Avanti Euro Bistro owner Jack Ekhtiar describes his new restaurant in Addison Circle in a way that is wholly at odds with its appearance. He says he wanted to create a restaurant and bar that was causally elegant, a place where people could be comfortable and enjoy quiet conversation without pushing, shoving, or ruttishness splashed all over the bar top. He wanted a place where you could exit the men's restroom and not find a double-breasted dweeb with facial hair that looks like a map of Idaho on each cheek hitting on the love of your life--or the lust of your hour.
"I don't like sports bars. I don't like meat markets," Ekhtiar says. "I want to create something that people can come in, sit and have a drink, without people coming in and saying, 'Hey baby, can I buy you a drink?' That's very hard to find in Addison, and I'd like to be a pioneer in that."
But if Avanti is the pioneering icon of gentility in the muskiest, meatiest spot in North Texas, it's sure dressed funny. Avanti Euro Bistro comes off like a minx in homicidal regalia. Curved banquettes sequestered in gauzy curtains are covered in leopard prints. Black lacquered chairs are cushioned with leopard-print padded seats, and tables are cloaked in black polyester tablecloths. The back bar focal point is a dramatic pair of narrow, triangular shelves bathed in a shade of neon orange found on those tight bicycle shorts American tourists once flaunted.
"It's Eurotrash," said my stunning blond lunch companion. "Fraudulent country glam." That's possible, I thought as my ears soaked in a bubble bath of adult-contemporary jazz, the kind of music that fills you with the urge to convert every soprano saxophone into a bong. (Avanti plies "Euro jazz" seven nights a week, stuff Ekhtiar describes as music you can enjoy without worrying that "people will get up and try and do the twist.")
But is "Eurotrash" really a pejorative? Perhaps not. While I might wish most people to believe my fantasies involve Cynthia Gregory doing Cinderella in nothing but ballet slippers, in truth I would rather have acupressure treatments with gold-tipped stilettos branching out of a leopard-print skirt of diminutive proportions. Say what you will about trash--it's still fun; it's still tasty. Yet there are provocative little details to keep the smug mind occupied. Spider mums sprawl over each table, their stems inserted into glass test tubes planted into drilled-out divots of smooth river stones. Triangular wall nooks, back-dropped in neon orange, hold pairs of sinuous, thin, elegant metallic sculptures of musicians. Bar soffits are plugged with sconces that look like translucent turtle shells. Huge wall sconces in the dining room cradle clusters of tea candles.
And then there's the menu. Ekhtiar says his ambition is to create a Middle Eastern-Mediterranean menu with French underpinnings (everyone, it seems, seeks to clip their food with French fasteners), like the bistros he finds in Paris and related locales.
It's hard to see how seviche ($6) fits into this vision. But there it is: a glass filled with tender bits of bleached shrimp and calamari with tan scraps of red snapper piled over a patch of arugula, tomato, scallions, and red onion in a puddle of vodka-cilantro-lime sauce. Though tasty, it's a slightly addled collusion of warm seafood that seemed far too distinct from the juices, as if it hadn't absorbed them. Was this seafood poached and perched in this liquid instead of being appropriately "cooked" by soaking in a citrus marinade?
Disks of red and yellow tomato stained with aged balsamic vinegar ($8) appeared compelling. But the slices, speckled with fresh basil, mint, and Roquefort crumbles, were mealy. And though the sweetness of the balsamic attempted a smooth complicity with the tang of the Roquefort, the dressing hung listlessly, never merging.
Entrées also had little stumbles. A piece of Chilean sea bass ($17) (served on a black and white leopard-patterned plate), crusted with crabmeat and perched in a citrus beurre blanc, was thin and utterly uninteresting. The fish lacked sweetness and succulence, a failing for which the crabmeat didn't compensate.
Brazilian lobster ($19) was little better, suffering the same deficiencies as the bass. The slices of flesh were chewy, perhaps a little bitter. Its bath of saffron-champagne sauce was smooth, if a little flat. The real stellar studding on this plate was a simple dollop of mashed potatoes, which were extraordinarily smooth, creamy, and tasty.
