I just spent an evening learning about and tasting Texas-grown escargots. That's right, an evening with the only snail rancher--not just in Texas--but in these here United States.
Dr. Richard Fullington is a malacologist (formerly with the Dallas Museum of Natural History) who got practical. Snails are yucky, as any slime-conscious kindergartener could tell you. Any Frenchman would say, with nearly equal conviction, that they're delicious--the French eat 22 tons of snails on Christmas Day alone.
Fullington has linked the knowledge that snails prefer moisture with the fact that we prefer them moistened with garlic butter, and has come up with a business proposition so strong that his growing enterprise is already having trouble keeping up with demand.
Well, Dr. Fullington's snails were excellent, since you want to know. And I want you to know that I try to keep up with the food business in ways besides eating out four times a week. This week I checked out the restaurant that was formerly Bishop Bar & Grill (not to be confused with Gennie's Bishop Grill, right around the corner). It's still on Bishop, and actually the sign still says "Bishop Bar & Grill"--or it did when I ate there, although I think that will be changed soon. Like snail farming in Texas, what will be known as "BJ's Place" is still evolving.
There are a million visual signals that define us, that keep life from being entirely one unpleasant surprise after another. (Sherlock would have been just another fidgety coke freak without them.) Terms like "white collar" and "blue collar" evolved from those sight clues.
The restaurant code is pretty simple--often you can figure out what a place is going to be like just by looking around. Everyone knows, for instance, that a "white tablecloth" restaurant has pretensions to elegance and therefore demands more polished waiters and higher prices than a place where they wipe down the tabletops, and the napkins are in dispensers.
I'd call B.J.'s a "blue-tablecloth" restaurant. The tablecloths are made of fabric, a simple fact that tells you more about what a restaurant expects from itself than what you can expect from it. But they're blue instead of white, and covered with glass tops. So this is going to be a "nice" restaurant, but not a fancy restaurant. Steak, not chicken-fried, but not prime. The black-painted ducting tells you it's a hip restaurant; exposed PVC tells you it's got a tight budget.
We were seated beside a big floor fan (another clue) in the corner by one wall of windows. BJ's must be light and bright in the daytime; at night it was pleasantly dim, any light absorbed by walls of that particular dark blue which was the correct shade for formal areas in the '70s, when we were blotting out the avocado green and harvest gold. Our chatty young waitress told us this was only her third night working there. She was unable to answer most of our questions, but was happy to get the answers and had plenty to talk about, anyway. And no one else to talk to--we were the only diners for a long time.
There is no wine list, but the nervously energetic manager showed us the bottles we could drink from by the glass and then, having (improperly) opened the bottle in the kitchen, taught our waitress how to serve wine, using us as part of his teaching demonstration. Which I figured entitled me to two-cents worth of participation. "Please don't keep coming around, topping off my wine glass," I told her. "I'll fill it when I want some more." (I know they do that to sell more wine on the solid principle of "If it's in the glass, it will be drunk," but I like to proceed at my own pace, and I was glad to get my advice in before she was tainted by Madison Avenue etiquette.)
It was 8 p.m.--we were starving--so we ordered appetizers and bread right away--ordinary butterflied shrimp cocktail with horseradishy red sauce, and the single odd-sounding thing on the menu: tomatoes with feta cheese and raisins. In general, I'd label this cuisine "Old-Fashioned Hotel Continental." And while the restaurant's location breaks new ground, the menu does not. It features steak, scampi, pasta, and chicken, mostly prepared in familiar ways with a little Cajun spice added to some dishes.
This tomato, though, was different-- fresh, piled up with pungent, sour feta dotted with dark, sweet raisins, then broiled. Really weird, but good. The bread, a single, soft-crusted round loaf about the size of a big biscuit, baked probably from frozen dough, was brought straight to the table from the oven. I actually scorched my fingers on it, trying to tear off a piece.
The main courses, pork with apricot mustard and salmon with dill cream sauce, were large and served with a salad garnish. The pork slices were just slightly chewy in their sweet brown sauce, more apricot than mustard, with a couple of slick canned halves as a garnish. The salmon was overdone, cooked perhaps according to that time-dishonored fish-cooking direction, "till it flakes," which guarantees dry fish--even with a nice fat salmon. The thin dill sauce restored some of the moisture but imparted little dill flavor.
Both plates came with white rice, unmolded out of a ramekin, and a savory pile of fresh hot unstemmed spinach mixed with slivers of browned onion and fresh tomato chunks. It tasted great--it's just a shame it's so hard to get all that sand out of spinach.
So dinner had its highs and lows. But even though we had problems with some of B.J.'s food, we liked B.J'.s Place. It's trying hard. And it's in a charming block in Oak Cliff that's been struggling to become a destination for years.
Tillman's Corner, a few storefronts down, has succeeded, but there's room for more. BJ's is charming in the way that lots of Oak Cliff is charming--slightly faded, slightly used, easy. Not everything has been torn down. There's some aesthetic advantage to neglect. Oak Cliff is exempt from the scorched-earth policy that is Dallas' idea of development and progress, but to thrive, it needs more restaurants, more destinations that draw north-of-the-river Dallasites and their money. They're getting there, but at a snail's pace.
B.J.'s Place, 316 W. Seventh, 943-3340. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; for dinner Thursday-Saturday 6 p.m.-10 p.m.
Pork with apricot mustard $12.95
Apple pie $3.95
Shrimp cocktail $5.95
Tomatoes stuffed with feta and raisins $3.25
Salmon with dill cream sauce $14.95
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