MapQuest can't digest Southlake Town Square. Punch in one of its Plaza Place addresses, and it strings you across the Mid-Cities, threads you through Fort Worth and dead-ends you in a residential area near a place called Lake Worth. Or at least it did on my first aborted visit to Brio Tuscan Grille. "Yeah, that happens," says a Brio manager on the other end of the phone. "The streets are too new." He gave directions the old-fashioned way, and I scrawled them on the back of the MapQuest map, no doubt generated from a bank of Intel-powered servers somewhere in Bangalore.
Maybe Southlake Town Square was generated in Bangalore too, outsourcing being as American as apple pie and corporate-christened ballparks. Sure, it has an old-fashioned feel with thoroughfares named Main Street, Central Avenue and Parkridge Boulevard. And sure, it has brownstones, a town hall and a fountain. "In the 1800s, horses and wagons clipped along dirt roads taking people to the town square to buy goods, conduct their business, and see other people," reads the Town Square copy on the Internet. "Southlake Town Square...still that place."
Albeit without the dirt roads and the horse heaps. Now there are paved roads and Chevy Tahoes spewing inconvenient truths. Dry goods can be had at Barnes & Noble, Ann Taylor Loft, White House/Black Market and American Eagle Outfitters. Food can be had at Cheesecake Factory, Pei Wei, Rockfish, Snuffer's and Taco Diner. A Truluck's Seafood, Steak & Crab House is in the rebar stage, poised to open sometime in October.
At Brio Tuscan Grille, the wait is two and a half hours. The crowd is thick and loud and mills relentlessly. Even the outdoor bar, with its dank air scented with cigarette plumes, is a series of people clots occasionally broken by servers moving to and from the bar. Round vibrating red LED pagers are shuffled and stationed like coasters on bar tables and bar tops.
The Brio dining room is a handsome collection of interior details including hardwood cypress flooring, arched colonnades, handcrafted Italian mosaics, antique doors, walls covered in antique Venetian plaster, Carrera marble imported from Italy and sizable wrought-iron chandeliers.
But such details are irrelevant. Bellying up to the bar presumably made from Carrera marble imported from Italy is often the only option. Bartenders whip a frenetic pace pouring fluids, jostling shakers, swiping credit cards and punching touch screens.
"Please don't break," the bartender pleads as a frosted beer glass tumbles off the bar. It slams into a rack and bounces off of a patch of padded carpet in front of the server station, coming to rest at my feet, fully intact.
I order a Primitivo. The bartender says it's his favorite wine of the by-the-glass short list, and he spreads a large white napkin in front of me and drops off a napkin-bound set of flatware.
Mussels arrive in a bowl, black shells ajar and flecked with herbs. Four thick toasted bread wedges--Tuscan crisps--are jammed into the heap. The wedges are uninteresting themselves, but they're effective when pushed to the bottom of the bowl to wick the thick white wine-lemon cream sauce pooled there. Mussels are mostly fine: tight, juicy and heavy with marine musk. Strewn with bacon crumbles, some of them come off like smoked oysters. Yet a couple of them possess an off flavor, the kind that tastes like old phlegm folded into a scoop of whipped White Rock Lake bed.
The Brio chopped salad was ordered to counter the effect. Heaps of chopped greens with tomatoes, olives, onions, cucumber and feta cheese are doused in red wine vinaigrette. Yet it appeared to be slathered in a cream dressing, no doubt due to the feta milking into the vinaigrette. Leaves are crisp, though.
"What a night," says the bartender, wiping his forehead. "Everyone and their mother is coming up here and telling me what to do." He salts the rim of a wine glass and splashes the bowl with tequila. "Our computers crashed."
I didn't have to remind him I had ordered the shrimp risotto with seared red peppers, lobster butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. He knew it. He knew I had long ago emptied the mussel bowl and dredged the last strip of chopped lettuce through the feta-creamed vinaigrette. A Chianti was comped with apologies. A manager trudged over and offered me a bowl of lobster bisque with shrimp and toasted leafy herbs in the center.
The risotto finally does arrive: coarse rice with shrimp in a thick butter slurry. Flavors are muscular, but the sauce is little more than a shimmering oil slick. Yet here's the odd part: After all of the lapsed service acknowledgments and pledged comps, I was charged $5.95 for the bisque, even though I didn't order it. I was also charged $13.95 for the risotto, though the total was depleted a bit by a $13 deduction. Must be those Bangalore servers again.
The spawn of Bravo! Development Inc., Brio makes its corporate bed in Columbus, Ohio, and there are some 18 of the restaurants spread about from Texas to St. Louis to Orlando. It's corporate Tuscan cuisine after a thorough legal review, and it's mostly unflawed and unremarkable. Servings are massive, edges are blunted, warnings are posted (Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish or eggs may increase your risk of food-borne illness, reads a menu warning.)
We order wine on a second visit--splashes of Estancia pinot noir and more Primitivo and are struck by the bouquet...fish. Were these glasses cross-referenced with a mussel bowl in the dishwasher? The fishiness was stronger than the berry fume.
It was stronger than the fish in the grouper special too. Three pieces of grouper, bandaged tightly in bacon, are posted vertically on the plate like Easter Island sculptures amongst smears of citrus sauce and mashed potatoes. The fish is dry, spongy and bland, with no discernible flavors; even the bacon is dry and tasteless.
Tomato caprese is ham-fisted, completely devoid of elegance. Though juicy, the tomato slices are huge and rough-hewn, dusted with basil and covered with crudely cleaved pieces of mozzarella near a sheaf of greens.
Carpaccio is a self-contained buffet table, a massive platter tiled with blood-red doilies laced in fat. The meat is red and cool and occasionally pebbled with capers. There's a little Parmigiano-Reggiano and a little mustard aioli too. The meat isn't gossamer-thin or even tender; it's chewy and sinuous, though cool and rich. Brio beef doesn't improve much when cooked. Sliced prime rib eye steak posted on a bed of spinach and lathered in a yellowish creamy horseradish sauce is charred and crisp around the edges but tough and chewy when you course into the rosy red. Plus, it races with a bloody sharp metallic flavor instead of smooth beefy richness.
But you can finish off with a dessert tower containing ascending levels of cheesecake, crème brûlée and molten chocolate lava cake. Seems comforting that a meal of corporate cuisine in a meticulously planned Town Square should finish with a high-rise. 1431 Plaza Place in Southlake Town Square. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
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