Avanti Euro Bistro is almost there. Its prices are reasonable. The food is attractively presented. The service is gracious, attentive, and professional, with servers who have more than a cursory grasp of the food. Ekhtiar himself has an extensive background in Dallas restaurateuring. Raised in England, he came to Dallas in the 1960s and entered the restaurant business under the tutelage of Polish diplomat Stanley Slawik, who founded the Old Warsaw. He severed his ties with Slawik in 1976 and opened Papillon, one of the precious few French restaurants in Dallas. He went to another French restaurant before embarking on a long stint with Federated Department Stores. It was after his period in retail that Ekhtiar opened Avanti on McKinney Avenue in 1989, spreading the tenor of that restaurant to Avanti at Fountain Place downtown a few years later.
But Ekhtiar says his dream was always to open a comfortably sophisticated bistro merging French, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern cuisine. Together with his wife, Nahid, he assembled this Addison Circle venue, and as of this writing, he acquired a new French chef, Gil Ferme, who will perhaps tighten its loose ends.
The menu seems pregnant with potential, although the mazza plate ($8), billed as "a Middle Eastern experience," needs precious little work. Served in a collection of small plates with a basket of moist lavash bread (which could have been warmer), the plate was assembled with Olivier salad, yogurt and cucumber, dolmas, hummus, and tabbouleh. The weakest link here was the tabbouleh, which, though the core ingredients were fresh, had a sharp metallic taste, as though it were drenched in the juices of lemons starting to turn.
But that was the extent of the downturn. Olivier salad, one of Ekhtiar's creations, is a creamy, lively mesh of Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, potatoes, peas, egg, chopped cornichons, and scraps of roasted rotisserie chicken all punched with a touch of jalapeño. Though it was well blended, I found myself yearning for additional spark, hoping the faded green nubs peeking through the cream were capers instead of peas. Brisk simplicity was rampant in the thick yogurt lumped with chunks of a vegetable Ekhtiar says is a rare, near seedless Indian cucumber mixed with dried basil and fresh mint and dried mint. Dolmas were sheathed in tender grape leaves cored with firm, separate rice grains, while the hummus was elegantly smooth and briskly flavored.
The lunch menu incorporates downsized versions of dinner entrées. Even the calf's brain paccata (which Ekhtiar says has been changed to lamb brains, which are far more delicate) makes a lunch appearance at roughly two-thirds the price of its nighttime version.
Black Angus New York strip sirloin ($12), marinated in saffron-onion juice before it's grilled and sliced, was a neat row of tender, chewy strips of flesh a little shy on richness. The meat was interspersed with strips of grilled portobello that helped compensate for the tepid flavor intensity of the meat.
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The lunch version of the Chilean sea bass ($12), assembled over a mango-ginger butter sauce, was better than the dinner menu version, but not by much. It was still thin, and it lacked firm sweetness, yet it was succulent and supple. The drawback here was the thick butter sauce, which, embracing a barely perceptible ginger flavor, was forming a thin layer of skin over its surface when it was delivered.
Desserts (called "The Sweet End" on the menu) hit and missed. Tiramisu ($5, lunch) was the best of the batch, coming through with moist, light delicacy, though the coffee flavors were a little sparse. Fresh berries (blackberries, raspberries, strawberries--$6, dinner) in hazelnut crème fraîche weren't bad either: The fruit was plump, fresh, and sweetly tart, a good foil for that hazelnut puff. But the crème brûlée ($6) was a bit off target with a runny (though rich) custard implanted in a pastry crust that was served uniformly cool--instead of a warm singed sugar crust roof over a cool custard.
But the real mystery--especially for a place of French and Middle Eastern pedigree--was the coffee. It didn't have the strength or zest to wire a bug. Even the espresso was a nap drink.
But that's OK. The wine list, split between California and Mediterranean wines with the designations vin blanc, Euro blanc, vin rouge, and Euro rouge, is respectable (though geographic designations would be welcome). And I could think of worse things than sipping Euro rouge in an attractive room tastefully retrofitted in "Eurotrash." Sipping warm Pabst in a sports bar where they do the twist, for instance.