Dressed to the nines

Mondo's has the whole world of dining in its hands.
Tracy Powell

Time was that the 99-cent threshold for pricing was the sole domain of the grocery store, or at least it seemed that way. It's an old strategy. Knock a penny off a price and make it seem like the customer is saving a buck, while the cent saved ends up in the "leave a penny, take a penny" tray at the 7-Eleven.

Ninety-nine-cent thrift shops aside, it seems that dressing pricing to the nines is hitting everything. I'm looking through a sale paper now as I rattle on at 35 typos per minute, and I see a powder-blue embroidered cushioned toilet seat for $6.99 (there's a bubble above the price with an illustration of a finger poking a divot into the seat under the word "squish"). There's a wooden park bench for $19.99 and a Primos Ol' Glory Turkey Call -- whose frictionite surface is versatile enough for loud calling or seductive finishing calls -- for $19.99. (The strategy doesn't always work. My father recently put his Chrysler for sale at $9,999.99. After two weeks without a call, he dropped the price to $8,250.)

Where I never expected to get a case of the nines was an upscale casual restaurant. Mostly what you see on upscale menus is something like this: Sumac-marinated Chicago lamb rack, goat cheese potato tart, and licorice and lemon mint jelly -- thirty-six. But at Mondo's, a new casual upscale restaurant in North Dallas that's part of a nine-unit chain, every price is dressed to the nines: tortilla soup $5.99, falafel on focaccia $8.99, sashimi seared sesame tuna $10.99.

Actually, the last in that series is strikingly good. Slices of rich, silky tuna were interspersed in a layered tower of cucumber shavings, slices of daikon radish, crisp wonton, and pickled ginger. The area around the tower base is beaded with squirts of wasabi cream speckled with clumps of bright orange tobiko caviar. Everything rippled with freshness, and though this pagoda-on-a-plate sounds busy, it was actually a balanced layering of flavors and textures.

Linguini with spinach, interspersed with strips of chicken breast by request ($14.99), didn't work nearly as well. The chicken was parched. And though the linguini was firm with just the right amount of give, it was drowning in a vegetable broth knobbed with pine nuts, mushrooms, caramelized onions, and roasted garlic.

As you can see, Mondo's, the possessive form of the Italian word for "world," is one of those everything-but-the-phone-by-the-throne type of restaurants designed to appeal to virtually every taste imaginable. It has Mexican, Italian, Asian, and American handiwork. Plus pizza. Always pizza. It's not unlike that store selling padded toilet seats, wood-slatted park benches, and turkey calls with seductive finishing whoops.

Launched some 25 years ago in Iowa, Mondo's is the brainchild of James Mondanaro, a guy who seemingly believes in preparing everything from scratch. Close to half of the 17,500-square-foot Mondo's space in North Dallas is devoted to a two-story kitchen that prepares everything from breads to fresh pasta. The rest of the place is crusted in dark mahogany, paved in marble, and striped with lines of bright abstract paintings that look as if they came from an assembly line of starving artists hopped up on Red Bull.

With nine restaurants in Iowa, Dallas, and North Palm Beach, Florida, and one pending in Scottsdale, Arizona, Mondo's launches its restaurants with groups of independent investors under license from Mondo's parent company, Fresh Food Concepts. "Each one of our restaurants is molded," says Jason Lepper, Fresh Food Concepts' corporate buyer in Dallas. "They're grown. We do them one at a time because there's a lot of details involved." Which means lots of kitchen equipment, much of which is on wheels so that it can be quickly moved or replaced as dining trends shift. "We can change with society," Lepper boasts.

But even with this lunge after as much of the population as possible, Mondo's comes off successfully, at least more successful than its culinary wide-net rival, The Cheesecake Factory. Mondo's ambience is comfortable in that model-home game room sort of way, and the servers are brisk, friendly, and efficient, if a little rusty on menu details. But with a menu crammed with 22 sandwiches, 16 soups and salads, and 14 pastas, among other things, a little rust is inevitable.

The menu listing says the mussels Messina ($8.99) is piled with 18 Prince Edward mussels. We didn't count. But whatever the number, they were tender, sweet meat knobs parked in a pool of wine, garlic, butter, shallots, and rosemary. The dish worked well, thanks to a proliferation of tomato tatters that injected it with acidic firmness.

Which is what pummeled the steak DeBurgo ($25.99). Two medallions of charbroiled Angus beef are planted on a puff of coarse Parmesan peppercorn potatoes -- dry, heavy, lumbering Parmesan peppercorn potatoes. The meat, which was fairly tender and rich, was pestered with a balsamic sauce that was supposed to be slathering the grilled vegetables -- bell pepper, onion, summer squash, zucchini -- which would have been fine on their own. The meat was supposed to be seasoned in a sauce of white wine, fresh herbs, and garlic butter, though there was no sign of the stuff.

Dessert can be delicious. The oatmeal pie ($4.99), a dense, chewy, crumbly slab of decadence disguised as healthful fiber, was sweet and rich without being overbearing. Plus, the coffee is rich, brisk, and bursting with alluring pungency. You know they take coffee seriously at Mondo's. It costs $1.75.

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