Social Executive Chef Jon Schwarzenberger and his horseradish-encrusted salmon. Can you say Socialist meatballs?
Social Executive Chef Jon Schwarzenberger and his horseradish-encrusted salmon. Can you say Socialist meatballs?
Tom Jenkins

Collapse of Socialism

Hotel Lumen bills itself as an enlightened hotel. It "illuminates its sophisticated setting" with "light-themed" artwork and a "vibrant retro feel." Enlightened. Illuminates. Lumen. A pattern blooms.

Suddenly, a contrarian element cuts through the glow racket. Social, the "swanky" restaurant tucked in the bowels of the enlightened Lumen, is dark. Thus, Social profits mightily from big-screen televisions and candles. And the waxy contrasts are created in amusing ways. A bank of votive candles occupies one corner. An array of thick pillar candles rises from a small table wedged between sets of banquettes. They melt and drool profusely, covering the table surface in rippled, petrified wax.

Originally, Social was meant to be a speakeasy called Tattler's—but this was when the decrepit Ramada Limited, within which the 52-room Hotel Lumen took shape, was meant to become the Hillcrest Hotel. That perhaps explains why this room is dark. And loud. You know the stuff. Pound, pound, chi chi, pound, chi, pound, chi, rinse, repeat. Such sounds must aid meal passage, pulverizing the spicy marinated pork loin chop in dried cherry jus, for example, into a convenient and nutritious pre-digested pudding well before the pyloric sphincter joins the action. How else to explain why otherwise comfortable dining rooms keep flushing the stuff in with white-water gusto? Obviously, it's to serve as flypaper for the demographic that believes Frank Sinatra was nothing more than a spaghetti sauce jar mascot. (That pork chop, topped generously with dried cherries, is good though: thick, comfortably pink and juicy with a spice kick that skillfully engages just before the finish.)

In one sense, Social is a perfect speakeasy, one in which a highly select few possess the secret entrance password. The place is spectacularly empty, even on a Friday and Saturday night. Yet perhaps this is just another contrarian element to a place named Social. There is a couple at the bar who seem to have just gotten engaged, at least judging by how the presumed future missus presents the back of her hand as though it were a platter of finger sandwiches to various acquaintances who in turn spew oohs, ahhs and something about Fiji.

So, how are the Social starters?

"Honestly, they really all are fantastic," replies our server. "Our spinach-artichoke dip? I'm a spinach-artichoke dip eater, and it's one of the best I've ever had anywhere in Dallas." It's an ample portion, he warns, so it's a good idea to hurdle over the salads and jump straight into the entrées. The dip is a blend of melted jack and Reggiano Parmigiano cheeses with baby spinach and artichoke topped with pieces of scallion. Around the ramekin of dip are slices of listless and cool flatbread. The dip is piping hot and creamy. He's right, this server. It is among the best spinach-artichoke dips in the city. Artichoke piquancy is nicely framed by the tangy richness. Just wish the bread was better.

Other starters include fried calamari, macaroni and cheese, and Texas tomato soup with cilantro shrimp. Like the dip, the soup is dazzlingly robust: thick, saucy and tangy with a potent spice punch threaded with a stinging bite that unfolds into sweetness. That complex bite flows from the chewy shrimp, which are steeped in a rice vinegar pickling brew before they're simmered in the soup. This is one engaging meal precursor, one that satisfies with its palate bandwidth and weight, although the weight quickly dissipates to make room for entrées.

The menu is brief but complete with fish (trout, salmon), a vegetable fondue, chicken breast and meat (pork chop, Kobe burger and flatiron steak).

The flatiron steak is beautifully composed on a hot metal plate resting in a wood rack. It's rubbed in paprika, cayenne, cumin and onion powder. Six rosy slices are neatly draped over a mound of vegetables—carrots, asparagus, cauliflower—with a sprig of rosemary rising out of the melée. A dab of béarnaise butter lolls on the edge of one slice.

This is one butter dab that works. It isn't chilled into stubborn stiffness, refusing to slobber until the steak has long gone cold. It's soft, slowly melting over the red fibers as it's dragged across the meat array, leaving a trail of tangy herbaceousness. The beef is tender, juicy, deeply rich.

But this is where the success of this Social experiment begins and ends. From here, Social becomes unmoored. Not that the room isn't attractive: Social is accessorized in polished concrete floors, deep red textured leather and velvet, brass fixtures, table surfaces of dark wood and mirrors that deceive with their likeness to hidden room portals.

We didn't sample the vegetable fondue, but we did poke around the seafood gratin a server urged upon us. Served in a metal dish, the creamed stew of fish, scallops and shrimp is topped with bread crumbs. Scallops are soggy, the creamy cheese goo uninteresting and the shrimp hard and overcooked. Yet the most disturbing element here is the bread. Thick slices topped with melted cheese and herbs are brittle and spongy, like some odd breed of packing material. It's impossibly stale. Makes you want to drink, and we made the attempt.

The wine list features a BearBoat Pinot Noir for $42, a fine price for this Russian River stuff, but the restaurant has none of it, so our server suggests the Patz & Hall Pinot Noir, which is nearly twice the price at $80. That or the listless Estancia at $33. The next table over (there were three filled at this point) also struggles to remedy its BearBoat conundrum and is hit with the same sales pitch.

That BearBoat not only would have mitigated the stale gratin bread, it would have been a perfect wash-down for the horseradish-crusted salmon. Topped with red and white shredded cabbage, the fish is spongy and void of distinctly rich flavors, turning into mushy meat frays on the fork instead of peeling off in neat supple flakes.

Chicken breast in pan juices suffused with port and Burgundy isn't bad though. The skin is crisp, the flesh moist and the sauce slightly bitter—just enough to intrigue without muddling up the palate or bending the senses away from the focal point.

Yet in the end, Social collapses in the simplest details. "Damn good fries" are more damnable than good. Served in a paper cone stuffed into a wire frame—a plate of perfect ketchup dots in tiny ramekins nearby—the fries are minimally seasoned with flatiron steak rub, limp, cold and a bit mushy instead of vigorously crisp.

This unraveling continues through dessert. Raspberries and Chambord (raspberry liqueur from France's Loire Valley) is beautifully presented. The raspberries are placed in a clean martini glass with mint leaves slipped between the berries here and there. A small white pitcher holds the liqueur. Douse the berries rapidly, because a quick inspection will reveal dark, slightly fuzzy blemishes erupting from the berry drupelets—mold is incubating.

Social crème brûlée was nearly as menacing—a cold dish with a chilly caramelized sugar crust enclosing a thick and pasty tapioca espresso custard that proved essentially inedible. Social, like its "ism," is ultimately unworkable.

6101 Hillcrest Ave., 214-219-8282. Open 5 p.m.-10 p.m. daily. $$$


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