Last time we sampled chef Bruno Mella's craft, it was at Mel's on Main, a short-lived Deep Ellum restaurant and bar featuring a mounted and framed butcher knife along with dinner plates autographed by Julia Child and Emeril Lagasse on the walls. There we sampled spongy swordfish with an ammonia fume and a wily halibut that smelled of downtown library regulars. The might of the fumes sent one of our Mel's dining mates scuttling to the restroom to fix the resultant leaks and ruptures in her physiology.
We survived. Now we're back for a second Bruno bout, this time at the Firehouse, a place where Mella first started to whittle his Dallas repertoire.
Firehouse bills itself as an "acclaimed restaurant featuring hot and spicy cuisine." How hot and spicy? In truth, it's tame. That's why it's amusing the place seems bent on exerting peace and tranquility, presumably to keep diners from being consumed in a habanera fireball. The music is brooding and moody with energetic spasms here and there to keep Wellbutrin from spraying out of the sprinkler system if the vibe gets too bleak. The back bar is a lumber puzzle of alternating squares, rectangles, "L's" and "T's". In the center of this controlled chaos in wood is a slot for a plasma TV and an embedded lit display case holding a collection of hands and a fat Buddha. The array of hands posits sign-language expressions denoting peace and tranquility.
In the center of the tables is a loose collection of smooth black river stones hinting at, one assumes, brook babble or fountain mist to simulate cool refreshment in the midst of all of the Firehouse swelter. The stones cluster around a candle and a tiny crock of Firehouse spice formula. This is Mella's secret table blend of 15 spices, including (if senses correctly serve) cinnamon, cumin, coriander, cayenne and a touch of habanera. "He is all about the spices. That's the concept of Firehouse," our waiter says. He recommends the spice mix for the three-cheese mac in pesto sauce. We comply.
It is a near-perfect suggestion. Delivered in a small, handled dish, the triple-cheese mac is deliciously rich and gooey. Viscous strings stretch and snap as you lift the al dente macaroni elbows from the melted cheese core. In the center of this stickiness, curled and nestled in a mac indentation, is a crop of crawdad tails frilled with parsley leaves. This touch of racy musk is pure genius, broadening and adding depth to the rich flavors. The Firehouse spice mix looks like powdered rust on these elbows. It turns the dish into three-cheese satanic mac.
The waiter also touts the hummus with marinated olives and pita bread. The portion is generous; a large ramekin of ground chickpeas with little rivulets of olive oil here and there and a dusting of paprika. Clipped leaves of romaine are embedded in the drifts of beige hummus. It's rough in texture, or at least rougher than the velvety smooth renditions you might be used to. Kalamatas and green Provençal olives dot the plate. Whole-wheat pita triangles are warm and numerous. It's delicious.
But then you notice a curious thing: There is no salt on the table, or pepper for that matter, other than that tiny crock of secret explosive powder. "He does not allow us to put it there," the waiter says, disclosing this Mella edict. "He's very particular about what he puts on the table." Chef Mella Bruno does not want his food to be tampered with by mere plebs. "You see that show Hell's Kitchen?" He asks. Bruno's a hothead. The waiter doesn't say this explicitly, and he admits he's never had a saucepan hurled at his forehead for smuggling in sea salt grinders. But Bruno's an international chef, and he's won awards and stuff, and sometimes that all comes out in screams and airborne batter whips that might end up tangled in your beard if you mispronounce pollo en fuego. (Legend has it that Mella once did work for Leona Helmsley at The Helmsley Palace.)
Chicken Milanese brandishes heat, though it's more from flame scars than overt spice. Blanketed with melted mozzarella and pecorino cheeses, a panko- and Parmesan-crusted chicken breast is posted in a tangle of fettuccine in spicy marinara cream sauce riddled with tomato chunks. Grated Parmesan flecks the milky pink strands. The perimeter of the chicken patty is badly scorched and the center is dry and fibrous. But the sauce, pebbled with olives and capers, is hopped up with a little spice, presumably so that involuntary rushes of drool compensate for the botched breast work.
Does it matter, though? Firehouse is more lounge than restaurant. There are stretches of leather-covered ottoman-ish benches before a fireplace that is basically a heap of quartz-like crystals flickering licks of blue flame. To the right of the fireplace is an array of backlit amber plastic panels. These stretch all the way to the stage in the corner, which is opposite a banquette posted in front of windows overlooking Lower Greenville Avenue. (Oddly, just to the right of the Firehouse view is the charred shell of Synbar, the Arcadia Theatre and Nuevo Leon.) This Firehouse is a bit different from its antecedent, which was shuttered in 2003 after a long stretch beginning in 1996. An impressive run. Sure, the reincarnation has founding chef Mella and founding partner James Slaughter, but now the ownership brood has expanded to include father and son Bill and Jordan Lowery. Bill Lowery was a founding partner of Mercy Wine Bar. Jordan Lowery was a waiter and manager of the Firehouse from its inception until its first demise. Jordan also has a wine jones, which is good as it means bottles from this simple list can be had for half-price on Thursday nights. We selected a vessel of the Carmel Road Pinot Noir, a Monterey drink with rich berry and cherry fruit offset by a slivery spice layer, playing off the Firehouse stock, one might think.
But what should be matched with it? I tossed out an apples-and-oranges dilemma to our waiter. Should the Carmel Road be paired with the sautéed snapper with shrimp and crab in an avocado jack cheese sauce? Or with a prime rib eye? Rib eye would be the safe bet, given our Mel's history.
"I always suggest the snapper," says our waiter. It's like eating 82 meals at once, he offers, with all of the vegetables, lots of different flavors floating and colliding in many different directions. This, of course, is the problem. It's not so much that the fish is spongy. It's that it's plastered with that thick avocado jack stuff bumped with shrimp and crumbles of crab. Not that you'd notice the shellfish beyond the bumps. It's difficult to pull anything out of that clumsily fussy muck.
Maui grilled pork chop in jalapeño demi-glace is dry and sticky, void of pink and juice and very shy on flavor (no fiery spice even). But it did come with smooth mashed potatoes and a delicious apple fritter with large thin slices of apple cooked into savoriness rather than sweetness, somehow.
Mella has always been proud of his crème brûlée, and Firehouse coconut brûlée is delicious: warm crisp lid, cool smooth custard and a tiny ramekin of mango purée. The last Bruno brûlée we sampled tasted like marshmallow ash, so there is evolution here.
But is it enough? The Firehouse look and vibe suggest more lizardly than Escoffier pursuits. Still, it is possible to be satisfied if you focus on appetizers, crème brûlée and bottles of wine at half-price. Pilfered Firehouse spice blend makes great burgers too. 1928 Greenville Ave., 214-826-0097. Open 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. $$-$$$
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