By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
It's probably unfair to show up in winter at a restaurant that touts its fresh, seasonal cuisine.
840 Currie St.
Fort Worth, TX 76107
Region: Fort Worth
Diners who rushed to eat at Brownstone when it opened last summer were feted with Mother Nature's version of a ticker-tape parade: The kitchen all but pelted them with kernels of Silver Queen corn, thick slices of heirloom tomatoes and fistfuls of field peas.
The welcome's not so wildly exuberant in the depths of winter, when an honest restaurant has to make do with what's in the root cellar. If you listen closely, you can almost hear the cooks chattering over the howling, bitter winds: "Well, we've got these potatoes. And some parsnips. Do you think we can do something different with these carrots? We've definitely got potatoes."
What's so impressive about Brownstone is that it has managed to transcend the exigencies of the calendar, producing exceptional vegetable plates at times when the air's so nippy that the swanky Fort Worth restaurant's glass-fronted street-side kitchen is perpetually fogged over. Under the guidance of executive chef Casey Thompson, a two-time Top Chef contender, Brownstone's kitchen has done things with beets and Brussels sprouts that could make a beach volleyball player long for winter.
Brownstone isn't tripped up by harvesting schedules. The seasonal shift that seems to be giving the restaurant considerably more trouble is the end of buzz season, which apparently expired some time around the holidays. After a mere six months, the gloss has worn off Brownstone, and nobody's as blue about it as the service staff, which has responded with unrepentant slothfulness. The dining room exudes rutabaga energy.
"It's going to be slow," a hostess warned when a member of my party called to find out whether we'd need reservations for a Friday night table.
She was right. Just as when we'd dined there on a school night, the number of servers appeared to outnumber seated tables. Still, service was excruciatingly slow and inattentive. When our entrées arrived, more than an hour after we'd placed our orders, I asked the woman who brought them whether I could have a glass of wine, as my glass had been sitting empty and unnoticed since the first course.
"You could ask your server," she scolded me.
On both my visits, there were signs such indolence was creeping into the back-of-the-house too. Salt-ridden seared sea scallops were frigid in the center, an achingly dry roasted chicken had rubbery skin and a housemade pappardelle pasta was badly overcooked.
Such mistakes are especially frustrating when a restaurant's so clearly capable. If Brownstone had shoulders, I'd shake them. Had the food and service been just slightly sharper, those 36 miles between Dallas and Fort Worth would vanish in a poof of fried Brussels sprout reverie. As it stands, I can't think back on Brownstone without involuntarily ticking off a list of restaurants closer to home that would deliver a more satisfying dining experience.
But none of those restaurants would serve Brownstone's Brussels sprouts, which I'm only sorry I didn't discover before the first of January, as the dish would have been a cinch for my "best bites of 2010" list. And while I'm 1,032 meals away from the end of 2011, I'm guessing its spot on this year's edition of the list is pretty secure.
Frying Brussels sprouts sounds like a gimmicky way of making a maligned vegetable palatable, but there's nothing cynical about the pristine fry encasing each marble-sized sprout. The coating's so sheer it's barely visible when the restaurant lowers its lights, but it beautifully contains the vegetable's essential greenness. The sprouts clatter with flavor: They're gently sweet and nutty and tremendous fun to eat.
While Brownstone's entrée selection is plodding and predictable, its first-course menu is suffused with creativity and verve. Every preparation sounds appealing on the page, and most of them work on the plate. There's a popular squash "casserole" spread, and the kitchen's not being the least bit promiscuous with the ironic quotation marks. Put aside any expectations about eggs and diced yellow squash: The squash here is cooked all the way down and mixed with scads of cream and cheese for a locavore riff on spinach-artichoke dip.
Local food is one of the many concepts at play at Brownstone, which supposedly serves Southern cuisine, but takes its name from the iconic row houses found almost exclusively north of the Mason-Dixon. The sleek dining room sounds urban notes, while the menu revels in rural traditions that can feel forced. There's a soulless fried apple pie, prim as a schoolmarm, available for dessert, and sausage biscuits plated in a cast-iron skillet are sold as "Grandmother's Biscuit Pan"—never mind that matriarchs aren't known as "Grandmother" anywhere outside New England.
Brownstone doesn't need the South as an organizing principle, especially when it's found such a successful central theme in vegetables. I wasn't overly fond of a roasted green bean salad, featuring a dollop of bland, grainy ricotta, but a simple house salad of deep-hued winter greens, evenly dressed and garnished with warm cornbread croutons, was lovely.
Smartly, Thompson, a veteran of Shinsei, hasn't been too rigid in her Southern cooking. There's housemade chorizo in the stinging adobo-ish sauce that adorns a rock shrimp pasta, and Asian flavors surface where they probably wouldn't if Thompson were the type to wave the stars and bars.
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