Busting big shoes

Jaco Pastorius, the late fretless electric bass player who revolutionized the instrument in the late '70s with the jazz ensemble Weather Report, once said that good musicians borrow ideas. Geniuses steal them.

Pastorius left little doubt as to his own genius. Incorporating sweeping melodic grooves, chords, harmonics, and percussive effects into a single driving bass line, the deft musician was a virtuoso thief.

It's too early to measure the breadth of Seventeen Seventeen Executive Sous Chef Raoul Orosa's brain, but he's well on his way to amassing a considerable culinary criminal record. A casual excursion through his new menu at the acclaimed Dallas Museum of Art restaurant reveals numerous confessions delivered with brazen aplomb. "I took that from Wolfgang [Puck]. That I got from George [Brown]." And so on.

A sous chef at Seventeen Seventeen for just a few months before dani Foods and the awarded, much lauded chef George Brown left the operation, Orosa was retained by Wynnwood Hospitality Inc., the catering firm that has since occupied Seventeen Seventeen's kitchen. His background includes stints with some of the nation's most celebrated chefs, including Wolfgang Puck of Spago and Thomas Keller (founder of The French Laundry in the Napa Valley). Orosa also was executive chef at Checkers Hotel in Los Angeles.

The menu bristles with these influences, drawing heavily on Asian flavors and the California relentlessness for fresh ingredients and tight visual eloquence. He sponged up Southwestern tricks from his exposure to the dani crew and has stitched them throughout the menu, though not with the forwardness of previous Seventeen Seventeen menus.

But simply copping kitchen licks from culinary heavyweights doesn't amount to much more than cheap derivation if it isn't intelligently twisted, and this is where Orosa's larceny gets salaciously delicious.

Orosa not only blasts his plates with artistry, he brags his food costs are substantially lower than those of a typical upscale venue. He does this by keeping his menu small and tightly focused, and his operation lean. Orosa mimics the model of Japanese manufacturing, striving for barren kitchen shelves and coolers by the time the dining room shuts down each day.

This mode of operation flirts dangerously with regular menu shortages. I was the recipient of such a circumstance when I ordered the smoked beef tenderloin on barbecue glaze with crispy onion rings.

Several minutes after placing the order, I was told the last tenderloin was sent from the kitchen minutes ago. If I still wanted the dish, I was informed, the tenderloin would be substituted with a rib eye. (Many restaurants in town would give the heads-up on such a swap after the entree was placed in front of you.)

What a disastrous decision this turned out to be. The meat was a real truck-stop, steak-'n'-egger slab: thin, fatty, and sewn with tough gristle. The kitchen should know better than to pass off this insulting exchange.

But the rest of the plate was a remarkable framing for a worthy centerpiece. The meat was settled in a thick ribbon of barbecue sauce blended from demi-glace and smoked tomatoes, chipotle, cinnamon, and orange. The result was silky and sweet without the cloying muddle of some sauces. It was bright with an assertive layer of heat void of belligerence; a substantive yet semi-sheer sauce that would easily let rich meat flavor seep through to marry it.

This dollop of sauce surrendered to a thin thread of pureed cranberry followed by a ribbon of annatto-infused oil that set up interplay between the tanginess of the sauce and the smokiness of the meat (which the tenderloin would have had). This shared space with a stack of thick onion rings marinated in buttermilk, dredged in flour and cornstarch, and fried. The delicately crunchy, tender rings came with a salsa of corn, diced bell pepper, and bacon. Startlingly imaginative, if stutteringly executed.

But this was the lone instance of kitchen slippage. Everything that followed was one striking surprise after another, with the exception of some slightly rickety service (pacing was a little off, and on one visit I was served a glass of badly oxidized Sauvignon Blanc), and some miscues on atmospheric details.

The starkly crisp Paul Draper dining-room design (the DMA prohibits artwork in its restaurants)--with its large, fuzzy charcoal and beige carpet squares, the cherrywood chairs with geometrically arranged perforations, and tiny coral-hued track lights--provides a clean backdrop for this tight yet flamboyant cuisine. But the sill behind the padded bench seating near the windows was carpeted with a thick, billowy layer of dust. If this isn't a modern-art exhibit shrewdly slipped past DMA policy, it's nothing short of tacky.

But the menu quickly left these minor annoyances in the dust, so to speak. Warm spinach cabrales salad with apple-bacon vinaigrette was cordoned in a tightly woven, deep-fried thin potato-thread wrap. It looked like some kind of overgrown sushi roll slice plopped in the center of the plate. The golden crisp sheathing added hearty potato flavor to the salad's range of vibrant flavors derived from thin carrot strips and thick red onion rings pickled in rice vinegar, blue cheese, tangy red cherry tomatoes, honey-crusted pecans, bacon, and fresh spinach leaves.  

