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Better Off Red

The paella will make you blush, even if Rouge service turns you red.
Karlisch

Joseph Gutierriz's inauguration into the kitchen was spiritual. And short. At age 5, he was shipped off to seminary where he learned to cook for monks. "In Spain, in Catholic families, when you have a son that is a priest, you have a safe gate to heaven," he says. In the United States we want our kids to be lawyers for the same reason. Even St. Peter could be forced into a settlement if the briefs were crafty enough.

But God gave way to résumé padding, and after Gutierriz retired from monk feeding at the age of 14, he did a training stint at La Gastronome in the Basque region of France and Spain and filled chef slots at the Arizona Biltmore L'Orangie, the Princess Resort in Arizona and the Ritz-Carlton in Spain. He also cooked at the Spanish Embassy and owned restaurants in Los Angeles, Santa Fe, France and Spain. Now he owns one in Dallas.

Gutierriz came to Dallas after he was tapped to replace George Papadopoulos, the talented if somewhat mercurial chef who left media mogul Scott Ginsburg's über-glitzy Voltaire. Gutierriz parachuted in and attempted to negotiate his way among the Voltaire witticisms ("Common sense is not so common") and breakable art pieces to keep the air pressure up in Ginsburg's vision.

It didn't float. So last fall pithy Voltaire quotes surrendered to the casual, cutting-edge Asian restaurant Bamboo Bamboo. That also didn't float. So Ginsburg jettisoned Gutierriz and brought in Tristan Simon's Consilient Restaurants company to forge a turnaround. Still, it listed, even with all those fat, float-worthy bamboo stalks in the bar.

In the meantime, Gutierriz flitted around the city in an effort to forge his own restaurant. But he was worried his reputation, sullied by his attempts at Voltaire and his failure to build a suitable Bamboo raft, would forever be a black mark on his Dallas culinary character.

So he decided to brand it with a scarlet one instead. Rouge is a restaurant of pure Spanish pedigree, in all of its seafood-heavy, tapas-centric, rice-stapled rusticity. The latter is a perfect example of Rouge's competency: The rice in every dish is supple and separate and perfect--simmered in the pot, finished in the oven. A restaurant that gets rice this right this consistently is bound to dazzle once its attention is turned to something peculiar, like anchovies.

Six strips of pure creamy silk. Six oblong slivers of fish with slits slashed across the middle lie flat in dribbles of olive oil pestered with raw garlic and parsley. This follows a 24-hour cure in white vinegar. Lime can render raw fish digestible in ceviche, but it takes the firepower of vinegar to allow it to slip across the back of the throat like a swatch of fine fabric.

There's gazpacho, too, though Gutierriz admits his chilly tomato soup with roots sunk deep in the Andalusia region of Southern Spain suffers in the land of Mercedes key rings and full-frontal uplifts. He sometimes spends two hours, he says, hunting for tomatoes that don't smell clinical. Still, his cold slurry is compelling, rich in pepper, onion, vinegar and salt.

Gutierriz laments how difficult it is to beat flavor out of a gulf shrimp. He yearns for the lusty flavors of shrimp from Galicia in northwestern Spain. "In Spain, if you would do a simple grilled shrimp with nothing on it, it would taste like heaven," he says. "Here, you pick up a shrimp, you have to do something with it, or it would taste like nothing."

This is apparent in the gambas al ajillo: three small gulf shrimp in a small bowl soaking in a brilliantly aromatic broth of white wine, olive oil, peppers and lemon. The sensual introduction is a disappointment because, while the shrimp are firm and juicy, they're limp on the tongue.

Shrimp inhibit the paella, too, but that's the extent of its problems, if there are any. Here Gutierriz brags: "A masterpiece of saffron rice with clams, mussels, shrimp, chicken, txistorra [a Basque sausage seasoned with garlic and red pepper], peppers, onions, tomatoes and peas." The rice is perfect. The seafood (shrimp excepted), sublime. The chicken is juicy. Txistorra is a drill bit of intensity, boring through the sweet seafood succulence with its dry, salty, extracted meat sharpness to make its unexpected mark on the tongue.

Rouge is pure camp--leftover camp from when the place was Buddha Bar and then Bali Bar. The textured ceiling is dried-blood scarlet. The walls are gold. Bathroom stalls are paneled in reflective metal, providing unique vantage points for self-assessment. Gutierriz says he plans to convert the bar into a tapas bar with refrigerated display cases. Now it's barren, with no liquor bottles to give the stacked glassware tincture (problems with the previous owners threw unexpected roadblocks in his liquor license process, he says). Opposite the bar he envisions a small stage for flamenco shows.

"It's going to evolve. It's just a baby," he says.

Here's hoping that evolution includes diligent server training, because service now is a train wreck. A runaway parade of tapas plates arrives among stacks of soiled dishes and flatware, driving elbows from precious table real estate. When dirty dishes are finally cleared, forks go with them, sparking a furious flatware hunt across nearby table settings. It took 30 minutes and three requests to get the check.

But that was after we sampled the saffron egg-battered artichoke (fried in olive oil), with delicate leaves that nearly dissolve with a single touch of the tongue. A brisk romesco--blended with tomatoes, garlic, onions, olive oil and burnt eggplant--rests in a ramekin near a pinch of greens blemished with glistening white dots of dressing.

Low points--if they can be called that--included the classic tortilla te papas, or Spanish potato pie, which was as bland as gulf shrimp. Beer-battered monkfish was spongy without much of that simulated sweet shellfish flavor for which it is famous.

But these mild derailings quickly channeled into culinary sublimity. Pasta de formatge maxengo, a little dish splattered with a small blot of house-made manchego cheese-stuffed tortellini in racy rich manchego cheese cream sauce sown with dried tomato slices and strips of greenery, was satiny smooth.

Crab bits are hidden in the core of the crab and eggplant lasagna, a fascinating layering of buttery eggplant strips, manchego cheese and cream sauce, tomato sauces and sliced grape tomatoes. Crab sweetness and the eggplant earthiness were localized and not symmetrically suffused, leaving their subtle contrasts to work by chance, depending on how the fork pulled on the edges.

Rabbit is a work of stupid genius; stupid because it has a hellish cast of ingredients--rice, potato, bay leaf, rabbit, mustard--that has no business being served in the sultry portals of summer, and genius because it tastes so damn good. Pieces of deboned, succulent leg meat the size of baseballs stud a rice fluff with stains of jaundice from a blend of tomato and pepper sauces pummeled with mustard. A rich, almost buttery (but there's none in it) broth makes the rice feel like comfort food without the rib-glue residue.

But nothing explains the crème brûlée, except maybe a brush with God. Served in a simple sauce dish, the custard is cool, smooth and rich while the sugar crust is warm, thin and brittle with a sliver of bitterness from the scorching--one of the very few crème brûlées we've ever had that was addictive.

5027 W. Lovers Lane, 214-350-6600. Open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday 5 p.m-11 p.m. $$-$$$.


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