Voltaire is verbose -- not the witty 18th-century writer and philosopher who penned Candide, but the restaurant dreamed up by radio mogul Scott Ginsburg after his original plans to build a hamburger joint for his kids were derailed.
The servers like to talk. "Your chef tonight is a gentleman by the name of George Papadopoulos, who's from New York," says a server at the next table over. "He's cooked at the Waldorf Astoria, and his family has owned several restaurants in Manhattan."
This server is waiting on a family with two teenagers and a set of grandparents. The boy, dressed in a T-shirt, nylon sweat pants, and an expensive watch, has a cell phone near his plate that goes off every three minutes. He wears a puzzled look as the server rattles through the menu -- looks suggesting that maybe Ginsburg is a fool to have deviated from his original plan.
The servers walk you through each dish, ticking off the ingredients, throwing in a little on how they're made, clueing you in to their personal favorites. I thought the chatter was distracting, but my companion found the windy dissertations helpful. In fact, she ordered the pan-seared diver scallops ($14) based on a server's word. Plopped in a puddle of jasmine-soy essence merged with a beurre blanc, the generous, thick, tender disks of pearly meat were meltingly delicate, yet firm and braced with a whisper-thin crust that bristled with traces of pungency. Fluffs of saffron-curried vegetable couscous, moist and brilliantly flavorful, rounded out the dish.
But I skirted all recommendations and went straight for the sautéed Hudson Valley foie gras ($22), which turned out to be the meanest, baddest duck liver I can remember slipping through my lips. The liver, scored with a repeating diamond pattern across its surface, is folded in half, like a seat and chair back, and placed on a cushion of light, creamy mashed potatoes. Two pieces of toast jut out from either side like a pair of rabbit ears. Mouth-melting but firm, the meat unfurls across the palate in a rich, nutty flavor cut with piquancy from a generous salting.
Behind this sculptured liver chair is a bale of greens. In front of it is an endless fanning of thin green apple slices pocked with black currants and bathed in a clean, slightly sweet mandarin emulsion. I thought the apple slices were a bit of an over-embellishment, until I tasted them: They were flush with juicy, sweet-tart flavor, and I ate every one of them.
Voltaire's offerings are full and satisfying, not tiny and pretty, but this verbosity doesn't emerge just on the plates: It's everywhere. Once you're seated at a table, there is an endless array of eye appetizers: the art, wood panel touches, the glassed wine cellars, and various ceiling treatments that include a copper screen and an eye that fluctuates with color. Slung over one table is a large menorah with unlit candles.
Then there's that small dining space with the glass case containing a collection of brilliantly colorful glass sculptures by Seattle artist Dale Chihuly. Like a crowd of undulating mouths on a stretch of transparent reef, the sculptures seem to float in a hovering aquarium.
"That glass is bulletproof," says a man in a dark jacket, waving his hand toward the case as he escorts his date through the restaurant. "It could hold a 600-pound man; the glass is that thick. Scott designed it himself." His date seems unimpressed.
"You know, Dale Chihuly was in here the other night," says Voltaire's sommelier and former Mansion cellar master Darryl Beeson. Chihuly was in town to dedicate a 16-foot-tall glass sculpture surrounded by a reflecting pool he created for the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Someone told the lauded glass sculptor about the shrine Ginsburg erected to him at Voltaire, so he stopped by, wearing a black eye patch and a hat from which spilled his hair. "He came with one attractive woman, and he left with two attractive women. It must be that artist thing," Beeson adds.
He says he told Chihuly a story about how his then 7-year-old nephew reacted to the Chihuly show at the Dallas Museum of Art a few years back. The boy stood in front of the sculptures, taking in the color, and started clapping. The lone smack of hands echoing through the museum space caught all of the other museum patrons off guard. "What the hell is this vulgar kid clapping for?" they seemed to wonder. But somehow, the reaction was perfectly appropriate.
After hearing the story, Chihuly removed the white napkin from his lap and quickly sketched on the cloth a rendition of the sculpture he had just dedicated. He dropped the napkin, spread it on the floor, and dipped his fingers into his glass of red wine, flicking dribbles over the drawing. Then he picked it up and wadded it in his hands, sort of tie-dying it as he continued to converse. After a few moments, he opened up the napkin, revealing a colorful splashing. He signed it and dedicated it to Beeson's nephew. "Pretty neat, huh?" says Beeson.
