Bubbling up gold

Maybe beauty is only skin deep, but it sure makes everything taste better. Yes, many Dallas venues serve food good enough to make your taste buds do a Rockettes line dance. But far too many of them are lodged in strip malls. These locations often suffuse me with this overwhelming feeling that the waiter will ask if I would like a replacement vacuum-cleaner belt with my sauteed foie gras on his next pass.

You won't get this feeling from Champagne and Gold Bar. This nouveau-French restaurant and champagne caviar bar is in the building that once housed the Titche-Goettinger department store, with its circa 1929 "Renaissance Florentine palazzo-style," as the press release relates. So it has genuine urban character with thick, ornate plaster pillars, high ceilings, and a classic feel.

Art deco detailing includes gold brocade booths and seat backs that reach upward at sharp angles, gold-toned walls with silver trim, and a flood of indirect illumination including angular sconces that rise out of the separators between booths, projecting light onto the walls. Barstools are placed at angles facing the same direction around the long, black granite bar, which sort of floats between a row of booths and the windows looking onto St. Paul Street. A thick glass, triangular back bar glows with silvery, indirect light, bottles stacked on each ascending level in geometric symmetry. It's slick surrealism at its best.

This eclectic ambiance almost bristles with potent, shadowy energy--a hauntingly provocative hint of gritty urban underbelly looming just below the carefully crafted sheen. This is the kind of setting that makes urban darkness so compelling: when it's hidden and unspoken rather than flaunted in an ain't-we-hip fashion.

Sure, this place is populated with a fair number of beautiful people. But if a dazed Lou Reed strolled up to the bar in a tattered flapper dress and ordered a cognac, it wouldn't seem so out of place here. Not like it would in a North Dallas mall mess hall.

Even if in reality this place doesn't shroud authentic dangerous citadel mysteries, it's easy to imagine it does. You could easily slip a scene in here from, say, L.A. Confidential and watch forked tongues rustle insidiously from expensive French bubbles and sturgeon roe.

Hell, why eat? Just sit and watch and imagine. Champagne is even outfitted for culinary voyeurism, with large windows on the corner of Main and St. Paul Streets exposing the kitchen to the slowly dissipating anemia that has infected Dallas' downtown street energy for years.

And the food is very nearly as compelling as this restaurant-bar combo's decor, though at nearly $50, the caviar sampler with chilled vodka was a disappointment. The plate was dotted with microscopic clumps of beluga, osetra, and sevruga caviar, while thick buckwheat blinis occupied the center. Though it seems a crime to muck caviar's elegant richness with accouterments (caviar is best when left to perform a cappella in tandem with champagne or chilled vodka and a good helping of unbridled lust), the plate also held little piles of finely diced red onion and sieved egg yolk and egg white. The three hearty, cold blinis seemed a bit too brawny for this assembly. Though capped with a dollop of cream, they were also girded with a mix of cream and shredded lettuce, which made the bottom pancake unpleasantly soggy by the time it was reached.

Plus, the caviar was served just a sliver below room temperature, which left the beluga, a soft roe to begin with, a bit too mushy. For optimum freshness, these caviars should be served in tiny cups imbedded in crushed ice. That, plus a little plate editing (a more delicate blini, perhaps) would make all the difference in the world for this signature item.

Pate maison, a plate of house-made pate with toast points, field greens, and mango-comice-pear chutney, fared far better. Made from rabbit, pork, venison, chicken livers, and roasted pistachios ground and left to marinate in red wine, cognac, and herbs for a few days, this coarse, chewy pate was lean and rich in hearty flavor. A few cornichons would have punched this plate up to top-tier appetizer status.

A dessert of strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries with whipped cream was refreshing with full-flavored berries that were ripe but firm and gushing with sweet juice.

Champagne's dinner offerings proved consistent, with surging moments of compelling allure. Baby spinach salad came arranged in a triangular configuration with blue cheese tortillas serving as the shape's points and a mound of spinach filling in the center. The smoky, sweet, viscous dressing--a blend of apple cider, eggs, olive oil, balsamic and red wine vinegar, pecans, and onions--was rich and lively, while oven-roasted plum tomatoes offered a concentrated sweetness polished with a zing on the finish. There are many effective flavor contrasts here. The only drawback is those tortillas (really more like quesadillas), which were served cold instead of warm, leaving them stiff and closed-up.

