Remember Grandpa Stupid in that classic children's book, The Stupids Die? "This isn't heaven, it's Cleveland," he explains to his descendants who can't tell the difference. It's so easy to mistake one place for another, but thankfully someone's almost always there to set you straight. So I'm here to remind you, this isn't Destin, it's Dallas. Clive & Stuart--yes, another new seafood restaurant--just looks like the lobby of a try-harder hotel in a demi-deluxe beach resort. The sort-of deco carpet with the oversized, palmy pattern and the vague maritime materials and motifs (Chriscraft-worthy paneling, a round aquarium, and portholes) reach the length of the room. The claustrophobic-looking aquarium behind the bar is depressing--as an art dealer friend points out, there's lots of good fish art, after all. And the wall of windows, which should overlook the sea, or a boardwalk, or at least a string of kitschy T-shirt shops, have the same view of McKinney Avenue you've gazed at a thousand times while drinking Bellinis a block down. (On the other hand, it's not much of a stretch to call the Hard Rock Cafe a kitschy T-shirt shop, is it?) It occurred to me, looking just north of Hard Rock, that if you could somehow marry the slightly prissy Clive & Stuart to that loose Lulu across the street, their progeny might have the easy island style as well as the sophistication this restaurant is trying to balance.
Clive & Stuart is subtitled "island seafood," just to make sure everyone tries it at least once. Because although we've got Italian seafood, New American fish, chowder houses and shrimp shops, and more fried oysters than should be legal, island-style seafood has remained an undiscovered pearl--until now. So of course we all have to try it. (Or is the Caribbean phenomenon ballyhooed a decade ago finally coming to cool-delayed Dallas?) Which island's style it is remains slightly vague. According to the history on the back of the menu, Clive (Whent) and Stuart (Gray) trained in Australia and Canada (cultural islands, anyway), and met each other while working in England. (Well, it is an island.) Finally, Stuart got a good job in Providenciales (the menu doesn't say exactly where that is, but it's supposed to be at the bottom of the Bahamas), and when Clive came to visit, he joined the kitchen in the number-two position. (Tough decision, right? Hampshire or the Caribbean. Hmmm...) Finally, the two opened their own restaurant in a resort in the Turks and Caicos islands, and then, naturally, the next step was Dallas. If that sounds like more than six degrees to you, that's because I left out the part about Tom McLendon and Gene Street. McLendon owns the resort where Clive and Stu's restaurant is located; when he decided to move the concept into Dallas, Street, one of the investors, suggested that the place be called "Clive and Stuart." I presume no one feared even for an instant that anyone would mistake it for another upscale, British-based salon with its own hair care product line.
Clive & Stuart themselves are only opening consultants, however; Tony Guercio, a Star Canyon and Daddy Jack's alumnus, is the chef, and Tony hired a crew of bright and energetic young cooks with good-looking resumes to back him up. The direction the food was going to take, then, was clear. Only the decor sends a mixed message. Do they want this to be an upscale seafood place populated by banded-collar types (replacing the old-style island evening dress of Bermuda shorts and a blazer) or a casual, walk-in place where Hawaiian shirts are appropriate? It wants to be both, but isn't quite either. Oddly, lunch at Clive & Stuart is more formal (wineglasses and white linens) than most of us would prefer, while dinner is less so (but with entree prices touching the $20 mark).
The food stretches the "island" conceit, but with these pedigrees, you knew it would. It actually shows admirable restraint on the part of someone (the chefs? the menu writer?) not coupling "island" with "global," but this menu is hardly authentic. Like New American, New Southwest, New South, and "global" cuisines, Guercio's "island" menu draws from a number of gastronomic sources, not all ocean-bound. In fact, some of the references are geographically schizophrenic--what to make of "fire shrimp on plantain mash" with "roast beet vinaigrette"? Is this a recipe from the little-known Polish Caribbean? Of course, you expect Caesar salad, because no restaurant could possibly avoid serving it, but asparagus? Balsamic vinegar?
