Dining in the dark

Dining at Hotel St. Germain is odd in a haunting, Ross Perot sort of way. While the space is rich and says all of the right things--historic elegance with an engaging personality derived from comfortable turn-of-the-century furnishings--little crazy-aunt-in-the-basement details and daughter's-wedding-disrupted-by-Republican-operatives missteps crop up, making you wonder what the heck is going on here.

Opened in 1991 by businesswoman and former New Orleans resident Claire Heymann, Hotel St. Germain has an amusing past. It was built in 1906 by Dallas real estate developer John Murphy, who desired a Queen Anne-style mansion as a monument to his success. Since ceasing service as a residence some 50 years ago, the structure has at different times been an insurance office, an art gallery, a doctor's office, and a computer school, among other things. The building housed a discotheque in the '70s called The Haunted House, where the current dining room served as a dance floor while an alcove in one of the parlors did duty as a coffin receptacle.

Heymann discovered the property in the late '80s, then a foreclosed, boarded-up hovel facing a wrecking ball, while scouring the area between McKinney and Turtle Creek for an old house worthy of conversion into a small, stylish hotel similar to those she had visited on numerous jaunts to San Francisco. But unlike San Francisco, where boutique hotels are often sandwiched between historic buildings of some architectural note along streets of breathtaking tourist appeal, the original Murphy mansion neighborhood has transformed into an area of high rise office buildings. Hotel St. Germain even has the imposing Crescent complex across the street.

This is not to say that Heymann's vision is not boldly imaginative for a city like Dallas. The seven-suite hotel is named concurrently after Heymann's French grandmother, the St. Germain area of Paris, and the patron saint of Paris. It is cluttered with refined, elegant furnishings. Heymann's mother, an antiques dealer, helped fashion Heymann's lust for exquisite acquisitiveness, and many of the hotel's furnishings came from her mother's collections, with the rest selected through various auctions. The result is an odd mix of romance, quaintness, European-style finery, and antique-collector busyness. The parlors are stuffed with fabrics fussily pleated, puddled, lashed and tasseled, as well as handsome furnishings seasoned with art deco accents and shabby chic touches. But the ambiance is marred by a seeming lack of attentiveness to detail revealed in the out-of-place faux-painted woodwork and a scattering of votive candles forced into service as lighting centerpieces instead of accents. The sparsely furnished (just over a half-dozen tables) dining room with an elaborate chandelier looks out over a leafy walled courtyard with several more tables and a dribbling fountain.

Weaving through this boutique-hotel sumptuousness are the hotel's "butlers"--as the servers are called--dressed in black tuxedos, white gloves, and blank, Stepford-wives grins. These pretentious trappings, however, did little to set service apart from the ordinary. It fact, the staff seemed to be butlering with learners' permits. When we arrived for dinner, a desk clerk--after some prodding--ushered us into a parlor and said a butler would be by in a moment to take our drink order. Ten minutes later, we were still watching votive candles flicker alongside a table with used glasses and crumpled cocktail napkins. Several minutes after reminding the desk clerk we were still there and as yet butlerless, a sardonic-looking server arrived, and we asked him about the wine-by-the-glass selections. "We have red, and we have white," he said.

Hmmm. No wine-list presentation, no verbal explanation of specific wines, just "red and white." Is this level of condescension current butler chic? (Maybe so. A recent Wall Street Journal article reported that in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, boutique hotel snottiness and indifference to guests is the current rage. St. Germain may be on the cutting edge.)

We pried Hotel St. Germain's wine-by-the-glass offerings out of him, however, and after placing our order, another butler stopped by to ask us if what we said we wanted was really what we wanted. Several minutes later, still another butler delivered our wines--only they weren't the ones we had ordered despite the contrived confirmation process. Our original selections were finally served by a different butler. Is there a surplus of white gloves in Dallas? Fortunately, the service improved markedly once we were seated in the dining room.

Late in the summer, former St. Germain executive chef William Guthrie was replaced with Quang Duong, while dining-room service was expanded from three to five nights per week this October. Quang, 31, is a graduate of the Ecole Hotelliere de Chamalleres Institute in France, and he apprenticed under Alian Ducasse in Monte Carlo and Paris before a stint at Citronelle in Washington, D.C. St. Germain's prix fixe menu--which requires an entree selection made in advance from a choice of three offerings--is showing some interesting leanings since Quang's arrival.  

