Art for the masses

Maybe I'm being supersensitive about this--after all, I'm still terrified by that chapter in Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles where the earthmen climb out of their rockets on Mars and everything and everyone looks precisely as it did back home in Sioux City, Iowa.

Only, of course, they're not...they're really Martians.
So the seemingly never-ending cloning of Dallas really bugs me. Downtown's march to the north seems unstoppable--the way it stands now, you don't need to go to Deep Ellum to go to Deep Ellum. It's been recreated for you in Addison. There's a Sambuca in Addison, even a Deep Ellum Cafe in Addison.

Why do we have to homogenize everything? Why does Addison have to be like Deep Ellum? Why can't we go to Addison for some things and downtown for different things? Why can't neighborhoods develop their own personalities? Does everything have to be duplicated?

Am I sounding shrill?
Well, I can only imagine that Deep Ellum's manifest destiny lies somewhere in Kansas. Now, Jeff Swaney and Jeff Yarbrough, Deep Ellum's primary entrepreneurs, have branched out and opened a complex of four concepts--downtown they were only restaurants--one literally opening out of the other.

I know I've gone on at droning length about restaurants duplicating themselves, but this does take the cake: two Deep Ellum hangouts, the Art Bar and Blind Lemon, plus two more bright ideas, a so-called healthful diner and, just to be safe, a Mexican cantina--all connected. Once you enter one of these restaurants, any restaurant, you can promenade from place to place without going outside again. They've actually taken the sidewalk-strolling, bar-hopping experience of Deep Ellum and put it indoors.

Well, you can take the restaurant out of Deep Ellum, and they've certainly taken Deep Ellum out of the restaurant. Instead, imagine Mr. Eisner's idea of cool--perhaps another area of Disneyland, somewhere between, say, Tomorrowland and Never-Never Land: welcome to Deep Ellum Land. It's clean, it's neat, it has lots of clever sayings and slogans reminding you just how hip this is, some souvenir merchandise for sale and, of course, plenty of young Deep Ellumketeers, dressed for the part in black leather and sheer leopard skin, in crushed velvet and short skirts. (Or--are they Martians?)

This Downtown Land is an invented bohemia in a strip mall. The only trick is, don't look outside. Yes, that is hard to do in the summertime when deadly daylight saving time kills all illusion until 9 p.m. But when it's dark, you don't notice how odd the juxtaposition of suburban outside and urban indoors is--like a cockeyed Tim Burton surreality.

In broad daylight, the view of the car wash and discount store is glaringly obvious through the walls and walls of plate glass. Nevertheless, some incorrigibly unimaginative people were eating al fresco--make that al fluoresco--out on the sidewalk-wide terrace overlooking the Steinmart parking lot.

These are the concepts: Lavaca Cantina, a Southwest-Mexican "concept," Blind Lemon, a blues bar "concept," the Art Bar, with a real live curator to legitimize the "art" idea. (Brent Gaither, erstwhile vice president of the elusive Vary magazine, had put together a good show of David McCullough's fingerpaint-like paintings and mache sculpture when we were there.) And "Your Mother's Hip," a strange Sixties diner with a pseudo-healthful menu and open-mike poetry readings on the weekends.

Are you wondering about the food yet? Well, it took us a while--in fact, it took us a drink or two at the bar (where they prefer you sit if you're not ordering dinner; it's not quite a "bar") in the Art Bar (corner site, arty mosaics, stark--I think they prefer the word "graphic"--black furnishings) before we felt sufficiently oriented in Deep Ellum Land and decided our M.O. for this review would be to eat at one clone and one new concept.

While at the bar, we studied menus for all four restaurants, all overseen by executive chef Jill Alcott, and all executed from a single kitchen with a special area for the Southwest-Mexican food, which is the only significantly distinct cuisine. So we backtracked to Blind Lemon (loud blues, old photos, navy blue velvet over the office-park plate glass) and were shown by the leopardskin hostess to a booth.

Okay, here's the critic's karma at work: four people go out to dinner. One of them slides into the booth on top of a puddle of spilled coffee left by the previous tenant.

For 10 points, which one is it?
The critic, of course.
I dabbed away at my clothes with the napkin from my set-up and snagged the passing hostess, showing her the coffee-stained napkin and requesting a new one, which she promptly brought without taking the soiled one (not in her job description).

Oh, well. Talking to our waiter was like communicating with a computer, or a teenager--he only answered the question immediately before him.  

First he gave us menus, then asked if we'd like to order drinks.
"Yes," we said, "and we heard you serve microbrewery beers."
"Oh, yes."
"May we have a beer menu, then?"
It took a separate and distinct point-by-point interview to get a wine list.