Some of the eclecticism may originate in the food's design by committee. Stuart, Tony, and the two sous worked together on the menu. Some items, like the conch sausage, are Stuart's signature dishes. Others are pure inventions, fantasies of Dallas chefs dreaming of the Caribbean. And some of them work wonderfully. Pina de gallo, a salsa with barely cooked pineapple bits replacing tomatoes and onions, is a natural, the tropical sugar accented with spice and the meld of flavors a perfect foil for fish or shellfish. A lunchtime lobster club sandwich held a decent number of sweet meat rounds sandwiched between the biscuit-like yeast bread (baked in-house and served complimentary with your meal with cilantro pesto) with leather-thick bacon strips and underripe avocado chunks. Fried plantain chips subbed for the usual corn or potato sides. Another dish, the tomato tart, sounded better than it tasted. A round tart shell held sliced tomatoes under a piece of snapper scattered with capers. Unfortunately, the salt from the capers had released all the water in the tomatoes; the result was like a pastry wading pool, and the overwhelming flavor was salt. The bulti curry (it's a typically Caribbean curry spice mix--I had to ask, too) was good, with plenty of firm shellfish and black beans mixed into the red rice, a splattering of hot harissa around the edge, and a dollop of pina de gallo on top.
At lunch, Chef Tony, making the rounds of the room, recognized me, so from then on my visits were not anonymous; as so often happens, service wasn't wonderful anyway. At dinner, we took a long time to order, but when we finally did, it was ages before the first course came out and we waited even longer for entrees. Of course, we'd possibly been pigeonholed as leisurely laggards who were going to tie up table turnover and block more tips forever. There was a wide variety of wait staff coming and going, but our first waitress was available less and less as the evening rolled on. We were seated at probably the only bad table in the house, behind the wine cabinet, but then Gene Street was only one table over, so it's hard to complain. His service seemed fine. There was a sizable crowd in the restaurant, everyone anxious no doubt to find out exactly what island style is (or else to get their roots touched up, if they were slightly misinformed).
We ordered a bottle of Frog's Leap from the slightly pricey wine list (by-the-glass selections are printed on the side of the blue bottle that doubles as your centerpiece, but most waiters forgot to tell us that) and ordered appetizers. Calamari was fried, the waitress said, at 5,000 degrees (or something like that), so it was tenderer, crisper than the usual rubber bands. It seems like every time I eat calamari these days, someone has found a way to make it tenderer than rubber bands, which makes you wonder a little bit why a food with a tendency to taste like school supplies is so popular anyway. But this particular calamari was tenderer than any rubber band I've ever eaten. Carpaccio, strips of beefy tuna, were flavored with lime juice and coconut milk, lending the meat a ceviche-like aroma, and then accented unexpectedly with diced fruit. A giant, quivering scallop was pillowed like a crown on lobster-goat cheese grits (although the lobster was no competition for the cheese) and barely sauced with a dessert-sounding decoction of rum and mango. But ginger-beer steamed mussels took the prize. Even though I've had bigger, more succulent mussels, the fumes of ginger flavor was underscored with fresh ginger, and the resulting broth was reason alone to refill the bread basket.
The long wait for the entrees rewarded us with a variety of odd things done to fish that was all high quality, fresh, and clean-tasting. Big, sweet shrimp, completely coated in crushed pecans, came with an orange-voodoo sauce that was expectedly sweet. Mahi-mahi was presented on a big, crisp pappadum plate and topped with the pina de gallo. The spice and crunch of the lentil wafer offset the mild meat and sweet fruit nicely. But best of all was the simplest of all, and the dish least characteristic of the islands. A hefty slab of swordfish, grilled till just white, and served over garlicky tomatoes with winey balsamic vinegar and the sharp near-anise of good basil. It was more Tuscan than tropical, but the tried and true flavors married well: The seasoning set off the central flavor, and it was a dish that seemed effortlessly thought-out instead of being food for thought as much as taste. The one non-marine dish we tried, a rack of lamb, was limp and disappointing, the meat barely stiffened by fire, the accompanying bleu-cheese potatoes pale-tasting, and the roasted tomato jus unnoticeable. We liked the banana split, served for two for dessert, the scoop trio of vanilla, chocolate, and rum-raisin ice cream all made in-house. But the fruit crisp was terrible, unless you wanted to rename it a fruit bog.
Clive & Stuart's Island Seafood, 2614 McKinney Ave., (214) 871-9119. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11:30-2 p.m., for dinner Monday- Wednesday 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m., Thursday-Saturday 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m.
Clive & Stuart's:
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Ginger-Beer Steamed Mussels with Mango "Streaker" and Giant Croutons $7.95
Griswald Seared Sea Scallop on Lobster-Goat Cheese Grits $8.95
Pecan-Crusted Shrimp with Creole Potato Salad and Orange-Voodoo Sauce $16.95
Herb Crusted Rack of Lamb with Scalloped Bleu Cheese Potatoes and Roasted Tomato Jus $23.95