Cheap vittles

Servers possess a sort of innocence when it's clear they're not in love with the profession, but are shoveling grub and sloshing grog at diners as a means to something else.

This was one week where that innocence was on display. On our initial visit to Vitto, the Oak Lawn extension to the 2-year-old Oak Cliff Italian restaurant, we agonized over our appetizer selection. We thought we might like to try the bruschetta. But our server informed us the regular chef was off that night, hinting that the evening's rendition would most likely suck.

This kind of candor is not only humorously disconcerting, it's refreshing. And it seems to fit in with Vitto's stylish retro-tech decor with floor-to-ceiling windows, glass block accents, matte black tables, corrugated aluminum trim in the bar, and wood chairs stained in red, yellow, blue, and purple. On the walls hang colorful abstract paintings of dining scenes that ground the place just enough to quench any fears of an impending lava-lamp invasion.

So we jumped on this terse honesty and ordered the breaded artichokes. I can't imagine that the bruschetta would have been worse. These beasts, coated with breadcrumbs, were mushy and asphyxiated in a garlic-butter lake. And to think Bless Your Heart, a health-food restaurant, used to occupy this space before its untimely death.

On a second visit, we decided to try the bruschetta, and the same server told us we were on safe ground as the regular chef was in command. But the toasted, airy bread with a thick bead of pesto and a specking of diced tomato was swamped by a smothering blanket of melted mozzarella that transformed the delicate crispness into a gooey wad.

Vitto is essentially a slalom through culinary troughs and peaks, with highs that never soar and lows that never send you to the bathroom. Yet the menu is so cheap and the digs so comfortable in a cozy-neighborhood way that you don't really mind the rough ride.

Vitto's bread is perhaps a metaphor for this place: stylish little knots of toasted pizza dough pummeled with garlic, parsley, and oregano, and then left to fend for themselves in a puddle of olive oil. The stuff is freshly satisfying--even if it's forced to struggle in an oil spill.

Though rustling with crisp romaine, the Caesar salad is coated in a thick, creamy dressing and shreds of mozzarella that put it into culinary slo-mo. Much better was the house salad: a mix of head and romaine lettuces, julienne carrot, tomato, and a simple, vibrant dressing rendered from oil and balsamic vinegar seasoned with lemon, garlic, parsley, oregano, basil, and a hint of sugar.

But Vitto's chef salad hunkered in the troughs, with chunks of desiccated chicken hovering in lettuce shreds, julienne carrot, red and green bell pepper, artichokes, sliced green olives, and black olives that tasted like deodorant soap.

Many of Vitto's sauces are soupy--yet some hum with vibrancy. The baked lasagna came swimming in fresh marinara with a good, rich flavor, even if it was thin. But you couldn't find a flat, ruffled noodle to save your life. It seemed to have just one noodle layer with mealy ground beef and mushrooms that tasted canned. Still, it was satisfying, and at six bucks it's a crime to complain.

Ricotta-stuffed ravioli, however, came in a watery tomato sauce that lacked richness. This very pedestrian assemblage with a thick thread of pesto over the top wasn't displeasing, just ho-hum. The Vitto salmon plate with pan-seared fish had a nice paper-thin crust, a moist flaky texture, and rich flavor--all for $10. But the plate came moistened with a cream sauce that, when mated with a side of overcooked angel hair pasta, exhibited the flavor robustness of papier-mache. Sauteed zucchini, yellow squash, broccoli, mushrooms, and red and green bell peppers were cooked to a perfect fresh, crunchy doneness, but they were smothered in oil with fiercely off flavors.

Billed as one of Vitto's specialties, the Italian sausage and peppers were a bit too tepid. With slices of bland Italian sausage (the menu says mild, and they aren't kidding) and lots of sliced green and red bell pepper over spaghetti, the creation was slathered in a watery, almost flavorless sauce--even though it was dubbed "spicy marinara" on the menu.

Chocolate layer cake was a big surprise. This moist, dense cake topped with whipped cream was richly flavorful with creamy, buttery frosting void of sugar grit--it tasted homemade.

Vitto is one of those odd combinations of underwhelming food that holds its own coupled with friendly staff (except for a curt chef); good, crisp ambiance; and prices that are hard to beat. It's a comfortable way to ease hunger pangs without weeping great gusts of garlic breath when the check arrives. I'd return--with caution.

