It's probably unfair to show up in winter at a restaurant that touts its fresh, seasonal cuisine.
Diners who rushed to eat at Brownstone when it opened last summer were feted with Mother Nature's version of a ticker-tape parade: The kitchen all but pelted them with kernels of Silver Queen corn, thick slices of heirloom tomatoes and fistfuls of field peas.
The welcome's not so wildly exuberant in the depths of winter, when an honest restaurant has to make do with what's in the root cellar. If you listen closely, you can almost hear the cooks chattering over the howling, bitter winds: "Well, we've got these potatoes. And some parsnips. Do you think we can do something different with these carrots? We've definitely got potatoes."
840 Currie St., Fort Worth, 817-332-1555, www.brownstonerestaurants.com. Open 5 p.m.-10 p.m Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-12 midnight Friday, 5 p.m.-midnight Saturday and 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. $$$
Squash �casserole� spread $11 Smoked beet hummus $9 Texas BBQ pork ribs $13 Fried Brussels sprouts $7 House salad $7 Roasted green beans $12 Sea scallops $24 Rock shrimp pasta $17 Chicken stuffed chicken $22 Flat-iron steak $22 Fried apple pie $7
What's so impressive about Brownstone is that it has managed to transcend the exigencies of the calendar, producing exceptional vegetable plates at times when the air's so nippy that the swanky Fort Worth restaurant's glass-fronted street-side kitchen is perpetually fogged over. Under the guidance of executive chef Casey Thompson, a two-time Top Chef contender, Brownstone's kitchen has done things with beets and Brussels sprouts that could make a beach volleyball player long for winter.
Brownstone isn't tripped up by harvesting schedules. The seasonal shift that seems to be giving the restaurant considerably more trouble is the end of buzz season, which apparently expired some time around the holidays. After a mere six months, the gloss has worn off Brownstone, and nobody's as blue about it as the service staff, which has responded with unrepentant slothfulness. The dining room exudes rutabaga energy.
"It's going to be slow," a hostess warned when a member of my party called to find out whether we'd need reservations for a Friday night table.
She was right. Just as when we'd dined there on a school night, the number of servers appeared to outnumber seated tables. Still, service was excruciatingly slow and inattentive. When our entrées arrived, more than an hour after we'd placed our orders, I asked the woman who brought them whether I could have a glass of wine, as my glass had been sitting empty and unnoticed since the first course.
"You could ask your server," she scolded me.
On both my visits, there were signs such indolence was creeping into the back-of-the-house too. Salt-ridden seared sea scallops were frigid in the center, an achingly dry roasted chicken had rubbery skin and a housemade pappardelle pasta was badly overcooked.
Such mistakes are especially frustrating when a restaurant's so clearly capable. If Brownstone had shoulders, I'd shake them. Had the food and service been just slightly sharper, those 36 miles between Dallas and Fort Worth would vanish in a poof of fried Brussels sprout reverie. As it stands, I can't think back on Brownstone without involuntarily ticking off a list of restaurants closer to home that would deliver a more satisfying dining experience.
But none of those restaurants would serve Brownstone's Brussels sprouts, which I'm only sorry I didn't discover before the first of January, as the dish would have been a cinch for my "best bites of 2010" list. And while I'm 1,032 meals away from the end of 2011, I'm guessing its spot on this year's edition of the list is pretty secure.
Frying Brussels sprouts sounds like a gimmicky way of making a maligned vegetable palatable, but there's nothing cynical about the pristine fry encasing each marble-sized sprout. The coating's so sheer it's barely visible when the restaurant lowers its lights, but it beautifully contains the vegetable's essential greenness. The sprouts clatter with flavor: They're gently sweet and nutty and tremendous fun to eat.
While Brownstone's entrée selection is plodding and predictable, its first-course menu is suffused with creativity and verve. Every preparation sounds appealing on the page, and most of them work on the plate. There's a popular squash "casserole" spread, and the kitchen's not being the least bit promiscuous with the ironic quotation marks. Put aside any expectations about eggs and diced yellow squash: The squash here is cooked all the way down and mixed with scads of cream and cheese for a locavore riff on spinach-artichoke dip.
Local food is one of the many concepts at play at Brownstone, which supposedly serves Southern cuisine, but takes its name from the iconic row houses found almost exclusively north of the Mason-Dixon. The sleek dining room sounds urban notes, while the menu revels in rural traditions that can feel forced. There's a soulless fried apple pie, prim as a schoolmarm, available for dessert, and sausage biscuits plated in a cast-iron skillet are sold as "Grandmother's Biscuit Pan"—never mind that matriarchs aren't known as "Grandmother" anywhere outside New England.
Brownstone doesn't need the South as an organizing principle, especially when it's found such a successful central theme in vegetables. I wasn't overly fond of a roasted green bean salad, featuring a dollop of bland, grainy ricotta, but a simple house salad of deep-hued winter greens, evenly dressed and garnished with warm cornbread croutons, was lovely.
Smartly, Thompson, a veteran of Shinsei, hasn't been too rigid in her Southern cooking. There's housemade chorizo in the stinging adobo-ish sauce that adorns a rock shrimp pasta, and Asian flavors surface where they probably wouldn't if Thompson were the type to wave the stars and bars.
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There's a pan-Asian spark to the vinegary sauce slathered on a pork rib appetizer, paired with a modestly sugary piccalilli. I only wish the well-balanced sauce was applied to something other than a failed attempt to reproduce barbecue without the proper equipment: Our server told us the pork was smoked for an hour in a countertop smoker and then finished in the oven, which would account for the ribs' chewy texture and flat flavor.
An Asian aesthetic prevails on a superb plate of beet hummus, framed by an array of radicchio, carrots and baby turnips that could front a Beatrix Potter book. There are wedges of toasted pumpernickel for swiping through the rich, smoky dip, but bread feels like an intrusion upon the perfectly composed produce wonderland. The hummus, whipped to a yogurt-like consistency, takes its cues from farther west than most hummus makers look for inspiration: The piquant spicing resounds with North African references.
Less exotic vegetable dishes fare almost as well. While the starring protein on every entrée plate I tried disappointed, the sides were fairly stellar—especially when they weren't buried in fat.
A bacon-cheddar-chive polenta tasted too much like the innards of brewpub potato skins, but lightly cheesed grits were very agreeable. And I'd probably nab a second helping of the creamed kale served with a flat-iron steak if somebody brought it to Thanksgiving dinner, though I'd be happier if he'd brought Brownstone's plain uncreamed kale instead. Fresh, local and seasonal—just like the slogan says—the snappy kale speaks to all that's right with this restaurant, no matter what the month.