Born to Run
Not long ago, an article in The Wall Street Journal pronounced the era of dressing down for work dead. Uptight-and-starched was slowly creeping its way back into boardrooms and cubicles, the article assured. And it had evidence: A large custom shirtmaker noted a 12 percent uptick in white-shirt orders; a survey conducted by a law firm found that responding employers associated casual dress with an unhealthy surge in absenteeism and "flirtatious behavior." More important, the article pointed out that the Society for Human Resources Management noted for the first time in a decade a decline in the number of companies indulging in casual work costumes.
Reasons vary. First, most executives never liked the casual trend much, but they were at the mercy of a tight labor market and a bevy of bumptious dot-comers who generally came to work dressed in jeans and bed heads. Now that the labor market is loose, and the dot-comers are dot-goners, bosses can impose stiff dress codes. Why do lots of executives hate dressing down in the first place? Apparently, many of them just couldn't do it. It's a lot harder to get sweaters, shirts, Dockers, socks, shoes and belts all singing from the same page than it is to match a tie with a white shirt. (Note: We've largely bypassed this problem at the Dallas Observer, as the dress code simply states that shoes shouldn't clash with bathrobes.)
But the main reason business types are praising the return of the monkey suit is many of them believe people who look sloppy work sloppy. Ferré, the recently opened Tuscan restaurant in the new West Village complex, provides an interesting case study in this principal. Ferré is an impeccably dressed restaurant. Its interior décor is the equivalent of razor-sharp smart casual, the kind that might give off oohs and ahs among the fashionably astute. In fact, virtually every Ferré visual thrust bears this quality. The logotype is an olive branch bathed in warm brushes of pale orange displayed in an emblem that is both curved and angular, symbolizing a casual air tempered by discipline.
The interior seems to mimic these visual cues. It is a well-organized set of shapes and colors. The chandeliers flood amber light through a series of rings, sort of like lamp shades within lamp shades. Banquettes are upholstered in fabric that is a checkerboard pattern that looks sort of like Christmas wrapping paper. Woods ebb and flow throughout. But this fuzzy warmth is tempered with cold contemporary gusts such as the back bar, a cubist flourish composed of blurred glass and metal.
But my God, what, in the midst of this brilliantly spun web of visuals, inspired the masterminds of Ferré to employ those server uniforms? The dull slate-gray hue doesn't match or effectively contrast any other visual element in this Dallas Tuscan carnival. They look like barbers' smocks or bad bowling shirts. Disheveled edges of T-shirts creep over uniform collars and ease out of uniform sleeves. It almost feels like Tuscan cuisine served by an army of Homer Simpsons.
And not to lend credence to that tired business cliché, but people who dress sloppy...
Not that the service was slovenly. It was just a few fasteners shy of buttoned-down. Facility with the menu was spotty, and with the wine list almost nonexistent. Water glasses were never refilled, and wine was never poured save for the little ritual splash that follows cork removal. And once the entrées were delivered, we never saw our server again (in a dining room that was sparsely populated) save for the time I flagged him down to check out the desserts.
Yet the great thing about this blemish is that it is a simple (though not easy) problem to remedy. The other great thing is that this is virtually the only element Ferré needs to remedy, because the kitchen performs like a custom tailored suit--at fuzzy George Zimmer prices.
Take the roasted portobello mushroom with Dungeness crab and mascarpone cheese for example. Triangles of crisp flat bread are fanned from one end of a fat lumpy bead of lush crab plowed into a milky, basil-flecked coat of cheese. Thick sheets of mushroom rest at the other end, sweating their earthiness as prodigiously as the crab flaunts its briny sweetness.
Mista, greens and grilled tomatoes pebbled with pine nuts in a balsamic (what else?) vinaigrette, was refreshing, cool and very well-dressed. At the other end of thermal gradient is the cappuccino pomodoro, a bowl of zesty Roma tomato soup with a crispy cheese fritter balanced on the rim.
One dish that could disappear from menus by the dozen and never jerk a single tear from my ducts is the ubiquitous "calamari fritti." Too many renditions feature bland coatings that are little more than lipid transport systems, and most kitchens seem too timid to include tentacles. This is astounding foolishness. It presents a sacrilege tantamount to serving fried chicken without drumsticks. Despite the inclusion of a brisk lemon aioli and a deft spicy marinara, the Ferré calamari was a bore: tender supple body rings dragged down by a chalky, waxy fry coat that didn't cling well.
But that was the one and only divot. Everything else brushed the stratosphere, especially the gnocchi e gamberi. Perfect little dumplings bubble from a greenish sauce that was fearlessly salty, maybe to help the succulent pieces of rock shrimp and crab assimilate.
Almost every dish offered little surprises. The thing that was so striking about the fettuccini de limone was that the parts nearly equaled their sum. The gentle flaps of gold house-made fettuccini in a tangy lemon sauce could certainly perform alone as a separate course in any Tuscan meal. And the buttery diver scallops singed into crustiness could easily do an appetizer stint. Together, they illustrate how dazzling well-executed simplicity can be.
Even a simple hunk of Atlantic salmon tattooed with crisscross grill marks bellowed an aria of rustic sophistication. The moist, tender meat flaked easily, and a light basil citrus sauce nudged its richness aloft.
Though the pollo e caprino pizza was badly charred around the edges, it didn't diminish it with untoward bitterness. Roasted chicken scraps were juicy. Goat cheese chunks were creamy. Caramelized onions were sweet and sharp, and they were speckled with both yellow pear tomatoes and red grape tomatoes.
Everything was finished off with a lemon tart girded with an aggressively thick pistachio crust. It was both smooth and crisp, though I would have welcomed a more intense lemon flavor. Yet spark was provided by an intense puddle of strawberry sauce. One need only drag a forkful of tart through it.
Ferré is the brainchild of former Sfuzzi founder Patrick Colombo, a hotel and restaurant exec who also had a founding hand in Nick & Sam's steaks and seafood with Phil Romano. He says the name Ferré means "to give birth" in Italian. "Our thought process was to give birth to a new restaurant that embraces the simple lifestyles of the Italian culture," Colombo says. "My goal is to do all of that and keep the price points very approachable." This, Ferré does. (Colombo will also open the wine bar Cru next to Ferré on December 14.)
To manhandle Ferré's open kitchen, Colombo has enlisted former Salve! executive chef Kevin Ascolese and former Salve! pastry chef David Brawley. Ascolese was brought on after Colombo's original chef, Sardinia native Nicola Chessa, didn't pan out.
With a solid platform of great food and reasonable prices, if Colombo can successfully tighten the service crew a little, while adding a little testosterone to the wine program, he'll give the Dallas restaurant scene a good swift Tuscan kick.
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