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Eddie's Red Adventure

Like chardonnay, merlot is a wine that is simultaneously subjected to derision and gushing plaudits. While the masses lap it up, those with discriminating noses and fat wallets sneer at the stuff, even as they shell out thousands of dollars to prominently stuff examples from Pomerol or Saint-Emilion into their cellars.

In his book The Wine Avenger, wine writer and consultant Willie Gluckstern scoffs at merlot, noting that "as a red grape, merlot is the 'un-red wine,' the twin to chardonnay in its use as a neutral, low-acid base for oak flavoring...Like chardonnay, merlot has a one-dimensional flavor profile (some nonspecific mélange of plum-like fruits liberally dosed with chocolaty oak)...Like chardonnay, they all taste virtually the same--like wood."

Gluckstern may be wrong about the woody flaw. Most merlots taste like berry Kool-Aid sediment. Wood on the finish is a welcome distraction from this fruity banality, at least among those who prattle about pH and the Brix scale.

Of course, there are exceptions. A few California merlots--Duckhorn, Arrowood, Benziger, Pahlmeyer--transcend fruit drinks and wood pulp. But the truth is hard to deny: Merlot ain't hip.

And neither is Eddie Merlot's. For one, it's a steak house. Secondly, Eddie Merlot sounds like a guy who has just made the leap from Pabst Blue Ribbon to the wine list after a thorough Queer Eye humiliation. Not that Eddie Merlot's isn't a terrific restaurant. It is, but...

Eddie Merlot's was founded by Indiana businessman and wine connoisseur Bill Humphries, who serves on Subway's corporate board. Once, at a board dinner, new member Ed Lively asked Humphries to surprise him with a great wine. Eddie's Web site elaborates: "When the wine--a merlot--was poured and tasted, Ed was exceedingly impressed, and told Bill, 'From now on, always order the merlot.' 'And from now on,' Bill replied, 'you're Eddie Merlot.'"

Today Lively, through his McKinney-based Signature Restaurant Group, is developing the restaurant in the Southwest--Austin is next--while Humphries is focusing on the Midwest.

Yet I couldn't bear to order merlot at Eddie Merlot's. The whole idea seemed too creepy. So I skirted the Kool-Aid paradigm completely and ordered a bottle of The Crossings pinot noir, a specimen from New Zealand that is light and fresh with understated fruit foiled by spice and savory flourishes.

Eddie Merlot's doesn't carpet bomb diners with a wine list as eye-glazing as the tax code. It offers just 180 bottle selections, but it displays its wine wit by serving 63 wines by the glass via little decanters, storing all red wines at a consistent 62 degrees, showing these wines the deep respect they deserve and populating the tables with only Spiegelau crystal. Bottle prices range from $20 to $1,198 for that most lusted-after merlot, a 1983 Chateau Petrus. "We didn't want it to be $1,200," says general manager Trey Aitken of the price. "It sounds better at $1,198."

But does the menu sound better than those of other Dallas steak houses, which continue to spread across North Texas like an intractable case of chicken pox? Not really. The menu is riddled with the same mind-numbing monotony: garlic mashed potatoes, crab cakes, creamed spinach, fried calamari, onion rings, sautéed mushrooms and the ubiquitous shrimp cocktail--but not just any shrimp cocktail, Eddie's Smokin' Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail. A little dish with a lettuce leaf holds four tasty, slightly tough shrimp. Below the main dish is another dish with hot water the color of weak tea bathing a chunk of dry ice. Is this an appetizer or a KISS concert?

And what steak house would dare eschew the lettuce wedge? I wish someone would do a cruel twist on this one, maybe brussels sprouts wedgies with grape tomatoes. Yet this one sets itself apart with brisk cleanliness: a crisp wedge with acres of green folds instead of those cloudy white and yellow layers that tend to lean heavily into dirty bitterness.

Soups make an appearance, too. Hatch green-pepper chili is a deft little soup: thin and tangy with a nice burst of pepper heat foiled by sweet corn.

Prime steak soup deploys bits of the top 2 percent of all beef cuts into a pedestrian pottage stocked with carrots and potatoes. It's bland and a waste of resources.

Yet in some ways, Eddie Merlot's is different from the hefty steak-and-stogie lounges that pimpled Dallas before the city enacted a smoking ban. "It's just more contemporary," attests Aitken. "It's not the same cookie-cutter dark, men's club corporate atmosphere."

Indeed. Eddie's is riddled with stained glass accoutrements, smooth curvaceous flatware, concave vaulted ceilings with inlaid wood, taupe banquettes, cream chairs tattooed with a delicate geometric pattern rendered in burgundy and peachy cream torchères tossing light at the ceiling. It's the feminization of the last corner of blazing testosterone.

To introduce the main attraction, there's a wet-aged, USDA prime dog-and-pony show. The server hoists a platter of prime cuts, each snuggly swaddled in cellophane, thick fat rims hugging rosy centers sown with marbling. The server offers a short biographical sketch for each one before plopping it down.

The bone-in New York strip was tender, rich, engorged with juice and perfectly grilled, a dab of butter drooling over the crispy, fatty edges.

Fish was even better. Eddie's opah (a "moonfish" common in Hawaii) is a smashing experiment in simplicity. I once badgered some opah in Kona, improvising a quick marinade with ginger, soy, scallions, garlic, sea salt, pepper and a little lemon on my hotel vanity before grilling the stuff on the beach. I should have left it alone. This opah was grilled simply with salt and pepper. It was served over crisscrossed stalks of grilled asparagus assembled on the plate like a crude raft. Below the planks was a salsa of diced tomato and cucumber. The briskness of the salsa jump-started the flavors of the rich, dense opah, a cousin in culinary disposition to swordfish.

Pan-seared tuna fillet is perhaps the brashest piece of brilliance coming out of this skilled kitchen. It's a bifurcated piece of marine musculature, one side armored with black and white sesame seeds, the other side powdered with blackening spices. "It's kind of a yin-yang thing," says chef David Marshall, who was most recently the executive chef of Liberty Noodles. The fish is scorched in an iron skillet and pulses with rose-red satiny textures. The spice dust tugs at its sweetness while the sesame toys with its nuttiness.

Eddie Merlot's is a cliché filled with clichés. But it feverishly rings every drop of elegance out of each weathered culinary corner, giving it sustainable life.

Crème brûlée was perfect: a thick warm lid with scorch marks that break up the vanilla monotony with shards of bitterness here and there. The custard was cool and smooth. It harbored the kind of complexity you might wish the vast merlot lake flooding restaurant wine lists possessed. The powers of the culinary blowtorch are vastly underrated.

8650 Highway 121, Frisco, 214-618-6335. Open beginning at 5 p.m. daily. $$$-$$$$

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Eddie Merlot's - Closed

8650 Highway 121
Frisco, TX 75034

214-618-6335

www.eddiemerlots.com


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