Bizú (which means little kiss in French) kissed off, and it's not hard to see why. Though the transformed McKinney Avenue space that was once the home of Sfuzzi and Coco Pazzo was sexy and smart in all its mirrored, votive-candled, organza-draped glory, the food was iffy, especially for the money. Even a Dallas big-hair blonde delivered in a Mercedes V-12 ragtop has a hard time chewing brunch eggs as stiff as her spritzed coif swirls, no matter how many mirrors are provided to help her spot bouffant spiders.
But Alberto Lombardi, ever the shrewd operator (he runs restaurants in Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix, Miami, and a soon-to-open spot in Las Vegas), saw that his little pucker was quickly turning into a sucker punch. Maybe it wasn't the food. Maybe the McKinney Avenue construction backhoes and brick piles that customers were forced to negotiate before reaching the valet stand made this little peck a potential culinary pothole. Yet let it never be said that Lombardi can't triple-lutz on a dime when market conditions demand it.
Which brings us Mangia e Bevi, which is Italian for "food and drink." Lombardi split the Bizú space, amputating the bar area from the main dining room. Bizú's former bar will open as Lombardi Pizzeria sometime in May.
But the part that went from kiss to nibble and nip has become much more casual. Bizú's mirrored canopy skylight has been replaced with a canopy skylight dressed in dark wood paneling. Magazine posters hang from the walls. Those thickly framed mirrors on the dining room's main wall have been scrawled with wax pencil graffiti -- a wine bottle and other stuff -- muzzling the delicious voyeur utility they once had. Chandelier shades with Vegas girlie-leg fringe are covered with Italian newspaper clippings. One corner wall is a collage of pages clipped from Italian magazines. Our waiter says this wall is a personal inspiration for him, one that provides unusual images to feed his college multimedia studies.
He also tells us he's a gazpacho aficionado. So we ask him to rate the stuff ladled at Mangia. "I haven't tasted it," he says. "Do you want me to run back to the kitchen and give it a taste?" We were amused by his accommodating audacity. "Of course," we say. He returns a few minutes later giving it a solid "B," adding that the best gazpacho he ever slurped was from some small grocery store in Wisconsin.
Whatever gazpacho insight that grocer provided, our server was right. Chilled gazpacho (Is there a warm specimen?) with avocado cream ($4) and brisk chunks of celery and scallion was clean, though it lacked a certain zingy richness that perhaps could have propelled it all the way to Wisconsin.
The waiter hadn't tasted the roasted quail legs ($6.50) either, and he didn't offer to go back to the kitchen to chew on one for us. We ordered a batch anyway. With garlic, shallots, and lemon, the plump, juicy legs were well seasoned and savory, a good set of thighs to pass around. A side of crisp pickled carrot, bell pepper, and cucumber was equally delicious. In fact, it seems that virtually every item on the menu came with this little bit of vegetation on the side.
On some dishes, they were the best things on the plate. Tuna tartar ($5.50), a small clump of shredded and graying fish flesh infested with scallion scraps and crowned with a trio of waffled potato chips, was served warm. The light soy vinaigrette wasn't powerful enough to rescue the sticky, flabby fish.
Same with the prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich ($10.95), a generous assembly of clean prosciutto sheets, lettuce, tomato, and slices of mozzarella tucked between focaccia slices specked with singed Parmesan. The sandwich leaked, perhaps from the tomato, or an overbearing application of roasted tomato rémoulade that rendered the tasty sandwich runny and soggy.
Equally off was the Prince Edward Island mussels ($5.50) sautéed in tomato-white wine broth. The chunky tomato and basil slather was brisk and flavorful, but it was pocked with mushy mussel tongues flush with off flavors.
Yet these examples were the only slippage. Virtually everything else was stellar. Funghi porcini risotto ($10.50) with white truffle oil and Parmesan cheese, is smoothly rich with large pieces of mushroom giving it a hearty, earthy flavor.
Grilled Chilean sea bass ($16.95), parked on an asparagus spinach salad with a brisk citrus dressing, was luscious. The firm, sweet hunk of flesh, with a wisp of crisp singed on the exterior, was succulent and well seasoned.
Pastas also deserve accolades. Garganelli, grooved pasta tubes ($9.50) with lamb sausage, wild mushroom ragu, and Parmesan cheese, was near perfect in its unalloyed orchestration. The pasta had just the right amount of give and the rich savory sauce was nudged out of indifference by the moist, sweet slices of sausage.
Even the angel hair pasta ($7.50), noodle strands that can be as difficult to pull off as a trip to a Dallas hot spot without hair gel, was perfectly firm and separate and well sauced with a fresh tomato and basil zest that lightly clung to the strands.
House-made cheesecake with berry fruit compote ($5.50) was moist, dense, and well-balanced with a thick crisp crust luxuriating in a puddle of rich raspberry and strawberry sauce.
Back when Bizú first opened, I questioned the viability of a restaurant so blatantly crafted to hook the fast moving see-and-be-seen crowd. Looks like that fickleness -- in tandem with road rubble -- didn't play well, necessitating a casual revamp that's sort of like a neighborhood Starbucks for Mediterranean snacks. Mangia e Bevi, with its hot and cold bocconcini (small mouthfuls), will be a surer bet in the face of the migration of urban professionals to Uptown noted in the Mangia e Bevi press release -- drifters who fork out top dollar for rent with smaller sums left over for things like crab fingers and tequila-cured salmon. Nevertheless, one wonders if the change will work, because when it comes to restaurants, the McKinney Avenue market rarely asks operators to pucker up. More often it tells them to bend over.
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