The Name Game

"Fine Dining" when they don't try too hard

There's a scene in the football-bashing film North Dallas Forty in which a doltish offensive lineman sets out to meet some investors who plan to use his name on a chain of restaurants. Before leaving the clubhouse, he's confronted by the comparatively brainy Nick Nolte, who christens the place "Joe Bob's Fine Foods."

Phrases such as "fine foods" or "fine dining" excite apprehension, at least among savvy diners. The words have been posted on decaying roadside grills and beachfront tourist traps. They evoke images of pedestrian, overpriced country club banquet rooms in small Midwestern burgs. Granted, there are suspicious titles in other realms--guidance counselor, for instance, or Republican whip. It's almost natural to assume the first a dweebish failure or suspect shady behavior from the second. So for a restaurant to boldly pronounce itself a fine dining establishment is to invite skepticism.

J.R.'s Fine Dining fits the stereotype in one respect, maybe two. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald's "eyes of God" in The Great Gatsby, a billboard glowers down at the place. Except in this case, the symbolism is more direct: The giant placard overtly champions faith and redemption. On our first trip we almost drove past the structure, presuming worship services were in progress. Well-dressed people on a Wednesday evening, big white cross, clean stone building, ample parking...dang if this ain't the Bible Belt. But for the highway and carbon-copy boxes of an upscale Mid-Cities housing development, it's just the setting for a Joe Bob's.

A glance inside momentarily reinforces this Branson-cum-Colleyville sensation. An appallingly unfashionable carpet runs wall to wall in the main dining room, lending a retirement community (i.e. Branson) feel to the space. Elegant tile decks the entryway and well-appointed lounge, making the rug decision all the more unfathomable. Proper attire (required as per a brass plaque on the maitre d' stand) includes jeans, hooded sweatshirts and untucked Hawaiian shirts.

Name, décor and setting--there's a lot to overcome. And sometimes it's as if the kitchen tries too hard.

A more literal proprietor would have dodged "fine dining" concerns and settled on J.R.'s Steak House as a title. The menu emphasizes red meat, lobster, a sizable wine list and all the other trappings of a pricey steak restaurant. Chef Todd Phillips, formerly of Fort Worth's Reata, buys prime beef dry-aged for at least 30 days and rests it for an additional week before serving. The result: dense and flavorful steaks. An 8-ounce tenderloin filet cooked medium rare held a warm, red center. Another filet, prepared rare, was bright and delicate with a beautiful, thin caramelized veneer--in other words, perfectly grilled cuts with minimal seasoning.

Great steak doesn't need help and often suffers from the effort. Unfortunately, with the exception of a massive 28-ounce porterhouse and the basic filet, kitchen staff can't resist dressing up the plate. Case in point: the mushroom filet, a flawless 8-ounce hunk of beef surrounded by sautéed fungi that withers in agony under the too-bitter bite of mushroom demi-glace, a reduction of pan residue and brandy finished with butter. The menu lists a filet stuffed with lump crab meat drenched in green peppercorn Roquefort sauce, a "cowboy cut" rib eye topped with smoked oyster butter (as if prime required additional fat), a New York strip marinated in teriyaki sauce served over lo-mein noodles and other doubtful offerings.

Stray from the masculine side of J.R.'s menu, and you find culinary artistry in a surprising place. Just order a bowl of greens. They turn a mundane wedge salad into something worthy of conversation by eschewing the usual blue cheese dressing in favor of port vinaigrette. The light, sweet dressing accentuates the sharp flavor of crumbled blue cheese--their nod to tradition. In essence, Phillips transforms a slice of iceberg lettuce into a nice amuse bouche, which awakens the palate with splashes of acidity, sweetness and salt. A cluster of explosively tangy organic cherry tomatoes makes for a bright finish. Spinach salad here becomes an intricate medley of tastes and textures that balance and contrast. Fresh leaves are coated with bacon vinaigrette, heavy on the bacon, then piled with toasted walnuts, razor-thin sheaths of mild, nutty manchego cheese and the concentrated fruit flavor of dried pear slices. Walnuts add crunch and blend nicely with the cheese. Dried fruit complements and contrasts with the bitter greens, while the dressing emerges as a constant behind each element.

Other dishes expose an inconsistent kitchen. Coconut grouper was a neat choice from the seafood side of the menu. Firm and flaky, it's blackened for spiciness and served on a bed of wild rice surrounded by an exotic sauce of coconut and lime. The citrus-sweet notes balance the other seasonings while adding a whimsical Caribbean flair to the otherwise dour steakhouse offerings. Grilled double-cut pork chops are accompanied by a crisp and fruity champagne apple concoction--a perfect foil to the delicate meat. Yet the chop was dry, a bit on the tough side, and excessively salty. If cooking were a rock-paper-scissors contest, sauce covers pork but salt overwhelms sauce.

Next game.

The cranberry baked brie starter--another loss. One small wedge of cheese sits atop a larger slice of sourdough bread in a syrupy, lumpy slough of cranberry chutney. It opens with a hint of cherry then, suddenly, Ocean Spray. Brie is far too delicate to stand up to the tart mass. Another go? Exquisite hunks of lobster wrapped in very salty strips of bacon. Let's see, bacon covers lobster, salt destroys...Yet it's difficult to fault a combination of two great foods. Puddles of tangy barbecue sauce tone down the sting a bit. Besides, the gentle chive potato salad cools your palate.

The kitchen thickens seafood chowder with a roux. We know this because of the noticeable taste of flour and distinct, gummy lumps throughout. Some of those indistinct lumps may have been fish in the process of breaking apart, too. There are few apparent pieces of seafood, other than small, curly pale niblets we took for bait shrimp. On the other hand, champagne brie is an outstanding bowl of liquid decadence. Ethereal creaminess soon yields to a fruity aura contributed by a dash of white wine, followed by the dry, crisp effect of champagne. Shallots, pureed into the soup, add a final earthy kick. It's worth savoring.

Service during two visits also teetered between personable and pretentious. Our waiter one evening paired wine expertly--not an easy task, considering our $8 to $10 per glass request. He quickly picked up on our table's mood and interests. A few days later we suffered through a more haughty type who bristled when we refused a stale wine then recommended a pricey replacement without mentioning the cost. Later he let us stew over dirty plates for 10 minutes before stopping by the table--not to clear things but to ask if we needed a refill.

J.R.'s Fine Dining has potential: great beef when they leave it alone, brilliant salads and a few other items worthy of note. The lounge features a welcoming rectangular bar and live music. They've picked up Chas Green from Pappas Bros. Steakhouse to work the wine list, and Phillips plans to revise his menu soon. Hopefully, he'll keep the Champagne brie. Oh, and the strawberries Romanoff, a cocktail glass dipped in viscous bitter dark chocolate, filled with berries and topped off with mascarpone.

For every worthwhile moment, there's something truly disappointing. But they still have time to make a name for themselves.

5400 Highway 121, Colleyville. Lounge opens at 4 p.m. Food service 5-10 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

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