A Kiss Before Dining
My most recent visit to the Green Room brought to mind an article I read in a restaurant magazine a couple of years ago about cheeks -- and not the kind that make the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue shimmy off newsstands.
"People have a hard time eating cheeks," says Thomas Keller, renowned chef of the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., in the article. "But when you think about it, cheeks are very clean. We kiss each other on the cheek. People don't have a hard time eating butts."
This might depend on how well-scrubbed they are, but Keller was referring to pork butts, which are available in most supermarkets. He was also bemoaning the fact that facial cheeks aren't received well when they're served in restaurants.
Maybe it's Keller's presentation. One of the French Laundry's most talked-about menu items is the tongue-in-cheek salad, a veal tongue tucked near a braised beef cheek. The mouth kind of puckers just thinking about it. Keller says his cheeky dishes (there's also veal cheek ravioli) are part of the drive in his restaurant to offer distinctive dishes. "Cheeks are not something you see at every McDonald's," he points out. "Let's face it. There are only two cheeks to every animal, so it is limited production and only so many cheeks to go around."
There are only two sides to every butt too. Yet, as keller points out, you can find them in virtually every supermarket.
But it's not only beef cheeks that are turning up on menus. Chefs are also proffering pork, cod, and monkfish cheeks. How long will it be before someone puts chicken jowls on the menu?
Green Room chef Marc Cassell is in on the action. His menu offers sautéed halibut cheeks. I have to admit that I was a little tentative with my approach. I kept looking for dimples and red fish-lip imprints. But once I got past those initial jitters, I found the meat firm -- maybe a little fibrous -- and engagingly sweet. Like little pasta pockets, the tender, lightly coated cheeks floated in a puddle of smooth, nutty carrot butter, through which tender, resilient strips of black fettuccine snaked. The flavors meshed gently together.
The rest of the menu engendered no initial cheek fear. Boursin (a triple cream cheese) artichoke ravioli was delicious when eaten right. After picking at the roasted oyster mushroom carpeting the top of the dish, I thought the dank fungus cried for some seasoning. But that was before I plunged my fork into the ravioli slathered with puntanesca, a lusty Italian tomato sauce punched with garlic, peppers, and capers. (Literally translated, puntanesca means "harlot style," referring to a sauce allegedly cooked by professional women between clients.) When eaten with the tender, nutty ravioli, the mushrooms deepened the racy richness of the dish with briny earthiness.
But the Green Room isn't just cheeks and hooker sauce. It's many things, a mishmash of influences: Mediterranean, Asian, Southwestern hints. Sure, many places embrace such a mix, but at the Green Room, it somehow seems more twisted. "It's collision cuisine," says Cassell. It's pretty much of a free-for-all here."
That it is. Launched in 1994 by Whitney Meyers and Brady Wood -- guys with no restaurant background -- to feed the performers at their live music club Trees, the Green Room has evolved from a mottled urban rat hole serving good food into a mottled urban rat hole serving good food with a reputation. Brick walls are the color of yellow squash dusted with soot. Vents in the air ducts are soiled. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the most prominent poster near the entrance to the kitchen is for Courtney Love's band Hole.
Cherubs in a mural over the walls give it a kitschy air of respectability. Clumps of grapes and angels that look like they were yanked from Courtney Love's garage before she went Hollywood hover atop the back bar. And that back bar is a smudged, grimy mirror.
One of the most striking decorative touches is the chandelier in the dining room. It's a gangly insect-like thing of pipes and pipefittings with cymbals mounted on the ends like massive suction cups. Autographs are scrawled over the cymbal surfaces. It's nearly impossible to see the flickering faux-flame bulbs in the center of the symbols in this clashing candelabrum. So what's it for anyway?
Charm. And it's this kind of thing that, according to Cassell, makes the Green Room such a relatively easy place in which to cook. When he was at Star Canyon, Cassell says, the six-week waiting list for a table elevated dining expectation levels beyond reality. "Here it's a lot easier to impress people," he says. "It's so ultracasual...people look for hot dogs and burgers on the menu. When they see a waiter in a T-shirt match a good wine with the food, they think they've discovered some buried treasure or something."
Having a server in a T-shirt and no cummerbund successfully pair wine with food is a treasure. And that's because, perhaps more than any top restaurant in Dallas, the Green Room puts some real muster behind its wine list. It's a broad collection representing some 10 or so countries with lots of oddballs thrown in to keep pace with the atmospherics. And unlike the gouge you too often find at many Dallas restaurants, the prices are reasonable. This is wine for real people -- real people with drum kits for home furnishings.
This dynamic really emerges with the "feed me wine me" selection on the menu. This seat-of-the-pants kitchen creation is part creative flurry, part shuffled convenience, where chefs create four courses on the fly, and the servers pair wines with each course at their discretion. Two tables next to each other ordering the selection could conceivably end up with two different meals.
Our feeding started with grouper chowder, a shoestring-potato-topped pottage of tomato, bay leaf, and whole garlic cloves plugged with moist chunks of grouper flesh. The server chose an Australian Sauvignon blanc as a match -- good, but not exemplary, because the soup was rife with black pepper that stripped the wine a bit.
A similar minor problem arose with the wine-and-salad pairing. A simple bunch of greens with strips of red and yellow bell pepper doused in a brisk but not blindingly tangy lemon garlic vinaigrette, the salad flattened the Reine Pedauque Pouilly Fuissé.
But this is senseless nitpicking. I mean, how many restaurants even invite such interplay?
The firm, spicy Chateauneuf de Pape matched seamlessly with lamb T-bones, a pair of exquisitely rich, silky short loin cuts quietly erupting in sweet gaminess. The slightly fatty cuts were slathered in a silky, brisk tomato-butter sauce and buttressed by a somewhat gummy tandoori couscous. Cassell says he likes butter sauces not only because they're often neglected, but because they're easy to concoct when the kitchen is in the weeds. Which underscores that if the Green Room is about anything, it's about squeezing every ounce of pretentiousness out of fine dining.
Vanilla-nut crème brûlée was the final course, a near perfect dessert with a warm, crisp lid and a cool, creamy custard flush with flavor. The wine was also a good match: a clean, crisp, generously floral muscat blend from Bonny Doon dubbed Vin de Glacière.
"Feed me wine me" illustrates how a haphazard, improvisational culinary fling can jell into one of the best things about dining in Dallas. That and a couple of fish cheeks make for a menu you can pucker and peck.
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