By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
This ain't your mother's bistro. No, it's your grandmother's. And if you visit Tramontana of an evening, though not too long past the witching hour of 8, you'll likely see a few other people's grannies here too. They'll be accompanied by nicely dressed adult grandchildren and, if some have been bribed to come along, a younger great-grandkid or two, urged to stifle yawns during Meemaw's birthday dinner or risk being cut out of the will.
There's the slightest scent of Estee Lauder's Youth Dew, the faintest squeak of titanium hip-joints as guests make their way, slowly and carefully, to favorite corners of this cozy 20-table lunch and dinner spot on the outer edge of Preston Center. Tramontana is beloved by a loyal pack of Park Cities and Preston Hollow patrons of a certain age who like starched white tablecloths and a simple, static menu at reasonable prices. Special events are celebrated here—golden anniversaries—and the mink-and-cufflink set fill the joint at monthly $50 wine dinners.
The regulars seem oblivious to the flaws. The harried, uneven service. The mismatched sauces. All that salt in the potatoes au gratin, in the risotto and even in the dessert soufflé serves to wake up taste buds numbed by prescription meds, so perhaps nobody minds it. This is their place, by cracky, where they can count on the veal osso bucco and rack of lamb being in the same spot on the menu as they were a decade ago.
Look, there is nothing wrong with serving the needs of the well-heeled representatives of the Greatest Generation. Catering to that segment of the dining public has kept plenty a fusty restaurant (cough, Old Warsaw, cough) in business. But just like your grand-mère's living room, Tramontana is stuck in the past. Stubbornly, deliberately mired in nostalgia. Just look around at the clash of clutter in the Italo-Franco-fleamarket-influenced main dining room: Paneled ceiling, dark velvet curtains (with ghostly white sheers) in the two front windows, a tacky mural depicting a gondola-filled canal next to one of a faux Lautrec Parisian scene. Dusty plastic grapes dangle from a high shelf crammed with dried flower arrangements and wine bottles. A fake ficus tree in a sagging wicker basket sits plopped near a framed photo print of a fat baby wearing a chef's toque. In the smaller back room, a wall painted to resemble rustic stone could be a remnant of scenery from a high school production of Camelot.
To newcomers, it all begs for a facelift. But to Le Cordon Bleu-trained Chef James Neel, who bought Tramontana in 1999 after his stints at the Adolphus' French Room and Al Biernat's, it's all part of his plan.
"I take more of an Old World approach to what I do," Neel, 42, says by phone after our anonymous visits for lunch and dinner. "I love going to restaurants in Europe that haven't changed in 50 years, not even the decor. It's not quite what the Dallas restaurant scene is into. I just do what makes me happy."
That goes for his menu too. Neel has kept 75 percent of Tramontana's old school traditional dishes the same since day one. There are few daily specials, and he's quick to nix anything new that the regulars, which he says account for 80 percent of his business, deem too edgy or too little value for the money.
We wonder, though, if he's tasted his own food lately. Neel admits to being in the kitchen for only a few weekday lunches and every other weekend. He does take charge of the monthly wine dinners, and he'll cook for the occasional chef's table event in the kitchen (10 or so courses for $100 per diner, not counting the costs of wine). But does he really know what's going on the plates?
Our dinner here was a hit-and-miss affair. The warm beet salad dotted with chèvre and toasty walnuts, tossed with mesclun, was fine, even with a dressing heavy on the balsamic. My dining companion ordered the four-course tasting menu (at $55, it is slightly higher than the price listed on the bistro's Web site, which Neel admits is rife with outdated information). My friend's starter, a salad of grilled pears, buttered walnuts, apple-smoked bacon and gorgonzola, again tossed with mixed greens, delivered a sweet, smoky blend of flavors enhanced by a rich but mild port wine vinaigrette.
He got a fish course too, a generous slab of roasted red snapper atop a lobster risotto. "Beyond fabulous," my friend declared, offering a forkful. He was right. The fish was moist with a delicate, crispy crust. The risotto was creamy, not cloying, and filled with chunks of pink lobster. The sauce on the fish was a heavenly, creamy haze with a tang of citrus.
And then came the entrees. My grilled scallops—just three and very small—were full of grit and so salty they were nearly inedible. My risotto was a brine-fest too. His Chateaubriand, served in a Cabernet demi-glace, was a sniggly cut, anemic and gamy.
Desserts, another letdown. His coconut soufflé came out so eggy (and with not a hint of coconut), in a blind taste test, the best guess would have been omelet. My salt-caramel soufflé was like spooning up a sticky bite of the Dead Sea.