A "surprise du jour" opens the six-course menu. On this occasion our surprise was a shrimp strudel: sweet, tender shrimp wrapped in a delicate, flaky pastry cut at a sharp angle. Dribbled with a light, creamy salmon caviar and sun-dried tomato sauce and dabbed with salmon roe, the creation was like a slice of Frenchified sushi. The salmon roe provided a gripping burst of intensity in contrast to the core construction of subtle flavor layers.

Served in tiny espresso-like cups, the French Riviera bouillon was perhaps one of the finest examples of hot pottage I've ever tasted. This simple blend of pureed tomatoes, leeks, and shallots seasoned with saffron and a splash of Pernod was flush with a clean creaminess that was so light, it was like slurping pure aroma.

A pair of appetizers followed the soup. The first, a deeply chilled cucumber slaw in dill lemon oil wrapped in a profoundly silky strip of salmon flesh, was ripe with contrasting interplay: the clean fish flavor weaving through the raciness of the cucumber salad, the intensity of the dill sharing palate space with the laciness of the fish, and the soft salmon textures playing against the vigorous crunch of the cucumber. This roll-like composition was ringed with robust cherry tomato halves and crowned with two long chive threads fashioned in a great X. The second segment of the pair, a polenta crab cake in a sun-dried tomato sauce with a roast corn and black-bean relish (a Quang signature), was a bit of a disappointment. The crab cake seemed mushy and limp with a collection of flavors harboring almost no enticements, while the relish was speckled with desperately undercooked beans.

But Hotel St. Germain's greatest dining flaw emerged not through the food, but through a wine-list perusal. Presented in a three-ring binder, this modestly diverse listing of California and French bottlings comes with its own penlight chained to one of the binder rings. Why? The place is so pathetically illuminated via a barely perceptible chandelier glow and a few votive candles that reading is all but impossible. Don't these restaurateurs realize that more than a few of us enjoy romancing with the lights on? The butler returned with our selection--an earthy 1992 Chateau Franc Mayne that paired well with the menu--and mindlessly presented me with the label for inspection. The least Heymann could do, if she insists on maintaining a dining-room luminousness worthy of a mine shaft, is equip her butlers with glow-in-the-dark gloves so that the damn labels can be read.

Sadly, this lack of lighting also detracts from the menu, virtually eliminating the visual impact of Quang's masterful constructions. The hotel takes great pride in pointing out that the fare is served on 75-year-old Limoges China and Waterford and Shotts-Zwiesel crystal. But in this lighting, who cares? The entrees, pieces of meat and vegetable in dark demi-glaze sauces, were virtually indistinguishable from one another and could have easily been braised Alpo over Limoges for all of the lumpy shadows cast.

Unfortunately, the seared noisette of veal tenderloin with chanterelle mushrooms in a port wine reduction, one of the evening's entrees, barely soared above the aforementioned hypothetical dish. While the meat was moist and tender, it was bland save for a heavy pepper punch that knocked out any hope for balance, while the reduction sauce did little more than add a flavorless viscousness. The squab and foie gras au nature was light years (so to speak) better in a sharply savory demi-glaze perked with rich foie gras that added a nuttiness to the exceptionally tender, juicy pieces of delicately flavored meat.

Entrees were bridged to dessert by a simple, tightly focused salad of crisp frisee and radicchio coupled with fresh, juicy Belgium endive splattered in a light, tangy walnut vinaigrette. The highlight was a thin shaving of heady tete de moine (monk's head) cheese fashioned in the shape of a rosette. A dessert of caramelized Granny Smith apple slices topped with thin layers of crispy, sweet phyllo stuffed with lavender ice cream was equally compelling. The refreshingly fragrant ice cream brilliantly played off the restrained sweetness of the apples while squirts of concentrated raspberry and kiwi sauce on the edges of the plate sparked intermittent bites with a searing tanginess.

Quang says he wants to feature "unique, global cuisine" with his menus, and by all accounts he's off to a remarkable start. His cooking is intelligent and restrained, avoiding the in-your-face "global" boldness featured at some Dallas spaces. His portions seem minuscule at first glance, but after completing one of his meals, you'll feel surprisingly satiated. The wine list could be tweaked a bit to match his global ambitions, perhaps adding some rich roses from France and California and a handful of selections from Italy, Spain, and New Zealand. But more importantly, the dining room needs to be upgraded to a level worthy of Quang's craft in terms of flow, service execution, and ambiance. Or that crazy aunt in the basement homily will keep cropping up, leaving you to wonder if there isn't something seriously off here.  

Dining at The Bistro filled me with wonder. Unfortunately, I'm speaking of the kind of exasperated wonder you experience after realizing, while attending a high school reunion, that the biggest duct-taped eyewear zit cushion dweeb in your graduating class now owns controlling stock in every corporation you and each member of your extended family have ever worked for. It's the kind of wonder that leaves you asking one question: How?