Dill and tequila house-cured gravlox in lemon-garlic beurre blanc sauce was perplexing at first. The salmon was coiled in strips over a red onion comfit (roasted with lemon, butter, and chicken stock) in pool of white sauce speckled with diced tomatoes. The plate was hot, as was the sauce. But the temperature of the salmon was disconcertingly inconsistent, with the lower layers smothered in heat while the upper layers moved from warm to cool. Was this dish the victim of a microwave?

Most likely not. As the fish is run through the sauce, the heat distributes evenly and opens up a range of flavors: the herbed, briny sea richness of the dilled fish, the savory lushness of the sauce with a subtle acid cut from lemon and diced tomato, the sweetness of the onion. Plus, a topping of fried leeks tied it off with an earthy nuttiness. There's a lot going on here, but a deftness effectively mutes the noise of its complexity.

Pan-roasted halibut on a bed of soba noodles soaked in saffron tomato broth was tender, mildly sweet, and framed well by the savory broth. Portions of the fish on the outer rim were overcooked and rubbery. But most of it was flaky and moist with a delicately thin crust. A few mussels burrowed amongst the soba threads were tender, chewy, and sweet with a nutty, sea-washed flavor.

Filet of beef Rossini, however, seemed to collapse under the weight of its own structure, resembling an unruly hamburger. Resting on a peppercorn brioche seasoned with rosemary, the filet was topped with a layer of grilled spinach and then crowned with a single crisp sauteed duck foie gras and leek ravioli. This clumsy high-rise waded in a puddle of truffled wine sauce. It made for an assembly that was immensely challenging to eat. Though appropriately rich, the ravioli had a hard, brittle exterior that shattered with each downward sweep of the fork. And the spongy brioche was as superfluous as it was annoying. The meat itself was moist, dense, and tender, while the grilled spinach added a slight pungency that successfully played off the richness of the beef. Shy on intense flavor (a good thing given the richness of the ingredients), the sauce was cool rather than warm, a detail that highlighted its relative blandness.

All in all, this creation is ripe with potential. Skip the brioche, slip the ravioli off to the side as a garnish, and you have a killer Rossini.

Champagne's cinnamon ice cream came on like a piece of spicy hard candy, only with more dimension. Speckled with cracked pepper, the sweetness was offset with a surge of pepper heat contrasting starkly with the cool cream. A dribbling of raspberry sauce added tang and silky smoothness. For all its simplicity, this is a remarkable dessert.

As one would expect, the Champagne/Gold Bar wine list is fairly decent, with a selection of red and white Burgundies (a Sancerre is inadvertently listed as a white Burgundy), Italian reds and whites, several Pinot Noirs (spelled "Nior" on the list), and a handful of other reds and whites in addition to a fairly broad selection of Chardonnays and Cabs.

Service is attentive and gracious, if a little clumsy. At one point, within the space of four minutes, two waiters and a manager stopped by the table to ask if everything was all right. All this inquisitiveness is swell, but at some point, it's good to use your mouth for eating instead of answering interrogators.

Champagne and Gold Bar are owned by Deep Ellum club owner Jeff Sinelli (Main Street Asylum) and Stephen Wylie, Tim Pfeiffer, and Executive Chef Bruno Mella (formerly of Daddy Jack's Wood Grill, New York's Helmsly Palace, and onetime resident chef on the Today Show). They also are partners in the Firehouse Restaurant and Bar and Billiard Bar. In time, this spot could be the fine-dining focal point downtown. Everything is in place. Just a little polish on the edges and a proofreader for the wine list is all it really needs.

Unfortunately, things are looking a little bumpy as of this writing. After just a few weeks (Gold Bar opened March 26; Champagne opened May 7), Champagne's owners opted to discontinue nightly dinner service and offer it only on weekends because of sluggish evening business. Instead, they intend to focus on weekday lunches to build clientele. A good selection of appetizers is still available evenings in the Gold Bar, which features live jazz Friday and Saturday evenings.

Nightly dinner service should resume by July, and here's hoping that comes to pass. Because if there's one thing Dallas can't afford to let slip away, it's a truly urban fine diner joined at the hip to a great bar.

Champagne/Gold Bar. 1900 Elm St., (214) 747-4653. Gold Bar open 7 days, 4 p.m.-2 a.m.; Champagne open for lunch Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and for dinner Thursday-Saturday 6 p.m.-12 a.m. $$$-$$$$


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