One of the inverted glass bowl chandeliers hanging from the ceiling is busted. Not blemished like a chipped tooth, but damaged like a hockey player's smile. It's a natural, accidental impairment in a dining room packed with faux threadbare touches. The creamy walls are blotched with a crackle finish--fraudulent architectural varicose veins. The floors are covered in slightly roughened stone tile (or an imitation of such), and the walls are planked with dark paneling that winks at rusticity but doesn't offend with splinters or termite damage. (There must be a faux artist out there who can replicate these things.)
It's Italian-villa fake, complete with jutting roof awnings clapped with clay shingles over the bar. That's why that busted chandelier stood out: It's a piece of seasoned authenticity. A suggestion: Bust some more things. Take a hammer to the walls here and there and expose some studwork that can be pummeled and stained into weathered Euro-chic; chip the clay roof tiles; pour acid and bleach on a couple of the wall sconces to give them an oceanic corrosion touch; jam a bird's nest in the window casing.
This is not to suggest this villa schlock is out of place. Josephine's is in Southlake's Town Square, a kind of easy-bake metropolis with businesses that seem to shut down before most cities wake up. Faux kind of gets tiring, though.
Thank God the food wasn't faux. Hell, it wasn't even villa filla. Sure, there were a few entries like calamari with marinara (chalky and uninteresting) and grilled chicken in gemelli pasta (juicy breast strips in a brisk garlic sauce).
But mostly, it's a global flit, one with decidedly Mediterranean slants. Josephine's chef is Kelsey Sukel, who did neo-Asian work at Citizen and woked at Bamboo Bamboo, that repository of grub from "the bamboo regions of the world." Little green Asian shoots appear here and there, but they're more like shadows than a dominating glare.
Shrimp scampi spring rolls have such a touch. Four hefty roll pieces swaddle small shrimp coils and are tightly packed with lots of vegetable tailings. It didn't merge well. The shrimp tasted like scented soap suds, though the creamy lemon sauce, which tasted like meringue, was delicious.
Similarly, Asian spices wrestle with seared foie gras. Served in a large black bowl, the strip of liver rests on a pedestal of polenta in a pool of powerful curry vanilla sauce. Then there's that crown of violet merlot-poached apple shreds. All the standard foie gras tugs and nudges are here: the fruit, the wine, the grain (clever, booting out the brioche or toast and slipping in the corn) and the sweet from the vanilla bean. But aside from this frill, there's little left to sink your teeth into. The foie gras was remarkably dull: no richness, no nutty finish, no silky texture (more like flan). It needed depth. Hell, it needed salt.
Aside from talent, the kitchen exhibits divergent thinking, because it tried to rescue actual flan with...salt. This was a deliciously firm flan with dark inky berry sauce. But salt? I was puzzled. It drove me into fits as I tried to tease out the genius that went into this flavor mix. What brilliant metaphors were being thrown at my taste buds? Then I took a spoonful of the raspberry sauce. Grrr. This wasn't ingenuity; it was klutz. The kitchen crew salted it by mistake. Our server took note, and comped the flavor train wreck.
That server was prime. She knew most of the menu, or at least knew heavily salted berry sauce was not flan-friendly. She was attentive, too, locking an unobtrusive eye on her tables. Several minutes after noticing I had ordered a bottle of Oregon pinot noir, she slipped me a note with the name of a California pinot as well as the wine shop from where it could be had. "If you like that, you'll probably like this," she said, nodding to the bottle on the table. Now that's a pro.
But Sukel's a pro, too, despite the salt detour (shake it on the liver, not the berries). Crab cakes, a pair of bronze pucks, one leaning on the edge of the other in a bowl of chunky, smoky gazpacho, were frizzled with a pinch of tomato-cilantro salsa. The gazpacho was warm instead of chilled, and it had a predominant celery flavor. But that didn't matter, because these cakes were brawny: all crab, with little or none of that revolting bread filler mush that turns most cakes into strained meat Twinkies. These are crabby cakes in all of their chunky, briny glory.
And salt becomes glorious in an ingenious little piece called roasted beet and arugula salad with hearts of palm and truffle vinaigrette. Here, a simple pinch of green fluff is set off with two golden beet pieces and juicy red beet sections bordering the plate. Hearts of palm are applied as small ribbons and fragments instead of robust slices. What this application technique does is disperse the palm heart's sharp, brisk flavors, successfully blunting the arugula's bitterness while jabbing the smoky beets as well as the salty, earthy truffle dressing. This was brilliant interplay.
But it is in the entrées where Sukel really comes into his own, even though there is a stumble. Two of the menu entries have italicized headings before you skid into the descriptions. One hits high notes; the other falls flat.
The troublesome one is duck two ways. It's two zones of duck anatomy with disparate treatments. It's a busy plate, with slices of ruby red mirin-marinated breast rimming the plate edge, a dollop of delicious mousseline potatoes nudged next to a "crisp" tempura-blond duck confit leg, arugula and a roasted Texas peach half dropped in for indecipherable reasons. Breast slices were tough instead of silky, though parts were gooey, and they seemed gripped with disturbingly off flavors. The leg was simply uninteresting.
Trio of pork, on the other hand, easily reached into the clouds of brilliance. A pork medallion, buckled in a bacon belt, rests atop slices of Italian sausage. The medallion was pink and juicy, and the confluence of flavors--the smoke punch of the bacon knuckling with the spice of the sausage--was compelling interplay. Under all of this rough-and-tumble was an Italian sausage mushroom risotto, creamy with separate grains. The sausage here took on sweet tones framed in fennel, adding yet another dimension. Like chicken, pork is mostly a blank culinary vessel, making it ideal to transport disparate flavors and leaving them to hash it out on the plate. This trio is bebop.
Other entrées nearly hit these heights. Though shy on richness, the prosciutto-wrapped salmon was crisp on the outside, medium rare on the inside and silky overall. A choice fillet was rich and silken, and the truffled potato and mushroom cannelloni was as thrilling as it was odd. Heck, all this restaurant needs is some mightier duck and a bag of hammers to redecorate.
1239 Main St., Southlake, 817-912-0990. Open for dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$-$$$
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