And there are so many "how" puzzles at The Bistro. Once known as Le Caviste, The Bistro was altered when longtime Dallas chef Guy Calluad and his wife, Martine, took it over and opened a casual version of Calluad's, the onetime eatery on McKinney Avenue. Calluad retained Le Caviste's French bistro motif, but he supplemented it by introducing a tapas menu.

In 1996, Jim and Liz Cantrell purchased The Bistro and transformed its somewhat posh atmosphere with a corner fireplace and amber lighting into more casual space with couches in the bar and other modest furnishings. A former chef with the Four Seasons Hotel and an executive chef at the Barkley Hotel in Chicago, Jim Cantrell kept the basic menu structure intact, varying only the mix of tapas and entree items. The most recent revisions include 35 tapas items and 17 entrees with an emphasis on fresh seafood. The wine list has been expanded to include selections from California, France, Italy, and Spain.

And it's with the wine list that the "how" question first emerged. After ordering a bottle of Santa Sophia Bardolino, a light red wine from Italy's Veneto region, our server presented me with the bottle and poured a glass for tasting. Unless the Italians had recently taken to making wine from fermented 40-weight instead of grapes, the color of the wine--the hue of an 18-year-old Scotch--indicated trouble. I sent it back and requested another bottle that was in exactly the same condition. In all my years of dining, I have never returned a bottle of wine because it was unsound--in reality, the only legitimate reason to do so.

How can something like this occur from a modest list of perhaps 65 wines unless there is a serious lack of attention on the part of the restaurant, the distributor, or both? Our server returned with the list and invited me to select another wine, but it was several minutes before she checked back to take my order, a pattern of laxness that continued throughout the meal. Which brings me to the second segment in this series of Bistro "hows." On an evening when at most four tables were occupied at any one time, how can service be so woefully inattentive?

The third "how," of course, was the food. With several tapas and entree selections sampled, only a few rose above mediocre, most notably the Key lime pie, which had a thick graham-cracker crust, an intense tang in the custard, and fresh shreds of lime peel on the whipped cream topping. Virtually all roads leading to the pie, however, were treacherous. Our opening-menu salvo was a gazpacho. Speckled with chunks of cucumber and soggy croutons, this cold tomato soup was a disappointment thoroughly lacking in intensity and robustness. The grilled quail with fresh herbs, a hot tapas selection, was chewy and flavorful. But it was marred by a thick, bland egg-foo-yong-like demi glace that masked rather than enhanced the fowl.

Then there were the fried goat cheese cigars: logs of Montrachet goat cheese seasoned with paprika, cilantro, garlic, and herbs and wrapped in phyllo dough. These egg-roll-like cheese tubes were unappealingly greasy and overbearing. Astoundingly, a simple dish of mixed olives suffered from rancid kalamatas and nicoise olives with an odd, Vicks Vapo-Rub sort of flavor.

Tapas selections gradually improved. The Norwegian smoked salmon was moist, tender, and satisfying. But, in addition to sour cream and diced egg and onion, it was accompanied by capers that were mashed instead of whole--a somewhat disturbing peculiarity. Better still was the mini steak tartare, a hearty, flavorful chopped--not ground--mound of tenderloin seasoned with parsley, onion, Tabasco, and a little ketchup.

But the entrees stumbled. The lobster fettuccini with sun-dried tomatoes and pesto was speckled with tough, waxy bits of lobster washed in a pesto that tasted old and flat. And while the veal scaloppini was loaded with tender, juicy pieces of meat, the viscous demi glace splashed with marsala lumbered through the dish without adding anything of note.  

Which leaves me with the original "how" question: How can a restaurant that obviously wishes to align itself with excellence let such obvious service and menu blunders slip right under its nose?

Hotel St. Germain. 2516 Maple, (214) 871-2516. Open for dinner by reservation only Tuesday-Saturday, 6-9 p.m.

The Bistro. 5405 W. Lovers Lane, (214) 352-1997. Open for lunch Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; for dinner, Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5:30-11 p.m.

Readers with comments may e-mail Mark Stuertz at markstz@juno.com.

Hotel St. Germain
Prix Fixe Menu $75 per person

The Bistro
Gazpacho soup $3.25
Mixed olives $1.50
Mini steak tartare $5.75
Norwegian smoked salmon $5.50
Fried goat cheese cigars $3.50
Lobster fettuccini $15.00
Key lime pie $4.50

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