Victory: That Gasoline Smell...

2007 started with the scent of napalm in the morning

Victory. It's the biggest Dallas dining story of 2007—maybe of the new century, until some wily engineer figures out how to transform the Trinity River project into a profitable floating sushi buffet. Victory has it all: the steak; the wonderfully convenient parking chaos; the Swiss chard; the crowds in designer labels; caviar in-the-round; boomeranging noise; big-screen TVs; and gnocchi that's a dead ringer for garden slugs in pesto. Las Vegas via Chicago-based N9NE Group has landed in Dallas, bringing everything but the slot machines and the pasties: Ghostbar, Nove Italiano and N9NE Steakhouse. Gotham adds Craft. Aspen/Austin enters Kenichi. It roiled the Dallas restaurant world with fear and loathing. Victory was the megawatt bulb of national chefs drawing all of the city's gnats and flies and upward-creeping credit card limits. We swarmed. We supped. We spent. We got burned. Or did we?

"Victory Park is the flash of '07," says Paul Pinnell, former general manager and founder of the upcoming Dali Wine Bar & Cellar in One Arts Plaza. "But it also showed the ugly side of what can happen when a lot of out-of-town restaurants with high prices collide with expectations." The great fear: Victory was going to supplant local restaurant talent. The great reality: These out-of-town culinary gorillas may be getting flayed, drawing mostly tourists and out-of-city residents streaming in for special occasions.

Food Fight

Smells like Victory: It's locals versus imported talent in the battle for your palate and wallet.
TOM JENKINS
Smells like Victory: It's locals versus imported talent in the battle for your palate and wallet.

Of course, Pinnell has a vested interest in shooting grimy spit balls at Victory's gloss. His Dali, along with Teiichi Sakurai's Tei An and Café Italia owner Scott Jones' Screen Door (shepherded with help from former Melrose Hotel executive chef Joel Harloff), sets up a cross-town duel with Victory Park for Dallas' dining spoils. What does that mean for the vaunted downtown corridor?

"It's almost like a moat," says Matthew Mabel, president of Surrender, a Dallas management and hospitality firm. Who will win? Right now the money is on One Arts Plaza. Why? Developer Lucy Billingsley wisely courted local restaurateurs, front-loading her project with familiar talent instead of celebrity imports. That's what Dallas diners mostly crave over the long haul.

"They love seeing Dean Fearing come to their tables, smiling at them," Mabel says. "They like to know that Avner's in the back. Al Biernat is king of the front door. Meeting the guy who's just moved from Vegas or Aspen? Not so exciting."

Numbers bear Mabel out. N9NE Group's Ghostbar fireballed to the top of Texas bar sales, generating July 2006 sales of $942,231, according to Austin-based Virtue Group, a restaurant research firm. By September 2007, those numbers had slipped to $553,876, a fall-off of 41 percent. N9NE Steakhouse had a similar plunge in alcohol sales, from $265,329 in April 2007 (the steakhouse opened in mid-January), to $157,009 in September, while Nove Italiano went from $151,092 to $86,589 over the same time period, representing drops of 40 and 43 percent respectively. Aspen-based Kenichi had a less precipitous drop, going from $107,167 in May (the restaurant opened in April) to $97,413 in September, a 9 percent dip.

These numbers might simply reflect American Airlines Center's dormancy during the Stars and Mavericks off-season. Yet it might be more. Sources say Hillwood, Victory's development firm, is beginning to take an avid interest in local restaurant talent as it fills in the Victory gaps.

Stealth Dynamics

Victory's glare might be masking a more compelling narrative just below the surface. Far from being bled by the high-wattage Victory development populated mostly by outsiders, the Dallas restaurant industry is resurgent. "If you had somebody that moved out of Dallas five years ago and they came back now, they would be able to see what you can't see," Mabel says. "And that is steady growth and a mind-numbing, palate-pleasing array of choices."

That downtown moat is bubbling with dynamism. Dallas Fish Market opened in the Kirby Building's Jeroboam shell last July. Michael Bratcher and chef Blaine Staniford of Fuse fame launched Scene Restaurant and Lounge in the Mosaic, a 440-unit apartment complex on Akard Street. Charlie Palmer, founder of Aureole and Astra in New York and Charlie Palmer Steak in Las Vegas, among other venues, has opened Charlie Palmer at The Joule and the Next Vintage Wine Shop on Main Street in the hotel that was once the Joule Urban Resort and is now simply The Joule.

In raw numbers, Dallas hospitality health as reflected in alcohol sales ticked up some 6.2 percent from January through September 2007 compared with the same period last year. But more than that, the Dallas-Fort Worth metro zone is frothing with creativity, at least in terms of new concepts and the broadening of flavors. Mark Maguire of Maguire's Regional Cuisine teamed up with Antique Harvest founder Hedda Gioia Dowd to open a European soufflé and wine bar dubbed rise n°1 in Inwood Village. Soufflé in steak country is either a culinary loon or a cash cow.

Mark Brezinski, founding partner of the fast casual Pei Wei Asian Diner that has spread 150-plus units over 20 states, has put all of his marbles into Bengal Coast Spice Traders, a fast casual-full service hybrid focused on Indian cuisine.

Set to open in the Centrum building (across from Robert Colombo's new Italian steakhouse/speakeasy The Club) as you read this, Bengal Coast is Brezinski's hunch that Indian cuisine laced with Indonesian and Malaysian touches is about to go mainstream—the sushi of the new millennium, if you will. "It's more exotic, and I think people are branching out a little bit more," he says. "I definitely think there's a curiosity. Restaurateurs in general are taking more chances."

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