William Guthrie is a collector: books, utensils, antiques, family photographs. Much of his trove peppers his restaurant, Guthrie's. Guthrie says he has more than 1,500 hardback cookbooks, a collection of tomes that dates all the way to 1796 and one from which he pulls recipes. He also keeps old recipes clipped from this and that. His Caesar Cordini's (sic) salad with bacon and anchovy comes from an early-1960s issue of Reader's Digest, he says.
The Caesar is among the most spectacular culinary creations ever produced on North American soil if you don't count the twin Popsicle, which was invented in San Francisco by 11-year-old Frank Epperson in 1905 (it was code named the Epsicle). Heck, the Caesar salad was once voted "the greatest recipe to originate from the Americas in 50 years" by the International Society of Epicures in Paris, and you know how much the French love America. That's why the Caesar had to be invented in Mexico.
The salad gelled in the mind of Italian immigrant Caesar Cardini, who invented it in Tijuana in 1924 over the Fourth of July weekend. Cardini was running low on food, so he tossed together a salad of leftovers for his guests, preparing the hash tableside with lots of theatrics--even garbage is compelling with the appropriate choreography, as any contemporary art exhibit will show. The original recipe was a ragtag of romaine, garlic, croutons, Parmesan cheese, boiled eggs, olive oil and Worcestershire sauce. It was Caesar's brother Alex, an ace pilot in the Italian Air Force during World War I, who later added anchovies to the mix and named it "Aviator's Salad" in honor of the pilots from Rockwell Field Air Base in San Diego. Flyboys relish anchovies--who knew?
As it happened, shuttling down to Tijuana to nosh on a Caesar salad became fashionable because, well, you need something to do between Prohibition-era tequila sips. Stars schooled down like anchovies: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, W.C. Fields. Julia Child even made the trip with her parents. "It was such a big deal because people just didn't eat salads in those days, especially not in the East," says Child in a 1994 article on the Caesar salad published in the Wine Spectator. "Salads were considered foreign and sissy food."
Guthrie's Caesar Cordini's salad with bacon and anchovy is not sissy food. No way. It spills bold strokes, with just enough pulverized anchovy in the dressing to utter an articulate statement of pungency. The romaine leaves were clean and crisp and void of blemishes. And while croutons (regrettably) are Caesar staples, bacon is not, though it somehow pushed its salty snout into Reader's Digest (presumably). Dark, crisp bacon flakes were welcome, adding the concentrated rich and salty streaks the anchovy only hinted at, applied as it was in blips. This is risky, and it's easy to see how strewing a well-balanced Caesar with bacon could create mayhem, but an occasional lurch from Caesar orthodoxy can be thrilling, too.
Another stunning piece of artistry is the brook trout sautéed in rice paper served with sweet-hot vinaigrette. The rice paper is barely detectable, save for a slight tackiness on the surface of the fillet. The fish is well-seasoned and tender, perhaps leaning a bit too hard into mushiness. But the sweet-hot splash dispels any fears of pulpy drudgery, adding some searing spine to a plate boiling in an orange vinegar tint.
William Guthrie is a proud fellow with a considerable amount of pith and humor, no doubt forged in the cauldron of a 38-year professional kitchen confinement. He boasts that his family has been in the restaurant business for four generations, though it's hard to follow his genealogic tree branches. Aunts and grandmothers seem to figure prominently, though he concedes his mother could burn water, so maybe she was a physicist.
Guthrie has guts, too--this much is apparent to all but the addled and the glassy-eyed. Some six years ago he opened Guthrie's Historical American Food on South Ervay and struggled to keep it breathing for five years. "It was the worst environment in the world," he says. "I opened it up on my credit cards on a $30,000 budget. The lease ran out, 2.5 of the three [air conditioners] were down, every time someone flushed a tampon down the toilet I'd be up to my knees in shit. The bums were horrendous. So I was looking for something else." See what I mean by pith?
After he closed his historical American Food venue, Guthrie was enticed to more respectable downtown venues. Bank One approached him to do a restaurant in its bowels, which meant he would have had to raise unseemly amounts of loot. "The object was to chop a hole in the side of the building," he says. "Everybody was scared of downtown."
But a real estate broker pulled him to the Rooster space, a restaurant that was slowly spiraling into insolvency, plus it needed no holes punched into it. The space afforded him the opportunity to inhabit a handsome free-standing restaurant without the need for waders or even a cookbook auction. So he loosely transformed the Rooster space, mostly with quieter paint, new sconces, fresh carpeting and a cookbook library off to the side of the bar. He also had 12 Dallas artists dedicate chairs for the restaurant, painting scenes on the back fabric of a dozen. These were distributed among 12 tables in the dining room. And the paintings are nice: splashy and colorful, except you rather feel like you're eating pork schnitzel on a beach towel.
Which is unfortunate because this schnitzel is no day at the beach. Slathered in monotone egg gravy bumped with sautéed mushrooms, the pork is dry, while the battered coating is spongy and clings loosely to the meat like a damp muumuu. The schnitzel can be ordered with a shirred egg (cooked in a small dish and covered with cream and bread crumbs). Sunny-side up is what I said when they asked how I wanted it, the customary shirred egg condition. But it was delivered a dirty over-easy, cream- and crumb-less, ditched off the side of the schnitzel like some pickup wreck.
Fillet of Black Angus beef was superb texturally: silky and juicy with fibers that all but dissipated across the tongue like a torpedo pop on a sun-baked vinyl bucket seat. But the meat had an off livery taste, and the maître d' butter possessed metallic, almost petroleum undertones. The spread of scalloped potatoes looked like a ravaged fish fillet, the slices resembling stretched halibut flakes. Yet unlike fish segments, these potatoes were hard because of some serious undercooking; a waxy spread lacking a tangy edge or even a spark of seasoning.
If those potatoes resembled fish, the fish resembled potatoes, at least in their insipidness. Baked cod in lemon butter sauce was a strip of flavorless sponge rubber, albeit one in a rich, buttery sauce with a nice citrus bite. And this set of teeth is exactly what the cioppino desperately craved. Guthrie's version of this classic San Francisco seafood stew has tomatoes, white wine, garlic and a few black olive slices plus a load of shrimp, cod, tiny scallops and lobster pieces. The seafood is plump and sturdy--perhaps a bit overcooked, maybe a little soapy. But the broth was staggeringly tepid; stripped of all acidic or pungent bites. The garlic, tomato or white wine in this stew must have been soaking their dentures.
Weakness infected other spheres. Ordered with blue cheese dressing, the house salad, a fluff of frisee, red cabbage and other greens, was doused in a fluid that tasted like half 'n half thinned with tap water.
Guthrie says the menu is a combination of favorites from his defunct restaurant plus a few Rooster holdovers. These include Guthrie's all-you-can-eat fish fry and the amusing mostaccioli with vegetarian stuffed mushrooms. If nothing else, stuffing vegetarians into a mushroom is a compelling thought experiment. There is also veal sauté with mushrooms: a listless piece of veal dredged in flour and sautéed in butter, garlic and white wine. The meat is dry, the flavor remote and troubling, like a piece of freezer-burned turkey loaf.
We think we had a blueberry cobbler for dessert, but it was hard to tell. It was little more than a gluey froth streaked in milky blue creeping with those freezer-burn flavors; we shudder to think there could have been veal in it.
Guthrie says chef Tony Gardizi is poised to tear the menu to pieces and recast it within the next couple of weeks. Here's hoping Guthrie tosses in a little of the pith and vinegar he displays in conversation. It would taste better than the book.
3521 Oak Grove Road, 214-521-1234. Open 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday & Saturday. $$$
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