Dallas mozzarella salad was a clean, geometric display with half-moon slices of juicy rich Roma tomato alternating with sections of mozzarella. Two striped arrangements were set on their edges perpendicular to each other with a small tuft of greens over the top. Basil pesto woven with a ribbon of balsamic reduction ringed the plate.

This same kind of clean execution was mimicked by virtually every item on the menu--even when the preparations were cluttered. Barbecued lobster Cobb salad slathered in a honey-mustard dressing was crowded with clumps of firm black beans, corn, egg crumbles, tiny squares of tortilla, creamy avocado, and a light Parmesan-like Mexican goat cheese. But every clean, articulated flavor had its place. Small chunks of succulent lobster seeped heat that struck gradually, hitting with its full but modest force on the finish.

Expectations were low for the tempura shrimp with mustard greens and Thai vinaigrette. Each of the half-dozen or so examples of this deep-fried Japanese specialty encountered in Dallas recently was abhorrent: chalky, soggy, and flavorless. But this version re-ignited my faith in its basic vitality. Using rice flower and cornstarch, Orosa seasons his batter with soy and sesame oil, suffusing it with savoriness. He batters the shrimp with a modest layer to maintain crispness while preventing a textural smothering of the core ingredient.

It's a good thing too, because the three shrimp placed around the plate were richly sweet and juicy. Crisp mustard greens with bean sprouts were planted in a won ton box in the center of the plate and sparkled with potently assertive vinaigrette blended from rice vinegar, ginger, scallions, and a Thai serrano pepper paste. A tiny heap of pickled ginger was plopped near the plate's edge.

Among the most provocative items incorporated highly imaginative butter-based sauces. Seared Chilean sea bass--seasoned in soy, sheathed in a rice flour batter, and seared to a delicate crispness--was beached in a mirin butter sauce. Mirin, a sweet Japanese rice wine, is added to a sauce rendered from an Asian mirepoix of ginger, garlic, scallions, leeks, carrots, and cilantro. The vegetables are sweated out and reduced with soy. It suffused the flaky fish--which had a faint aroma of fresh-cut straw--with an essence of toffee, layering the dish in richness without the concomitant weight. A side of creamy, fluffy mashed potatoes encased in an egg-roll-like shell wrap contained mushrooms and a tiny jolt of horseradish, a treatment that effectively segregated the ingredients, keeping the whole thing from collapsing into a choking starch wad.

The grilled salmon was buttered with an even more engaging twist. Settled atop a thick disk of slightly dry but fluffy whipped potatoes with lobster and crowned with shiitake mushrooms and spinach, the silky, mouth-melting piece of fish was boosted by a coral butter sauce. To achieve the color while permeating it with sea richness, the sauce is infiltrated with green lobster roe, which stains it a pinkish orange when heated. A small puddle of demi-glace with goat cheese crumbles framed it with rich yet subtle elegance.

The desserts are the only part of the menu that hasn't been restructured since the dissolution of dani Foods. Wynnwood has pegged Bill Hunter, formerly of the Hotel Crescent Court, as corporate executive pastry chef, and his new offerings should be on the menu within the next couple of weeks.

Key lime pie was girded with a crisp, tender crust. The light custard was creamy with a refreshing tanginess embellished by strands of raspberry sauce threaded across the plate.

Collaborating with Orosa on Seventeen Seventeen's menu is sous chef Emmanuel Pose, formerly of The Mercury, under the direction of Wynnwood Executive Chef Francois Keller. In addition to the restaurant, Wynnwood also operates the DMA's Atrium Cafe and caters the Mary Kay building in North Dallas.

Wynnwood was formed in 1996 by the Dallas investment firm Richmont Capital Partners. Wynnwood director of sales and marketing Renee Cameron says plans call for Sunday-brunch service at Seventeen Seventeen in September, with possible dinner service Thursday through Saturday sometime after that. The catering company also has plans to expand nationwide.

If they do, they've poured a solid foundation for a potential stellar run with Seventeen Seventeen. This kitchen team has done an admirable job filling the sizable shoes dani Foods left behind. My guess is they'll need a bigger pair within the next few months.  

Seventeen Seventeen. 1717 N. Harwoodin the Dallas Museum of Art,(214) 880-0158. Open Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m. $$-$$$

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