When Voltaire opened in 1999, it was billed as one of the most expensive restaurants ever devised in the city of Dallas. Owner Scott Ginsburg never disclosed the total cost, but it most certainly ran into the several millions considering the chandelier by famed lighting designer Ingo Maurer valued at a rumored $500,000 and a 7-foot-wide glass display case with its own circulation and air filtration system. The case was originally crafted to display Ginsburg's vast collection of Chihuly glass sculptures, but those have been replaced by an arrangement of glass beads. The striking Maurer chandelier still dangles in the vestibule as a remnant of Ginsburg's original shekel orgy.
His original ambition was to create a destination restaurant of the caliber found in New York or San Francisco, one that would be an endpoint not only for Dallas' dining denizens, but to national and international gourmands as well. It successfully flirted with that goal, offering innovative and well-executed New American fare and a wine list that could choke a prehistoric lizard.
But Voltaire seemed to suffer from management and personnel miscues, as well as trouble with "that vision thing." Most of Ginsburg's founding team--Steel's Khanh Dao, general manager Kent Ingram, sommelier Daryl Beeson--were gone within a short time. Founding chef George Papadopoulos left in late summer 2001. And Ginsburg experimented in a few odd tangents, at one point acquiring a DJ and turning the bar into a quasi discothèque.
Ginsburg brought in chef Joseph Gutierriz to breathe some new life into the menu and dining room, but the move met with little success. As a result of lukewarm response coupled with bursting dot-com-Dow Jones bubbles, Ginsburg scrapped Voltaire. He decided after "extensive research on Dallas' food and dining trends" to transform his crown jewel into an Asian fusion establishment called Bamboo Bamboo.
And that's the problem with this restaurant featuring cuisine from "bamboo regions of the world." It feels like the distillation of self-conscious trend sniffing, glomming onto the result and reeling it in with a gaff hook.
It's evident in the décor, which retains much of the Voltaire ambience (a strikingly fitting canvas for a cutting-edge Asian restaurant) and simply stuffs it with Buddha heads, ferns and fat bamboo poles, the bar suspending them from the ceiling and tethering them together with gauzy swags. The sound system bleeds the clubby techno thuds that have evolved into an insufferable sonic cliché among the city's "ain't we hip?" bars and restaurants as of late.
Yet despite this, the food shows signs of ambitious innovation. Its presentation is inventive, but more so than not, it collapses under the weight of its contrivances. The lunch express menu features things like Cocotacos. These soft shrimp tacos are clumsy things, a pair of left feet in $800 Italian shoes. Instead of wheat or corn tortillas, they were bound in slinky little pancakes forced to cuddle whole tempura shrimp slathered in a delicious avocado salsa. This made for an impossible exercise as the brittle sharp edges of the tempura coating punched holes in the peewee pancakes, leaking luscious salsa.
Plum chicken was much easier to eat. Table settings include chopsticks bound with little utilitarian tags--the kind you might find lashed to the toe of a corpse at the county chiller--bearing the Bamboo Bamboo moniker. Forks are available upon request, but this dish was easy to eat with tweezers. Wok-seared thigh chunks are soaked in a spicy plum sauce, though the meat was a little dry.
Bamboo Bamboo's quick lunches come with a choice of soup or salad as an accompaniment. The salad is a simple pile of chopped iceberg lettuce doused in a citrus dressing, but the lettuce was wilted and severely browned at the edges.
Sushi was mostly fresh and clean with some delicious standouts, though it was for the most part warm instead of chilled, which can be very creepy if you're dextrous enough to think and chew at the same time. Octopus was tender. Smoked salmon and tuna were smooth and silky. Eel was savory. Yellow tail was nutty and satiny. But the calamari roll was the outstanding entrant. Tight rings of meat are gently coated and fried before they're swaddled in a roll and sliced. The slices were arranged on a plate and rings of fried calamari are dispersed over the plate--an exceptionally tasty presentation.
Presentation is perhaps why Bamboo Bamboo Executive Chef Gutierriz is amused with dry ice. On one visit, he delivered Mickey Mouse heads sculpted from orange peels with pieces of dry ice imbedded in their heads so that vapor spilled from the eye sockets and the mouth for the moppets at our table. The smoky Mickey noggin turned out to be a frightening experience for the tots.
But for the riper among us, the fume can be amusing, if a little cheesy. The volcano lobster martini arrives as a martini glass perched in a dish holding a puddle of magenta-colored water. Opposite the glass base in the dish is a rose carved from daikon radish. Dry ice rocks are planted in the water so that vapor plumes shroud the glass stem. It's like eating the stage antics from a '70s glam rock concert. The martini glass itself is draped with paper-thin sheets of mango and filled with a puddle of citrus dressing holding daikon sprouts, onion, crispy rice noodles, tomato slivers and juicy sweet nuggets of lobster. It's brisk and delicious, despite the fog.
Gutierriz is a gracious fellow. He strolls the dining room floor visiting with guests, asking them questions, making suggestions. His attentiveness generates smoking Mickey Mouse heads, for instance.
But sometimes you have to wonder if his time might be better spent in the kitchen. The menu describes the tamarind duck as a slow rotisserie bird in a "delicate" tamarind citrus sauce. It was anything but. The sauce was overbearingly sour, as though it had been attacked by a supercharged vinegar splash, throwing the whole flavor profile out of whack. And the duck was dry and ripe with old, worn-out flavors.
Red dragon steak is a thick mattress of rice draped with beans, upon which a thick fillet rests. It resembles an exotic spidery sandwich. The meat was tender but watery and virtually void of flavor. The "fiery sake passion fruit sauce" provided the only discernible tastes.
Thai salmon, a piece of fish thickly smeared with a Thai curry paste, was a spongy cakelike creation.
Charlie lemon chicken was an example of the simple and balanced flavor profiles you would hope would be prevalent across the menu. Juicy nuggets of thigh and breast meat are interspersed with sesame seeds, peppers, lemon peel slivers, carrot and scallions. The meat avoided the fattiness sometimes found in these orchestrations, and the tangy citrus edge enlivened the whole assembly.
House-made sorbets are refreshingly tasty. The apricot rendition was smooth and tangy, while the coconut, flush with a milky sweet flavor, was brittle, the little scoops fragmenting with the slightest spoon pressure.
Bamboo Bamboo service was so agonizingly accommodating and gracious that the service personnel seem to trip all over themselves executing requests. The result is a flurry of inefficiencies manifesting in delays and forgotten requests. Still, this is a refreshing change from the early days of Voltaire, when service was, more often than not, efficient but infected with insufferable haughtiness.
Still, one touch rings with ingenuity among the fusion contrivances. In the entrance portal is a huge bowl of red delicious apples: a refreshing, if filling, alternative to mints or toothpicks. It fills the space with an alluring fragrance--a cutting-edge bit of ambience from the Garden of Eden.
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