little rubbery.

The transformation of Watel's into Tutto seems to have been accomplished primarily with paint. The outer walls of the structure glimmer bright orange. The dining room appears little changed from its Watel's days. Yet the slight changes are worthy of focus. Sconces bolted to the posts are fitted with real candles that fuel real flames. There's a lot of resourcefulness in this dining room, too, the kind that makes dollars scream in agony when they're stretched beyond the limits of human decency and possibly international law.

Example: One wall in the bar is clad not in wallpaper or textured mud pestered with rags and sponges, or bamboo strips or ceramic squares. It's pieces of snipped tin nailed to the wall and treated with copper flake. The bar is decorated with pyramidical post caps sprayed into precious metal sheen. But the dollars screaming the loudest went into the cap above the window near the hostess stand. It looks like a relief, painstakingly chiseled and shaved from a slab of wood, stained to hues befitting a 19th-century library or some English pub timber left to soak up and nurse the airborne particulate of the ages. Only this is a Styrofoam relief cleverly treated and tacked to the wall to lend the room cathedral-like dignity. If only those dollars could scream some sense into the menu. 2719 McKinney Ave., 214-220-0022. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Open for dinner 5-11 p.m. daily. $$$

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