Bolla is Italian for bull. Bolla is headed by Bull—chef David Bull, fresh from the Driskill Hotel in Austin, youngest sous chef ever to whip and sauté at The Mansion, James Beard Award nominee, CIA grad, Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef (2003), Iron Chef gladiator. At Bolla, Bull cooks "modern Italian cuisine." Bull's food is compelling, yet his culinary message often gets lost in translation. Even the name gets lost. Bolla doesn't cleanly translate into "bull." Bolla means blister or bubble. There's no bull in bolla unless you stretch it to bolla papale—papal bull, a charter issued by the pope. No bull.
Bolla is the new dining space in the Stoneleigh Hotel & Spa, spawned from the hotel's $36 million rehabilitation into 21st-century hotel luxury. When The Stoneleigh opened in 1923 it was the tallest hotel west of the Mississippi. That achievement cost more than $1 million. Spa and bull don't come cheap.
The Stoneleigh is no stranger to culinary bull. There was Sushi at the Stoneleigh, a fine raw fish space left to wither under the force of neglect. It was home to the Euro-mannered Ewald's and eventually hosted the regrettable Spanish tapas spectacle Seville.
Roasted beet salad $12
Tomato/mozzarella salad $12
Tuna carpaccio $16
Beef tartare $16
Tomato basil soup $18
Skate wing $32
Beef tenderloin $36
Now The Stoneleigh has joined Dallas' flood of luxury/boutique hotels, where edgy sumptuousness is the mother's milk of lodging. The brood is well-coifed and rampant: the W, The Joule, The Ritz, the refurbished Mansion, the upcoming Mandarin. Each must possess a bejeweled culinary anchor with star power to command the frontlines of this bed and meat-cleaver brawl.
Yet Bolla enters the fight with a whisper. It has none of the serpentine dining room roar of a Fearing's or the dazzlingly abbreviated atmospheric tremolo of a Charlie Palmer's or the imposing yet subtle elegance of a Craft or The Mansion. Bolla is a linear span of muted dining modules, sectioned by wispy sheers, lighted with fashion-conscious chandeliers dangling from above. Muted greens. Shimmering creams. Blond wood trim. Dark tables so wide that comfortable conversation with the person across becomes an irritant. The single piece of atmospheric extravagance is a massive art piece in the private dining foyer; the word THE in swirling smears of red and black, allegedly poached from the Stoneleigh's rooftop sign.
This stylish neutrality is the perfect backdrop for Bull's deconstructions and incongruities, some sublime, others baffling. An example of the former is Bull's roasted beet salad, a white plate hosting a disjointed Stonehenge of beets and accoutrements. Silos of blood-black and golden beet topped with tongues of Camembert cheese, next to rectangles of beet near dunes of sea salt. Slug-like dabs of oil suspending pulverized basil, chive, parsley and garlic hug the plate edges, tufts of amaretto crème fraîche here and there—a tightly choreographed explosion. It frames some of the most intensely flavored beets you'll ever taste. They're roasted skin on, 250 degrees, until tender. They're carved and lightly sautéed in garlic, thyme, butter and salt. They detonate in an extracted punch.
Bull says his goal is to create smart food, food that's sense-driven and sensible.
"When you eat one of my dishes I hope you completely understand the components, textural contrasts, the flavor profile, temperature contrasts," he says. "The last thing I want is for you to be like 'what is that? I have no idea what that is.'"
He achieves this level of sense with the heirloom tomato and mozzarella salad with basil seeds. He punts the typical flat composition and simply tosses the ingredients into a bowl: globules of velvety cheese tumbled over meaty, robust tomato. Bolla's Italian lineage is loose. Modern form trumps traditional function.
Beef tartare is dismantled over a long rectangular dish. A mound of tartare is in the center, with wings of tiny asparagus tip slices alternating with dots of aioli bedding a single fried caper off to the side. These wings must be gathered into this mound to savor the contrasts and textural variants.
Bull's culinary demolitions—albeit administered with a Rembrandt eye—appear repeatedly. Tuna carpaccio is whisper-thin sheets of pink offset by tartare-like folds aft with sprouts and citrus confit. Sometimes it's the execution that seems demolished. Roasted carrot and sunchoke risotto with manchego cheese, one of Bolla's daily inspirations, was possessed of grains that were hard and chalky and gritty and cold, lacking risotto's elegance.
Bolla's menu is divided into three-course episodes, salads, tartares and carpaccios giving way to soups and other appetizers surrendering to entrees—the beefs and lambs and birds and fishes.
Tomato basil soup buoys lobster tortellini, crispy and rich, with fontina cheese and garlic toast. The broth is muscular, almost overbearing in its lobster intensity, overwhelming the tomato and basil, almost relegating them to mere fringe elements.
But then there is the skate wing, which, though it is possessed by mushy "crisped" asparagus and a tomato risotto haunted by some of the same flaws in the daily inspiration, is perhaps the most riveting dish on the menu. Resting in a pool of Parmesan broth, the skate is pure, sweet, mild elegance that almost liquefies in the mouth. Its flavors are propelled and articulated by the broth, a cogent brew fortified by a collusion of Parmesan rinds and aromatic vegetables before the fluid is clarified—a remarkable meshing of flavors.
Bull's expressed sense seems to depart with the pork belly diavolo, a deconstruction gone weird. Crispy, fatty pork belly rests on strokes of tomato sauce. An isolated tuft of celery leaves in vinaigrette is topped with a lick of celery foam. At the other end of the plate is a scoop of mozzarella gelato, shreds of cheese embedded in the ice fissures. Bull says the collection of ingredients must be eaten together to understand his intended impression. But the natural instinct is to wipe the pork in the sauce, nibble at the celery salad, and use the mozzarella gelato as a palate refresher to scrub off the pork fat, a thing cheese ice cream is incapable of doing. It evokes his unintended "what is that?" inquiry. Still, the oddity of it, its layers of veiled logic, keeps you engaged until you can decode the thing—even days later.
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Charred tenderloin is another puzzle. A perfectly satiny and lush piece of beef sinks into a rich slick of beurre rouge, a thick unctuous sauce made from reduced red wine blended with butter, tarragon and cream. The sauce itself is enough to complement this meat. But Bull tops the meat with a truffle onion crumble that is distracting.
Service can be slow and uneven at Bolla, with long waits and missed requests—some mistranslated at some point from your lips to their plates. For dessert we went for the balsamic strawberry and blackberry gelatos, which after a long wait arrived as a trio of orange espresso, vanilla and ginger gelatos, the scoops half melted into a puddle of gelato runoff.
Dine at Bolla with your wits about you. Savor its mysteries. Be wary of its flaws. If you don't find yourself bowled over by Bull, you'll be back just to see what happens next.
In the Stoneleigh Hotel & Spa, 2927 Maple Ave., 214-871-7111. Open daily 7 a.m.-10:30 a.m. and 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (brunch featured Saturday and Sunday); 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 6 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $$$-$$$$