Decanter Means Well, We Just Wish It Did Better
The way the kitchen had envisioned it, a roundup of chocolate that followed a recent multi-course meal at Decanter was supposed to double as a dashing centerpiece. In a stroke of Cubist inspiration, the pastry chef had plated a thick slice of sweet potato chocolate terrine abutting a parfait glass that was half-filled with a firm chocolate mousse screened by a seam of jelled berry coulis. A truffle impaled on a slender skewer leaned against the cup. If the pesky skewer hadn't kept toppling over, the elegant arrangement might have recalled the geometric puzzlers on intelligence tests that require takers to imagine what a triangle and a cylinder would look like from behind
"I can't get it to be how it's supposed to be," our conscientious server fretted.
That's an unfortunately apt description of the overall situation at Decanter, a well-meaning Oak Cliff restaurant that opened late last year. Like Decanter itself, the dessert was meant to be attractive, creative, community-centric (every element on the plate came from neighborhood confectionery Dude Sweet Chocolate) and impressive. But flimsy architecture beat back good intentions, and the chocolate trio was memorable mainly as a missed opportunity.
I wish I liked Decanter better, same as I wish the weather gods were more responsive to my choosing not to wear a coat.
Oak Cliff has acquired restaurants as though it were assembling culinary cabinet, filling every conceivable niche. Is it barbecue you're wanting? Presto, Lockhart Smokehouse! Hankering for a breakfast joint? I give thee Oddfellows! The spot for a classy seafood restaurant remained vacant, however, and it was a hole that badly needed filling.
Decanter's unique to Bishop Arts District in other ways too: The restaurant isn't hamstrung by a need to be hip, or overwhelmed by the buzz that's enveloped other eateries with trendy West Davis Street and Bishop Avenue addresses. The decidedly mellow dining room has a modest Midwestern feel, accentuated by inoffensive oil paintings of brightly colored circles, comfortable leather seating and a smooth jazz saxophonist who packs up by 9 p.m. Staffers are extraordinarily sincere and genuine in their enthusiasm for what chef Tony Gardizi, late of Vue and Capriccio, is cooking.
But as the restaurant's name suggests, Decanter isn't playing up any of those characteristics. It doesn't even label itself a seafood restaurant, although a quick tour of the menu—oddly printed on a vinyl usually reserved for children's place mats—reveals the forte here isn't grass-fed. Rather, Decanter's given notice it wants to be considered a wine drinker's destination.
The front bar is certainly a nice setting for wine drinking, but I kept encountering signs Decanter wasn't any more serious about wine than other restaurants charging $20 for a fish plate. Unfortunately, good wine service is like Hebrew School or the Appalachian Trail: You don't get credit if you only go halfway.
It's heartening to see the range of $30-$40 bottles on Decanter's list (which is printed on plain white paper and slid into those page protectors high school students use when they're trying to make B-minus work look like it deserves an A.) The selection isn't scintillating, but there are a few solid South American choices and a page devoted to wines from Oak Cliff Cellars, a nascent neighborhood wine operation that's currently bottling juice from favorite Northern California vineyards.
My table briefly considered keeping it real, OC-style, by ordering a red wine with an Oak Cliff label, but our server was only familiar with the sauvignon blanc, and the sommelier was out of town. While a sommelier taking a Thursday night off isn't quite as flabbergasting as a tax preparer scheduling a vacation in March, it's frustrating when a restaurant flaunting its oenophilism can't back up its wine list with proper guidance.
We ended up with a fairly priced Las Perdices Don Juan, an Argentinean malbec blend, a lovely wine that was unpleasantly warm. On a previous visit, my glass of chardonnay was ice cold. (To the restaurant's credit, a staffer noticed I'd wrapped the glass in a linen napkin and replaced it with a slightly nicer wine at almost the correct temperature.) The malbec finally found its own route to the 65-degree mark, and, in retrospect, we should have stuck with it for a second round. Instead, we ceded decision-making to our server, who produced a supremely fruity California pinot noir without any of the attributes we'd said we liked so much in the malbec. It didn't suit the food any better than it suited my guests.
Appetizers reflect Gardizi's predilection for shellfish and tofu, an ingredient all too often consigned to dishes designed for eaters who can't have the good stuff on a menu. Decanter handles tofu credibly, searing a plank of it and submerging it in a rich miso broth, along with slippery greens and Japanese eggplants that are hard to get at with a knife. But tofu's tendency to absorb flavors backfires here; a stale taste of grill was embedded in the soy.
Prepared more carefully, the tofu would probably work. Other appetizers are built on wobbly conceptual foundations, including a misguided bake of gritty mashed potatoes, goat cheese, salty tapenade and bell peppers. Decanter has apparently already recognized the problems with a dish of calamari and tender snail meat, drowned in an imbalanced lemony sauce: It arrived with spoons and a warning that it was bound to be messy. Many of the same ingredients were better utilized on another visit, when I sampled a pasta of the day: The pasta is made by a friend of the chef and was terrific with a bright citrus cream sauce; julienned slivers of carrots and squash; and hoards of shrimp, scallops, calamari and mussels. It tasted like something a tired chef might make for himself and, at $13, counts as a bargain.
Of the three flatbreads on the menu, our server endorsed the prosciutto and fig variety. The bread isn't really flat; it's closer to a foccaccia, smeared with bland goat cheese and splattered with a balsamic glaze that was off-puttingly sweet.
Decanter serves a fine spinach salad, cornered off with a ripe salsa fresca, but our server assured us the showstopper of the salad section was a smoked avocado stuffed with melted cheese. Putting salad semantics aside, the concoction was still a chewy, fatty failure.
My favorite Decanter appetizer doesn't appear anywhere on the menu: The perfectly seared lamb chop and single sea scallop arrived as the first course in an improvised chef's tasting experience. Decanter is the first restaurant I've visited in Dallas that does justice to the "Wine Me, Dine Me" concept that made the original Green Room famous, crafting new dishes according to customers' whims rather than plucking existing dishes off the menu in a losing game of blind man's bluff. The results generally aren't any more or less successful than the standard menu items—an unexpected duck breast paired with citrus rice was just as dry and flat-tasting as a pallid rib-eye ordered off the menu—but the commitment to creativity is promising.
The same verve is evident in the doctored butter that Decanter serves with its bread: One night, it was made savory with garlic. On another, it was woven with rhubarb jam. Neither of the butters I tried moved me to join the adulterated butter camp, but both suggested there could be something special afoot at Decanter—if only intention and execution could somehow come together.
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