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Custer's grand stand

Extreme risk-takers are oddballs. They're the ones that ride rhinos at rodeos, skydive out of Lear jets, shoot dice with the agents during IRS audits, and talk about the president's seduction techniques on national television.

But extreme cookery is a hard thing to define. What does a daredevil chef do, dice vegetables with a lawn mower and saute calamari on a Ferrari engine block while the prep cook hurls it up Dallas North Tollway at 150 mph?

Of course not. Culinary envelope-pushing is much too refined for such gauche antics. Risks associated with gourmet kitchens rarely get beyond sliced fingertips and laryngitis caused by over-zealous French vowel pronunciation. Yet Laurels Executive Chef Danielle Custer could certainly be characterized as a risk-taker, perhaps in an extreme sense.

After all, she abandoned the tranquil sophistication of Seattle--where she served a seven-year stint cooking for the likes of that city's acclaimed restaurant Fullers--for North Texas. Here she has been attempting to get Dallasites hooked on her style of global cuisine--a fusion of "the flavors of Africa, Asia, and the Americas," as the press release notes.

"Custer fries celery leaves, smokes onions, and pickles grapes," the release continues. "She pairs licorice with lamb, prawns with a pomegranate-walnut puree, and builds an inspired Asian appetizer Napoleon." On the surface, plying this stuff on Dallasites stands about as much chance of success as an earlier Custer had winning friends among the Cheyenne. Danielle Custer admits she's had a tough time.

"I feel like I've been fighting to do what I want to do here," she laments. "In Seattle, it was not this hard." Custer watched a good chunk of her clientele go by the wayside as she implemented her esoteric style. The initial diner resistance put her in a funk, and she says she wondered if Dallas wasn't ready for her, or if the city simply didn't want her.

Over the last several months, however, she's watched a new crop of Dallas diners gradually embrace her menu with enthusiasm. Now, after opening in November following a complete restaurant makeover that includes a new cigar lounge, a menu tweak, and the introduction of a cutting-edge wine list, she admits she may have underestimated diners here, and wonders if perhaps it's the city's restaurateurs who lack imagination.

"Food doesn't really have a boundary with me," she explains. "I believe in layering the food...I'm trying to create an adventure in eating, where all of a sudden you pick up this other layer." Custer says her dishes have an average of 20 or so flavors each.

And this makes for meals flush with surprises and unsurpassed in dynamism. Rarely does one discover a dish where every forkful potentially has a different flavor profile, depending on how the utensil is swept across the plate. Smoked-mushroom-stuffed range chicken breast with coconut-orange collard greens, spicy currant corn cake, and a sauce with lemon grass, cilantro, epazote, and red mole is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Visually compelling, the arrangement of mushroom-stuffed chicken slices wrapped in pancetta around a center of greens atop a corn cake sprouting a chicken leg holding a thyme sprig seems irrevocably busy.

And it tastes busy too--until you spend some time with it and realize that through all of this culinary static, nothing clashes. In fact, it harmonizes with startling elegance. The intense currant puree sweetness, the aromatic lemon grass tang, the cayenne pepper heat, and the rich bacon spiciness combine with surprising ease.

And each forkful highlights different elements of this merging. The only drawback was slightly dry chicken meat and a severely burnt, slightly soggy corn cake that charged the dish with a jarring bitterness and an off texture.

Stilton and greens, a salad with pancetta, candied hazelnuts, and pickled grapes, was ripe with compelling contrasts. Though heavily dressed in a rich vinaigrette made from a roasted garlic-sherry vinegar puree combined with clarified brown butter and a touch of goat cheese, the leaves were supple instead of limp. The pickled grapes added fiery sharpness, creating a dramatic interplay with the crunchy, sweet hazelnuts.

Constructed like a piece of Chinese architecture with rising tiers and lengthy eaves extensions, the albacore & ahi tartar Napoleon has alternating layers of fish separated by sheets of potato mesh lace reaching horizontally over the plate. Clumps of yellow and green caviar dot the plate while a raw quail egg crowns the structure in a nest of shiso, a Japanese basil. Clean, lively flavors rendered from ponzu sauce and the shiso neatly frame diced bits of fresh, velvety fish that play off the crisp potato layers.

It doesn't take long, however, before you realize just how precarious Custer's culinary adventures can be. There were many points during my visits when I got an overwhelming urge to scream "enough already." Her creations are so forcefully fussy, so replete with complexity--seemingly, at times, for its own sake--that every mouthful begins to fight with the last. These endless flavor layers become exhausting, rather than satiating, leaving you lusting for simplicity after a sampling or two of her deft forays.  

And sometimes things just crash under their own weight. Asian five-spice venison and ostrich contained silky slices of meat. The slices were resting against a ring of cooked oats and barley covered with a clump of rapini plugged with a tube made from thinly sliced, poached apples holding sprigs of rosemary, thyme, and red basil that rose out of the dish like an exotic head dress. The plate was covered in a marjoram game demi-glace infused with oregano, basil, and mint finished with a touch of cream. And the sauce often erupted with a shrill sourness--I guess from a drizzling of applesauce--reminiscent of turning limes. This tang coupled with the bitter pungency of the rapini crushed the meat flavors and steamrollered our wine. It was a Hogue Genesis Lemberger, a German red variety widely grown in Washington State that produces a peppery wine with flavors of tart raspberries and cranberries. But even this couldn't stand up to the sharpness in the dish.

