By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
Remember that Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times? Industrial gears grind and turn, round and round, over and over, in a graceful yet ultimately repetitive sequence until the little tramp becomes ensnared in the machine.
Masaryk reminds me of this Hollywood classic. There's an elegant pattern to many of the dishes, a rhythmic "click-click" of a restaurant striving for order that rivets you...for a while. When—maybe if is the right word—you snap out of this spellbound trance, you realize just about everything they serve has a familiar quality, a dull sameness, about it. Salmon steamed in a banana leaf, for instance, yields a fatty and delicate slab of pale pink meat rubbed so lightly with sweet and rusty achiote the spice serves to prop up the fish, in texture, color and flavor. It sits, however, in the same mango-lemongrass sauce surrounding an order of rather prosaic bacon-wrapped shrimp.
By sheer chance my dinner companion and I ordered these two entrees one evening, giving rise to a brief spat when we traded a share of each—something along the lines of "you didn't give me any of the sauce"/"that's because you already have enough of it." My return visits (alone) were dominated by gentle achiote-like flavors. The pulled pork in an appetizer portion of Huaraches Merced seeped mild pasilla chili, while a soft chipotle reduction, its fire dimmed to a mere ember glow, rode on their baby back ribs and achiote grazed the salmon while dominating the sopes al pastor—in each case brick-colored, earthy-sweet spicing with a modest prick of heat.
The same thing, over and over.
Any creativity from chef-owner Gabriel DeLeon and his kitchen hides under this repetitive malaise—and the team displays quite a bit of cooking savvy. The al pastor sits on beautiful mini-pancakes of masa: naturally sweet, sugars caramelized by the pan until swirls of rich, molasses depth develop. They almost beg for syrup or a bitter mole instead of black beans and rustic spice-heavy meat. Masaryk's ribs are runny with fat and exceedingly tender, the kind of heavy and hearty meal that draws raves from those not already numbed by repeated flavors.
The danger of a recurring theme can be seen in the huaraches, as the mass of pulled pork collapses into one adobe-brown flavor, so boring even a dose of cilantro fails to add any spark.
DeLeon conceived this restaurant in the "mod-Mex" style made popular in part by Scott Linquist's recipe book of the same name that updates classic Mexican flavors with international ingredients—a process known as fusion before fusion became trite. It's the sort of thing favored by the hip crowds in Mexico City, the sort of thing once presented in more expressive form by the late Oak Lawn standout, Ciudad (also based on the Mexico City ideal). In fact, DeLeon appropriated Masaryk, the name of Czechoslovakia's founding president, from a street sign in the Mexican capital. He's a veteran restaurateur, with La Margarita in Irving tucked under his belt already, and well-versed in both Mexican and French cooking techniques, many of which are quite similar.
For this reason he decided to skip the usual Tex-Mex rounds and find the logical extension of his training in mod-Mex. And despite my reservations regarding the persistence of certain flavors, his treatment of difficult items—such as salmon and the ribs—shows remarkable skill.
There are, however, a few question marks, one or two annoying faults and perhaps a head-shaking moment adding up to more significant reservations about the place. During my first visit, servers presented entrees before we finished with our appetizers. This is not such a grievance at, say, On of the Border. When shelling out $80 or more for an evening, however, you really shouldn't face the dilemma of rushing through the rest of course one or taking the steady-on approach while the entrees grow cold. Maybe it would help if DeLeon spent more time expediting. Yet every time I stopped by, he was lounging up front in civilian clothes deigning only brief and infrequent trips to the kitchen. Someone—Zig Ziglar, perhaps—spent quite a bit of personal time with members of the waitstaff, though. Tabbing out can be like running a suggestive sales gantlet, as in:
"Would you like another margarita, sir?"
"No thanks, just the check."
A few minutes later, the same server steps forward. Instead of handing over the black case containing my bill, he wants to know if I perchance want another margarita. Nope, I tell him—but I wouldn't mind the check.
No problem. He returns after a short stint near the bar and asks, "Another margarita?"
"Um, the check—please."
OK, I'm not sure one waiter constitutes a gantlet, but you still feel whipped. Of course, the margaritas are pretty generous in flavor. Unfortunately, the noticeable belt of tequila and trickle of orange liqueur poking through the tart lime represents a rare level of complexity from DeLeon's kitchen. Chips come with a one-note salsa, that being a rather emphatic (and pleasing) burn. You pay market price—in my case $14—for what in a just world would be about $2 worth of fish in Masaryk's ceviche starter. Yes, they claim to use sea bass, which is hard to come by ethically and drives up the price point considerably. But given the shrieking, skin-shredding amount of lime used to "cook" the meat, it might as well be tilapia doled out in tiny portions on wedges of flatbread. Ceviche should, presumably, be delicate and bright, not fierce as a gremlin hell-bent at tearing away several layers from your tongue.