Here, the bartender is savvy. Sit down at the bar and prod him into talking about vodka. Ketel One is good; Skyy is hype. Of course, this could have been concluded without coaching. Note the extra "y." Glare at the cobalt blue bottle. This is amusing: The Skyy Web site boasts Skyy has the fewest impurities at the same time it advises how to make a proper dirty martini. Also, Skyy has zero carbs, so you can pour it on your steak guilt-free.
Poke around the wine recesses and the bartender will steer you clear of the Angeline Pinot Noir--a thin piece of liquid candy. Instead, he'll pour you a glass of Chateau Graysac Bordeaux, from which you can pull some earth and a little road tar if you're into that sort of descriptive nomenclature. How road tar fits into the global culinary apparatus is a mystery. When we roll through construction zones peppered with orange "loose gravel" and "fresh oil" signs, we're seized with an impulse to gnaw a fresh serving of lamb chops with Bordeaux, right?
At Angela's Bistro 51, the impulse can be treated with an herb-crusted rack. Herbs are green and unmolested by intense heat. The chops are gorgeously ruddy, embroidered around a central core of portobello risotto sown with garlic sautéed spinach. Bones are propped vertically, leaning into a crown pinnacle. This is tall food that doesn't annoy. The flesh is slightly loose, saturated in juices and silken with streaks of raciness--not the kind that elicits winces, but the kind that rounds flavors as they hint at tension. Chew and roil the fibers before whittling away the mound of yellow risotto grains. They're separate and firm; the mushroom earthiness is pronounced. Spinach is not evident at first. You have to dig for it, lift and dispose of small rice clusters before the green--as deep as ChemLawn turf--peers intensely through the yellow.
These leaves have been subjected to precise heat levels so that, instead of flaccid and mushy, they're firm and supple. Pooled around this crown of lamb bones is a demi-glace--a restrained one that serves as more of a gauzy moisture curtain than a heavy viscous blanket. Yet it wouldn't be hard to imagine these chops standing on their own, thriving in the meat runoff and moisture leeched from the risotto.
Not everything shines like this, though, to be fair, there aren't serious blemishes on this menu either. It's the sauce that keeps the roasted pork tenderloin from the clutches of indifference. The slices are ringed partially by a group of brown sugar baby carrots, their tips pointing out toward the plate's edge. A rosemary sprig rises from the plate like a hat feather. The meat is juicy, tender, slightly pink. But unless it's dragged through the red currant glaze, it seems to have no purpose. Maybe this is its purpose, simply to sweep up this assertive yet balanced sauce.
The bistro tenderloin is even duller than the pork. This is peculiar, as beef contains far greater levels of inherent richness than the fruit of the hog. But there it is, soaking in a slick of tarry red wine reduction, a pair of thick asparagus stalks resting across the surface, a rosemary sprig rising in the background. The meat is gray instead of rosy. Beefy richness, the heady culinary magnetism that elicits Texas blood lust, is a ghostly presence, and the reduction does little to compensate.
Still, Angela's Bistro 51 is a gutsy escapade. It's the creation of Angela Gordon, who has weathered 25 years in the catering business where Uptown and the Park Cities merge. She bled her own resources for this bistro, utilizing not a cent from outside investors. "I've not had any restaurant experience before," Gordon says. She took over the Rosebud Wine Bistro, which succumbed to bankruptcy, purchasing fixtures from the bank before undertaking a two-month refurbishing process, mostly to gore and cauterize the kitchen.
And tweak the dining room, which circulates natural light in the evening, generating a postcard glow buffered with tepid greens on the walls and great stretches of near-sheer curtains around the windows.
While Gordon drafts all the recipes, she doesn't execute in the trenches. A pair of kitchen crews--one for day, the other night--animates her formulas. "Our food is very flavorful...but it's not over the top," she says. That's an accurate statement, though it might help if the menu edged a little closer to dazzling. Instead, Gordon's passions nest in desserts, which she discharges herself. Chief among them is the warm buttermilk pound cake based on an old family recipe. Ringed in a smudge of caramel sauce and pebbled with raspberries and a melting scoop of ice cream, this luxuriously dense and moist gustatory sponge is dessert at its best.
Even gutsier is the origin of the restaurant's moniker. The bravery appears in the numeral that dangles at the end. Fifty-one is Gordon's age. How many women (or men for that matter) in this age of Paris Hilton/Ashton Kutcher iconography would so conspicuously flaunt such a number?
Crab cakes seemed impervious to such reckless bravery. They tread in the centerline on the pavement. It's not that they're overloaded with filler or that the crab is pulverized into a Gerber smear. It's that the meat doesn't seem to harbor any of the distinctive sweetness or threads of tide pool scent that in the right quantities spell marine richness. A tomato-orange chipotle sauce, while energetic, does little to supply the missing richness.
But this proved the weakest effort in Angela's lengthy string of starters. Smoked salmon is fish strips fashioned into crude rosebud likenesses with sprigs of fuzzy dill protruding from the whorls. A dense crowd of capers pebbles the plate, while a neat pile of chopped purple onion rests near a bulb of herbed cream cheese. Half the plate is ringed with plain French bread slices-- not as interesting as toast points or crackers.
Yet the sex appeal seemingly suppressed in some menu parts bursts vigorously in the salads. Thai chicken salad is a marvelously over-the-top thing topped with a wad of cellophane noodles that looks like some sort of exotic royal headdress. The tangle covers a neat mound of greens, carrot, bell pepper, sesame seeds and pieces of moist chicken washed in a racy ginger-soy dressing that foils the mix without veering off the rails.
Even the simple house salad clutches raciness in a death grip, sloughing off thrills where none is usually found, or even expected. It isn't just a simple sheaf of competent but dull greens threaded with a little purple foliage for chromatic interest before it's soused with a dressing to counteract the impression that little separates you from the rabbits. Angela's house salad is a fist of greens with embedded kalamatas, creating points of briny intensity throughout. Cherry tomatoes also puncture the fabric with acids conspicuously tempered with sweetness. The top is carpeted with tangy Parmesan shreds to invigorate the Greek vinaigrette washing the heap.
Angela's is the cozy, gutsy venue that was only a nub of promise at Rosebud. With a little more sex appeal in the menu this bistro can easily move through Angela's mounting numerals. For years.
2701 Guillot St., 214-979-0051. Open
11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 5-11 p.m. Saturday. Open for high tea 3-5 p.m.
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