By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
Not necessarily a bad thing, really. The model for sustained popularity these days is something consistently greater than mediocrity but less than challenging.
At Kenny's this modest achievement begins at the beginning. Many Dallas restaurants expend their creative flair on the appetizer menu. Meals open with a wonderful, wild fusion of ingredients and flavors, then start a slow, inexorable slide downhill. Here, the home-smoked salmon is light with only a hint of burnt wood, paired with a pleasant aioli of caper and dill. There's nothing overpowering, just a simple, clean, satisfying starter. Wood-grilling lends a slight depth to a plate of oysters topped by shreds of Parmigiano-Reggiano. The piquant cheese is underscored by vague notes of smoke and bitterness from which emerges just enough of the shellfish to please oyster aficionados without threatening those who fear things scraped from the murk. Brie fondue initially tingles the palate, thanks to a touch of Gruyère and wine blended into the mix, then fades into a pleasant mellowness.
5000 Beltline Road
Dallas, TX 75254
Region: North Dallas
Hmmm...pleasant mellowness. Maybe the concept isn't so perplexing after all. Despite the strip-mall exterior, Kenny's surrounds patrons in warmth and simple elegance: liquor shelves glow, the pristine open kitchen teems with activity, brick and wood and tinted lighting close down the room. The clubby atmosphere provides intimacy without yielding the din and clatter that make people feel part of the crowd. On a Friday night visit waitstaff constantly brushed through the narrow passages between crowded tables, but individual conversations and the presentation of menu options wafted into a dull, manageable ambience. A few nights later several tables sat empty, yet liquid-infused noise from the cool bar space enlivened the scene. Seafood shares space on a single page with burgers, chicken and filet mignon--something for everyone.
Really, that's the genius of chef Kenny Bowers' menu. The best selections straddle that tenuous line between excellent and merely good, although certain items stand out. Our waiter singed a crock of French onion soup tableside (a dream for any pyro fanatics present) to a warm golden brown. Over the years we've sampled countless examples of this traditional bowl of date-killing bliss, all essentially diminished by unsubstantial yellow cheese. In this case burnt Gruyère gives a nutty, slightly pungent cover to the vegetal and salty broth, blending with progressive spoonfuls to enrich and expand on the flavors. French fries are sizzled in good old-fashioned beef tallow, a la McDonald's in the days of tie-dyed shirts and shag carpeting. For Gen X and Y types unfamiliar with the crisp, fatty sensation, there's really no way to fully explain. Each bite is rich and full, with an underlying sweetness that makes even the most hesitant touch of salt explode on your tongue.
Meanwhile, the worst items aren't that bad. Tuna steak paired with wasabi and ginger didn't melt away like a beautifully rare cut should and exhibited a disturbing tartness. It was difficult to distinguish the fish itself. On the other hand, we managed to tolerate the dish. Something called New England baked stuffed fish and listed as a Kenny's original proved less appealing. The mere mention of generic "fish" on a menu dedicated to specifics is enough to arouse suspicion, but we tried it out, anyway. When Kenny's opened they used Atlantic cod as the basis for a stuffing of shrimp, scallops and crab. This time of year, however, they settle for that blankest of slates, tilapia, which bakes firm and flaky, but essentially accepts whatever flavor is shaken, ladled or rubbed on. And in this case it disappeared completely under the weight of the seafood combo piled on top and a dousing of lemon butter. But that's not the problem.
Granted, we tried the stuffed fish on a Monday evening visit when chef Bowers turns control of his kitchen over to other staffers (a little test of consistency). Tiny, bland scallops and almost nonexistent crab detracted from the balance of flavors. Heavy use of crumbled Ritz crackers, sodden into an ugly and unpleasant gruel, also damaged the plate. Also that evening, cookies sandwiched in a dessert sundae were left in the kiln until they baked into solid cinder blocks. We thought about requesting a chisel but ended up scraping artificial ice something and whipped topping from the circular bricks.
Well, let's just assume they were artificial, since both presented a strong chemical taste. Although, to be fair, the wave of unnatural flavors we experienced could have been kiln residue.
Back to the plus side. Bowers is a fan of béarnaise. It appears with crab cakes and the tenderloin crostini, and it saved what they call Cajun fish--actually plump farm-raised redfish dusted lightly with Louisiana spices that react unfavorably to hickory smoke, transforming into bitterness. Ah, but the chef's rendition of béarnaise is creamy and complex. Pronounced flavors of tarragon, thyme and vinegar soften into the rich batter of egg yolk and butter, eventually coating your mouth. Suddenly every bite of anything, even Cajun-style redfish, tastes right. Covering "adult" mac and cheese liberally with white truffle oil has the same effect. A dense, earthy, soothing sensation envelops the pool of pasta, Gouda and ham, forcing them to slink into the background. It's one-dimensional, but who cares?