The really profound thing about 36 Degrees, longtime Dallas chef Chris Svalesen's newest venture, is the appropriateness of the name. Not simply that the name represents the optimal holding temperature for fish, but also that it perhaps describes the number of stages Svalesen's vision will pass through before it is actualized. Of course, there is always the possibility that 36, like Hearst Castle, will be a never-ending series of tangential ambitions stapled onto a core dream, a vision that will never be completed and ultimately will be turned into a state park, or maybe a branch of the Dallas Aquarium.
But this is pure speculation. It's hard to imagine anyone in the Dallas restaurant community more tenaciously welded to a personal dream than Svalesen. Yes, there are restaurant dreamers who will drip sweat, spill blood, outlast colitis and endure an endless serious of setbacks and heartbreaks that would drive the rest of us to a strict diet of martini olives. But how many of them would have the intestinal tubing to risk coming off as a desperate fool in the process? In a "glamorous" industry turbocharged with ego and the ever-present possibility of hitting the big time as one of the whisk-whipping glitterati on cable, not many.
But Svalesen perseveres like no one else, undeterred by slim funds, boarded-up windows, capricious potential partners and looming lease payments. Two years ago, when he didn't have the money to fully outfit a kitchen and furnish a dining room in his Lemmon Avenue space--a T.G.I. Friday's before it was the gauche and short-lived Venus Steak House & Supper Club--he opened The Net Result, a fresh fishmonger slipped into a tiny back corner of the space to generate cash. When his little seafood case couldn't slough off the necessary loot, he started serving lunch and jumped into the thick of the holiday catering frenzy, all in the entrails of the gutted Venus. He boarded up the windows with plywood and splashed a faux brick finish over them. He assembled tables and chairs on the patio. He converted the bus and service stations in front of the kitchen into dining nooks through the use of that billowing muslin, snaking Italian lights and purple draperies. He converted a closet into a vestibule complete with a guest book. Through this sleight of hand, Svalesen cobbled together a 62-seat-of-the-pants seafood restaurant done up in duds he once described as Cirque du Soleil gone wrong. On a tour through the dining room, at the time little more than concrete and wall guts, Svalesen enthusiastically pointed out the locations of the dramatic serpentine bar and the circular sushi bar that would be marks of distinction for 36 Degrees. But it was difficult to track with his vision. The room was pitch black, and Svalesen didn't know where the light switches were.
That was a few degrees ago. Now 36 is well into its incremental evolution.
The latest incarnation looks like a talk-show set that could easily accommodate Katie Couric if Katie Couric were Dean Martin. There is an angular bar with a piano off to the side. Just a third or so of the space is given over to dining. The rest of it seems devoted to the portal leading to the rest rooms, a kind of endless passage before the passage. It isn't clear what will become of the rest of the space, but Svalesen is talking about putting a nightclub somewhere behind a dining room wall that looks like it could be tumbled by a sneeze. The room is accented with blond woods, and the walls are washed in cheery muted yellows and greens. The concrete floor is stained to an aggressively blanched asparagus hue. This is not an ego trip. This is a vision getting dressed in public.
The food, like the room, is more promise than bold actualization. Yet the promise is tasty. Steak tartare was a puffy mound of taupe. Yet the flavor, nudged along with anchovy, caper, Dijon mustard and cognac, was full and pleasant. But it's hard to get aroused by raw beef that, drained of its rosy hues, resembles a Hushpuppy upper.
This sort of ennui afflicts the crab cakes as well. The problem with most crab cakes proffered in Dallas (and mostly everywhere else) is that they're too heavy on ingredients that never had to spend their lives scuttling sideways. Thirty-six's pan-seared crab cakes are no exception. Sure, the subtle bite from the tamarind chipotle glaze is engaging. Sure, the cakes are moist (leaning a bit into mushy, we'd say). But those traits would be even more welcome if the little patties burst with large lumps of clean, sweet crab instead of pulverized meat socked in a fog of filler.
This fishmonger can work wonders with vegetation. The warm frisée salad is a mark of distinction in a swath of delicious potential. Though it looks like a plastic fern, frisée is a swell candidate for a warm wash because it has the spine and resilience to keep from becoming limp. The spindly greens were given expanded presence by Gorgonzola, apple-smoked bacon and a hot and sweet Dijon vinaigrette with port balsamic glaze.
A request for tuna sushi resulted in a strange but weirdly successful ensemble: a mound of bright clean tuna tartare hemmed in by a long strip of tasty gravlax (cured raw salmon).
Nearly as weird but not at all successful was the corn-crusted pan-fried rainbow trout trounced by a Cajun buerre blanc. Though it was rich in buttery flavor, the fish was mushy and soggy, though the lump crabmeat topping was an effective distraction if you closed your eyes and tried to stab it without capturing any of the fish.
Grilled fillet of salmon was a remarkable formulation, an example of the highly creative light touch Svalesen is known for. The fish is marinated in a mixture of soy, ginger and chili. Despite this potent ensemble, the collision maintains a subtlety that respects the richness of the fish while it lends dimension. The surface was delicately brittle, and the flesh was slightly underdone, giving it a luxuriously satiny texture, though it still flaked prodigiously.
It's hard to imagine a more pleasant space for a quiet casual brunch. During the day, 36 Degrees is bright and crisp, yet it's hard to surpass the visual impact at night of the glowing cobalt blue bar top with the 36 Degrees logo engraved into it. Bright contemporary paintings hang from the walls. A harpist plays at the rear of the dining room. A pair of buffet tables is loaded with an assortment of salads, seafood, roasts and the necessary infrastructure for omelettes and waffles.
Bowls of ice are heaped with oysters (unappealingly warm) and crab legs (unappealingly spongy and watery). Pieces of raw tuna, spotted with wasabi pinpricks and garnished with slices of ginger and fluffy wasabi-stained tobiko (flying fish roe), were more faded pink than deep red. Yet the texture was silken and the flavors clean.
Slices of pork roast were juicy, tender and flavorful, while shavings of pink beef were high on flavor, if tough. The waffle was extraordinarily fluffy, with a hearty dense texture and full flavor, almost like a pound cake. Yet the omelette, packed with diced bell pepper, bacon, cheese, tomato, onion and mushroom, was flat, limp and greasy instead of fluffy and airy.
Brunch is also equipped with bottomless mimosas, a premixed flat and pale fluid that neither bubbled nor engaged.
As investors have been scarce, Svalesen says he finished the dining room in its current form with $140,000 of his own money. The next batch of incremental progress might enclose the patio, fill the dining room with banquettes, carpet the floor, splash a mural onto a wall and perhaps launch that aforementioned nightclub. "It's like piecing together a puzzle," Svalesen says. A puzzle assembled with scrounging, saving and bartering. It's hard to tell how much evolution Svalesen has left to go in his dream. It's all a matter of degrees, and he's got 36 of them.
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