Custer seeks out and incorporates exceptional entree centerpieces for her creations, several of which are among the best ever tasted. So on the one hand, it's curious that she feels the need to subject everything to multiple flavor layers instead of letting things stand on their own. Yet, on the other, she somehow pulls it off for the most part.

Seasonal fish saltimbocca, a beautifully sweet, firm, and flaky Chilean sea bass topped with sage and thin slices of prosciutto was served in Pinot Noir beurre rouge, a sauce made from butter, shallots, and red wine. A side of Parmesan-mushroom-asparagus risotto was firm and creamy without being gooey or pasty. And all of this came together so seamlessly that the simple fish flavors more than peeked through--they were heightened.

Laurels also has a steak menu for those with true Texan predilections. There is a choice of rub and jus pairings, but this meat is so rich, it would be an unpardonable sin to cloak it in sauce. Better to order it as a side or skip it all together. The Kansas City strip with the ginger-lime mustard rub and the caramelized shallot reduction illustrates this. The rub, made from mustard, fennel, anise, and salt and pepper, gave the deep meat flavors breath, adding another dimension to an otherwise fine cut. Plus, this chewy, tender steak was perfectly grilled, creating a richly flavored crust that didn't overwhelm the meat with grit or bitterness. Why muck it up with a dip?

But it is perhaps the wine list that provides the most welcome element to the Laurels dining experience. Arranged by flavor profile rather than varietal or region, the list takes a bit of getting used to. But its most useful effect will likely be to pry diners out of the Chardonnay-Merlot rut and spark experimentation with, and an understanding of, wines by body and predominate flavor. Which--given the blurring of traditional wine classifications and emergence of new regions (Australia, Chile) onto the world-class stage--is perhaps how wine should be ultimately understood.

For example, the white list has categories such as "herb and vegetable" (dried herbs and fresh grass to green olive and asparagus), "citrus" fruit, "delicate" fruit (green apple and pear to peach and apricot), "sweet tropical fruit," and "floral," moving through to "oak and caramel." Within each category, the wines are arranged from the most delicate example of the flavors to the most robust, and you can find two or three varietals or regions within each section.

The exciting thing about this is that you may discover that the reason you like a particular cabernet, for example, is not because it has a classic cab profile, but because it exhibits the flavors of "tart red berries" (cherry, wild strawberry and raspberry). You may then decide to order a California Pinot, Burgundy or Zinfandel in that category and be opened to a whole new grape variety or wine region.

This is pretty shrewd stuff because it not only immerses diners in the pleasures of wine minus the intimidation, it practically guarantees return visits, as the inadequacy of most lists becomes glaringly evident. Plus, you can attempt to match flavors delineated in the wine list with the ingredients on the menu, though this is a risky proposition as so much of the menu holds unexpected flavors that no amount of text can capture.

The level of commitment and dynamism here is startlingly refreshing. It may not have the depth of varietal or regional representation some restaurants do, but after working with Laurels selections, the typical fine-dining warehouse list studded with superstars will cease to have the same relevance.  

This level of thought carries over to the new decor and the table. The dining room is redone in rich hues coupled with sharp geometric shapes. The ceiling features repeating deep ruby rectangles bordered in gold with emerald-green diamonds in the center. The effect leans a bit to the cooly distant, but softening touches such as loosely draping ceiling canopies muting the lights remedy some of this.

Simple table settings, accented with blown-glass vases containing floating votive candles, feature a minimum of flatware and glasses with the notable presence of champagne flutes. A server asks if you would like them filled as soon as you are seated. This is another of Custer's shrewd dining moves. How many diners think to relax and refresh and wake up their palates with a glass of sparkling wine? This ritual has the dual benefit of introducing the food in the best possible light while it sweetens the check.

But generally the service, though gracious and attentive, suffered from poor pacing, with long waits between courses and more than a couple of staff confusion episodes. A dessert order arrived just as I was about to cancel it. In another instance, an attempt to pay the check and obtain a receipt, which was missing when the credit card was returned, took 20 minutes. The hostess came by to tell me the maitre d' was giving it his personal attention after observing my obvious exasperation. But why, if the staff is properly trained, does it take the maitre d' to generate a receipt?

Yet overall, the Laurels experience is richly rewarding, even if some of the menu creations seem pointlessly busy. Custer's daring adventurousness is infectious, and it's hard to leave the place without expanding your culinary horizon. At this point, it's difficult to gauge the impact she will eventually have on the Dallas restaurant scene, but I'll bet it's significant. This town is more than fortunate she is here. And who knows? If Custer is able to build on the successes she has already achieved, she may eventually be searing her scallops from the cockpit of a Ferrari.


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