Camp Ernie

Time-warped: Ernie's takes retro to a new level.

Ernie's is a trip. But to where? Is it a trip back to a Dean Martin-Charo roast skit where the main attractions bob like anchovy-stuffed buoys in a gin lagoon? Or is it a timeless Vegas burp, skillfully outfitted with a Liberace henchwoman tinkling spent pop syrup on a stunted white grand? Walk into this dusky Addison temple of stale Pall Mall schmaltz without night-vision goggles or a German shepherd fresh from grad school and you'll probably stub your nose on the blotchy brass railings before you can reorient yourself by locking onto the lava lamp behind the bar.

Ernie's is a hovel of war-torn regulars, the kind who use their weight, blood pressure and cholesterol readings to pick their lotto ticket numbers. It's a parlor of mix-and-match surplus bar stools with frayed dispositions, a cacophony of friendly gravel voices yearning to take your drink order (extra olive on the toothpick?). At happy hour you can gorge on chicken fingers and enchiladas. At dinner the scampi comes in shrimp and veal versions. New York cheesecake beckons at dessert, but it buckles on the tongue, tasting like a refrigerator odor eater. Ernie's is a quintessential Dallas moment, suspended in limbo between Big D nostalgia and "ain't we hip?" camp. Ernie's is in a time-space warp--the Dallas dining undead.

But like George Romero and his sundial of cinematic zombie indulgences, Ernie's fascinates more than it repulses. And it has deep roots in Addison concrete. Opened in 1989 by the owners of the now defunct Les Saisons, Ernie's has been a mainstay. The question is in what. It was shuttered for a while in the mid-'90s after a fire. But it reopened after a renovation in apparent obliviousness to the decade at hand. It has a stage and a dance floor (drawing cheek-to-cheek fetishists by the swarm) and a fiber-optic lamp that looks suspiciously like a piece of filched Phyllis Diller.

The strange thing is that the menu, a posting of continental retreads lost in fits of wide lapel-white shoe post-traumatic stress syndrome, isn't all that bad. Really.

Bold statements are made with shrimp cocktails, a brutish piece of nostalgia served in a brash metal dish stamped in the shape of a lobster with his front body parts flayed and flattened to create divots for the bulging white shrimp and a cocktail sauce. Though the appearance was enticing, the shrimp were perplexing: texturally perfect, but bereft of flavor, perhaps a result of poor husbandry.

Yet Ernie's hits when it goes on its own. Stuffed avocado, its cupped buttery flesh thickly carpeted with crabmeat, captured both the best of texture and flavor. Still it was a temperature conundrum. An icy plate cuddled cold greens, shredded carrot and an avocado half, cupping warm crabmeat, which is probably good because it signals fresh preparation. All this was draped in "sauce Antoine"--a rémoulade-like slather. The mix was delicious with distinct crab sweetness merging deftly with avocado nuttiness.

Hearts of palm salad was a tall and square heap of greens and shredded carrot crowned with pecans. Into the sides leaned quartered hearts of palm planks, some of which were woody. It was all washed in slightly sweet vinaigrette.

At times, Ernie's seems like a creaky culinary version of General Motors, the big car corporation that notoriously swapped car platforms across its many divisions to save money, often with disastrous results (the Chevy Cavalier cheesed out as a Cadillac Cimarron, for instance, or the Chevy Nova tricked out as the price-gouging Cadillac Seville). The Greek salad was splashed with the same sweetish dressing that coddled the pecans and the hearts of palm: a cross-platform blunder. The massive Greek heap of greens, hearts of palm (all tender this time), juicy tomato slices and a pummeling of black olive slices and feta cheese crumbles, innately cries for that brisk breathy lemon-oregano dress, not cloying clutter. But maybe this was Liberace's recipe instead of Roger Smith's.

Ernie's bills itself as a casually elegant, American continental supper club. It's hard to determine how a lava lamp fits this billing, but not the classic chicken Jerusalem, a dredged chicken breast with artichoke in a creamy white wine sauce. A juicy breast is slipped over a tangle of overcooked pasta threads and topped with choke bottoms and mushrooms. It's delicious if you can avoid tangling your fork tines in the noodles.

We've found ourselves stranded in a dismal rut of odious steak as of late, each version dressed in titular prime or Black Angus. Has Dallas ceded its beef rep to Kansas City, or maybe Toledo? Yet Ernie's was a bit of a breather in this suffocating eddy of gristle and corn-fed, sponge-rubber bull. Ernie's New York "prime" sirloin strip was not only edible, it was enjoyable. The steak wasn't a stellar cut, but it didn't choke off addictive steak sensuality in a blizzard of dental challenges either. The meat was juicy--a little fatty and gristly perhaps--and tender with rich beef flavors. Red wine demi-glace was understated, adding a little fat-cutting acid without clouding the natural flavors. The "prime" inscription very nearly lived up to its billing.

Ernie's elicits those search-for-meaning impulses often prompted by Dr. Joyce Brothers or maybe Ask Marilyn. Why, for example, is the dining room threaded with rope lights? And why does it have those chandeliers and wall sconces with pencil crystals arranged in ascending curves? It's hard to find fixtures like this outside of Hilton Ballrooms, for which they are probably purchased by the pallet. But Ernie's most likely doesn't get bulk deals like this. At the bar a blithe woman with a poof 'do extracts brilliant Liberace schmaltz from that white baby grand, blazing through memorable pieces such as "Music Box Dancer" and the theme from Somewhere in Time, the kind of pieces you wish Godsmack would seek to interpret on a pop retrospective. Get by the stale smoke--cloaked with candle scent bouquet--and you'll find the food transcending the environs.Upended mushroom caps, infiltrated with crabmeat like the avocado, waded in a delicious wine sauce--similar to the one dousing the steak, only not as intense.

And just as with steak, Ernie's beats most of its rivals with impeccable veal piccata. Pounded into a skinny scallopini and drenched with a bracing butter, wine and lemon sauce seriously studded with capers, the meat was tender and juicy. Plus the flour dredge on the veal never congealed into that slimy mucus so common on many Dallas preparations.

Salmon was a sheet of fish folded around a filling of crab and seasonings and topped with a white wine-basil sauce. Taken in aggregate the dish was very good. But when isolated from the rich crab, the salmon was exposed as dull and lethargic, neither flaking nor yielding rich flavor.

Service wasn't dim, though. It's concise, efficient and attentive to the pitfalls inherent in the dining room. When the wine list or the check is delivered, the server quickly scoots the table candle to flood--or maybe drizzle--some lumens on the paperwork. There's no camp in this execution, just pure professionalism.

The wine list is dull, though, bulked up on California Chardonnays and cabs with little else to break the monotony. But that's what the atmosphere is for, especially when it's a surefire bet the command-and-control Liberace in the bar knows "Ballroom Blitz."5100 Belt Line Road, No. 502, 972-233-8855. Open for lunch 11 a.m.- 2 p.m. Monday-Friday; open for dinner 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 6 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday & Saturday; 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. $$$

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