"Americans will eat garbage, provided you sprinkle it liberally with ketchup, mustard, chili sauce, Tabasco sauce, cayenne pepper, or another condiment which destroys the original flavor of the dish."
-- Henry Miller
If there's anything you can say about the touch of Voltaire chef George Papadopoulos, it's that it's fearless, yet light and understated. Still, it doesn't look that way on the plate. The dishes are full, inundated with sauces.
It's in the mouth where you realize that appearances are deceiving. Slices of seared Cervena red venison ($34) arrive resting on three fluffy cushions of mashed potato. The meat shames much of the venison served in Dallas: Its rich, juicy texture has not a ghost of fibrousness or overwhelming gaminess. Papadopoulos skillfully plays off the natural sweetness with caramelized leeks and roasted shallots over an apple puree in a reduction of crème de noyaux (a fruit liqueur) and Calvados (a dry apple brandy). He adds a little spicy sweetness with bits of diced apple seasoned with cinnamon.
Roasted Chilean sea bass ($28) was equally stunning. Sparked with an Asian thread provided by a saffron-and-galangal emulsion, the delicately sweet and tender fish was prodded on the plate with kumquat-cilantro chutney cluttered with three different bell peppers, eggplant, zucchini, caramelized onions, and cooked kumquats. It isn't as distracting as it sounds, and its light, understated flavors proved the perfect terrestrial foil for this firm, buttery fish. Moist, supple and silky au gratin potatoes blended with this hinted-at tension.
Papadopoulos steers a good portion of his efforts toward tweaking sauces, harmonizing flavors, and merging them on the plate so that they meld seamlessly, conferring a transparent richness that doesn't cloud. "Meat should taste like meat, and fish should taste like fish," he says.
And chicken should taste like chicken, or in Voltaire's case, more like chicken than chicken. Topped with a nest of hair-thin fried potatoes, the roasted coquelet ($24) marinated in Chinese herbs was so succulent and richly flavored, it set something of a bird benchmark. Resting under that mark was a wilted mass of sautéed Swiss chard, a smart plate addition in that it slipped in a spark of bitter chewiness, adding a bit of hearty but seamlessly smooth earthiness to the plate. A trio of mashed potato puffs flavored with truffles and butter merged into an unexpected toffee-like essence.
Sautéed mignonettes of beef tenderloin ($36) topped with seared foie gras and a scallion potato cake slipped between the coins of meat was just about the best beef ever butchered: brilliantly rich, meltingly tender, wonderfully dank. Little meticulous bundles of blanched green bean and carrot twined with scallion leaves trimmed the plate deftly.
Lest you get bogged down in Voltaire's hoity-toity verbiage, the menu also has pizza, or canapés, its renditions named for prominent artists: Matisse, Picasso, and Monet. "I put the canapés together, and he [Ginsburg] came up with those names. I wasn't too excited at first with that," Papadopoulos says. "But he hit that nail right on the head." I don't exactly know which nail that is, but Papadopoulos sure hit his. Matisse ($9), a honey-glazed duck confit with caramelized red onion, prosciutto, gorgonzola, and toasted almond slivers, was hearty, moist, and chewy and had a balanced sweet saltiness kept on edge with a prominent acidic spark.
The nail-hitting carried through to dessert. The blackberry tart ($10), barnacled with the fattest, juiciest blackberries I've seen, was founded on brittle, crisp pastry and built with a deft cheesecake custard, flushing it with silky elegance. Plus, the coffee was brisk, rich, and piping hot.
"Part of the success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside."
-- Mark Twain.
The food at Voltaire is virtually flawless: in appearance, in execution, in flavor. There are no jarring clashes or inappropriate nuances seemingly installed just to call attention to themselves and the chef.
Yet the service could use some minor tweaking. Service teams, which seemed to have as many as three people working a table at once, aren't seamlessly orchestrated. They trip over one another, repeatedly following up on tasks already in execution, such as getting water or getting the check (which can get pretty fat, so maybe a team of three is appropriate). Plus, red wine by the glass was served warm instead of cool (needless to say, the wine list is a dizzyingly verbose document).
But overall, Ginsburg has made one striking point with Voltaire: Money may talk, but commitment screams. If the Dallas Observer awarded stars or forks or fat little attaboys as part of its reviews, I'd grab the full arsenal and fling them at this place, without fragments or fractions. Yet maybe the appropriate response is just to sit quietly in the dining room -- and clap.
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