These are the kinds of menus that give you the basic ingredient list as a description of a dish, encouraging that favorite diner's game which we call Find the Pine Nut. One of our salads mixed gorgonzola, walnuts, grilled red onions, bacon, chopped pears, red grapes, fresh herbs, and, oh, some lettuces, in a balsamic vinaigrette.

Score: 100 percent. We found everything listed, and not only that, we cleaned the plate. Everything was cut to compatible sizes and evenly coated with the winey-sweet vinegar. This was everything you'd want a main dish salad to be.

Spinach salad scored slightly less well: there were only two thin slices of avocado. But bits of sweet orange, crispy jicama, shreds of carrot, red onion, radishes, cilantro, and toasted pecans were all accounted for and tossed in a subtle dressing of shallots. As well as the basic spinach, endive, and watercress. Caesar salad has been subject to so much customizing that Blind Lemon felt it needed to point out that this version is "traditional," which it was, and good, too.

We were less pleased with entrees: parmesan chicken (called "leonardo da poultry" on the Art Bar's menu) was a heavily breaded breast, a typical banquet-style dish, resting on linguine sticky with lemony cream, smelling of piney rosemary.

The angel hair pasta was overcooked as it almost invariably is; its marinara had lost its fresh taste. Penne with artichokes (called "pictorial pasta" on the A.B. menu) only held three-fourths of one, buried in the mix of tomatoes, red peppers, calamata and other olives, as well as scallions and bits of mozzarella. The flavors of most of these ingredients were masked by heavy garlic.

The special of the day was another pasta dish, this one with flaked salmon (perhaps left over from the soy mustard glazed baby Coho on the menu?) and shrimp. Bread was inexcusable, the worst kind of grocery-store-soft baguette. Because of the off and on service, the manager comped our dessert.

Your Mother's Hip (dolls and coffee mugs nailed to the wall, lampshades hanging like chandeliers from the ceiling, Sixties color scheme of avocado, purple, and orange) looks like the kind of coffeeshop where you order breakfast, but it's really the kind of coffeeshop where they have an open-mike poetry reading on Sundays, which is why we went there for our second foray into Upper Ellum. (The clue: the menu quotes Kerouac and Ginsberg, except in the "Your Dad's Not" mac & cheese section, where it quotes Ward Cleaver.)

This place would indeed be the cool it aspires to if the menu didn't constantly point out how cool it is. (Rule number one is: you're not hip if you have to say so.) Again, service was less than attentive; in fact, except for a tableful of nervous poets, there was no one in the place at all when we arrived.

But once things got going, we liked Mother's Hip better than the rest of the complex. For one thing, the poetry reading was great, though not all the poetry was. You have to admire anyone who will read his own poetry in front of a group. What could be braver?

Plus, the head or host poet drove up on a motorcycle dressed in a Stevie Ray Vaughan-style black hat, black shirt, black pants, black sunglasses, and knife. There was another poet with a beeper, one in a suit, and several in black leggings. But all the poetry we heard had to do with relationships.

So we listened to the poems and ate a quesadilla, a thin crisp tortilla sandwich of goat cheese, whole black beans, and tomatoes with a chipotle sour cream to dip it in, which seemed odd but tasted good if you didn't overdo it. And polenta, grilled, with chopped portabellas, tomatoes, capers, and olives mixed into a kind of relish. This is a very hip mama in the kitchen.

This menu, though it echoes Blind Lemon and Art Bar, has a vegetable emphasis--I suppose because we moms are always worried that you don't eat your vegetables. So the lasagna was a veg version, the lovely, thin translucent layers of pasta layered with sliced grilled squashes, eggplant, onion, and tomato, with just enough ricotta to paste it together, and topped with tough parmesan strips.

Slices of pork tenderloin came with a barbeque sauce black as fudge, fruity with cranberry, and mashed potatoes with the bitter taste of overcooked garlic.  

For dessert, two scoops of melting vanilla ice cream with a coffee-bitter chocolate sauce in a separate dish from the walnut fudge brownie was real poetry.

Art Bar, Blind Lemon, Lavaca Cantina, Your Mother's Hip, 14902 Preston Road at Belt Line in Pepper Square, 458-0458. Open Monday-Wednesday 11 a.m.midnight (food till 10 p.m.); ThursdaySunday 11 a.m.2 a.m. (food till midnight).

Art Bar:
Pictorial pasta $8.50
Botticelli beef $16.95
Blind Lemon:
Field greens salad $5.95
Blind Lemon parmesan chicken $10.95

Lavaca Cantina:
Dos Jefe's special $10.50
10 oz. ribeye $13.95
Your Mother's Hip:
Grilled vegetable lasagna $8.95
Grilled pork tenderloin with cranberry

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