Dallas by no means has a lock on server honesty. D'Armond's, a clumsy stab at fine dining way up in McKinney, also has its share of brutally candid staff members. Interestingly, this episode of server honesty involved an entree called "oops ostrich," although it isn't clear if it's named after a daffy bird or a kitchen mistake.

When asked about the dish, our server said it was very good because of the stellar sauce. Because the ostrich is so lean, he went on, it absorbs the wild-mushroom and blackberry rum sauce that masks all of the unpleasant ostrich flavors and rich gaminess.

But with this logic, wouldn't a soy burger be a far more absorbent plate centerpiece?

Actually, it was the ostrich that stole the show. Fan-cut, the generous piece of meat was juicy and full of rich flavor. The wild-mushroom and blackberry sauce, on the other hand, tasted more like a cheesy pan gravy. Plus, the entree was not freshly assembled. A garnish of blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries was hot, as if the finished plate were tossed under a warmer. A side of twice-baked potatoes was dry and pasty, topped with a thick layer of cheese glop--not an impressive entree at $24.95.

Just like pro football players who attend their court trials in full-length fur coats in full summer swelter, D'Armond's is all dressed up, but it has no idea where it's going. D'Armond's is situated in a historic downtown McKinney building constructed by a French man named De Armond (hence the name) who opened it as a hotel in 1900. It was shut down and abandoned in 1982 after a series of fires. In 1995, Vince Vaughan and his mother purchased the hotel and began restoring the three-story structure to its original charm. The open space with high ceilings, exposed brick walls, and hardwood floors is well appointed with rich wood paneling, brass chandeliers and Queen Anne-style furniture. A second-floor mezzanine serves as a banquet space.

In addition to the decor, D'Armond's does have other fine touches. Entrees are divided into four sections: "From the Land," "From the Oceans' Depths," "From the Air," and pasta favorites. And they are enhanced by wine-pairing suggestions under each entree listing from a respectable wine list, with most selections available by the glass.

But the glassware is laughable: It looks as if it were extracted from a wine-tasting kit designed by Playskool. The bowls on the glasses can't be more than 6 ounces (if that), far too tiny to appreciate a wine's bouquet (the typical all-purpose wineglass is roughly 14 ounces).

And it's these little details that kill what could be a destination fine-dining spot far removed and distinctly different from Dallas venues. Pate D'Armond's, a house-made pate served with garlic-bread chips, was gray, crumbly, and void of moist, rich flavor. It was served on a bed of slightly warm, wilted greens, as if the plate had been assembled and left to sit before it was served.

A little dry and stringy, the New York strip steak was marred by bitter grill grit and was cooked a bit beyond the requested medium-rare. A side of rice pilaf was overcooked and flavorless, while the julienne mixed vegetables--carrots, zucchini, onion, and bell pepper--were oily and overcooked. Again, the plate was heated with the berry garnish on board.

The carrot cake, however, was thick, moist and rich, set in a puddle of nutmeg sauce.

D'Armond's also serves a forgettable Sunday buffet brunch. Despite hardworking steam tables, just about everything on the buffet was cold. Scrambled eggs were rubbery and overcooked, while the bacon and sausage were dry and suffused with pasty grease from the less than optimum serving temperature. Though bland, the gravy on the biscuits and gravy was silky-smooth, but the biscuits were hard. In addition to being swamped by a virtually flavorless hollandaise, the eggs on the eggs benedict were overcooked and hard.

A cooked-to-order sausage, mushroom, tomato, and cheese omelet was not only flavorless and void of any seasoning, it was swimming in a pool of grease and was chopped instead of filled and folded over the ingredients. The fried chicken had a crisp but waxy crust rendered from cold chicken fat and tasted as if the seasonings in the kitchen were on strike.

The only saving grace was the pork tenderloin stuffed with breadcrumbs and a fresh vegetable medley slathered in a mandarin orange sauce. It had a good balance of tangy sweetness and meat flavors.

D'Armond's could be an exceptional restaurant with concerted focus on the menu and far more attention to fine-dining details. Without this, it's doubtful D'Armond's historic charms will inspire many to burn the time and gas necessary to make the trek to downtown McKinney.

3211 Oak Lawn at Hall, (214) 522-9955. Open Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 11 a.m.-Midnight. $-$$

119 W. Virginia in downtown McKinney, (972) 562-1102. Open for lunch Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Open for dinner Friday & Saturday 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; Open for Sunday brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m. $$-$$$$


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