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Fish story

Just a guess, but I suppose Daddy Jack isn't planning on moving after all.
The last time I talked with Jack Chaplin at any length, he was considering pulling up stakes and going back East where he came from, instead of swimming upstream (so to speak), making a living as a seafood restaurateur in Dallas. I say, three cheers and raise a glass to the notion that he's staying here with us, a conclusion I'm jumping to because in the last year Jack has opened two more properties: the Raw Bar, a late night blues and oyster bar on Lower Greenville near his namesake Daddy Jack's Oyster and Chowder House and, most recently, Daddy Jack's Wood Grill in Deep Ellum. Chef Jack Chaplin is like the maritime Johnny Appleseed of North Texas, spreading fish instead of apples through the Dallas desert. Somehow, his fishy ideas always seem to take root.

White-tablecloth quality at red-checkered prices has been Chaplin's lifetime goal as a restaurant owner. Chaplin is a man who wouldn't eat at the Mansion as long as the dress code required a tie: for Jack, food isn't a style you put on and take off, it's a way of life. He wisely settled on seafood as his prime medium--something we want and something he knows and we don't. Jack's seafood is easy, inexpensive, good, and fun as well as delicious. (Besides the restaurants he owns, the success of Lefty's in Addison owes a lot to Jack's philosophy of the table--his ex-partner Kenny Bowers opened what is basically a copy of Daddy Jack's (from lobster-red walls to lobster) out on Belt Line, with Jack's blessing and support. It seems to be Chaplin's attitude that there's room in this pond for all the fishes.)

Daddy Jack is not the only proprietor of the Wood Grill. This is a restaurant determined to destroy the cliche that too many cooks spoil the broth, and he's found some culinary soul brothers to share this kitchen with. Both chef Anthony Guercio, formerly morning sous-chef at Star Canyon (before that, he worked with Dean Fearing at the Mansion) and chef Bruno Melli have an interest in the Wood Grill, and so far this unorthodox cooking by committee is working well. The shared goal, according to Guercio, is to play with people's taste memories, to cook food that's really approachable and serve it up in an atmosphere to which people can come several times a week. (It's a place, says Guercio, where you can "wear a Gucci suit or bring your kids.") That means this is a kitchen that sends out good-tasting, not just good-looking, food. The dishes are likely to sound familiar and chances are the sauce was made in the pan the food was cooked in, scraping up every bit of the flavor.

Daddy Jack's Wood Grill has signed a lease on the best location in Deep Ellum, which has been occupied by a string of losers ever since Buffalo Club muscled its way into The Quadrangle. The dining scene in Deep Ellum used to be one of the most exciting in town--food here was just breaking free from Southern Southwestern cliches. The scene slipped, but it's been climbing back from boredom lately, and Daddy Jack's Wood Grill sets the new tone, the new demand: good food, no bull. The crowd when I ate there included a number of Dallas "foodies."

I half-expected this place to make a stab at chicdom, to try to sell itself to nose rings with an aggressively hip atmosphere like The Green Room. Instead, the most noticeable difference between this and the Chowder House on Greenville Avenue is that the walls are not red. The kitchen is open, so the chefs can look out over the tables. The tables are covered with red-and-white-checkered cloths, chairs are standard Thonet-style brass. You've seen this kind of look before, but design is not the issue here. Food is.

We were, in a way, lucky to be with some people who'd never eaten at one of Jack's places when we first visited the new Wood Grill in Deep Ellum. (It's so gratifying when you invite someone to dinner and it's a good experience--the chef's proficiency appears to be your good idea. We didn't spend too much time collecting credit and buffing our nails over this one, though, because we were too busy eating.) This being a Jack Chaplin enterprise, we didn't try the grilled chicken with corn gravy; or the roast rack of lamb with Dijon; or the grilled filet with apple bacon, roasted walnut, and Roquefort butter. They all sounded tempting, but good seafood is still so scarce in Dallas that, expecting quality, we ate fish.

A tower of bread slices, Empire sourdough, and cold pats of butter clue you in that this is a place about quality. And the gorgeous salad of grilled portobello and sticks of asparagus over greens confirms the first impression. Many of the dishes here are familiar to anyone who's eaten at Jack's place on Greenville (or for that matter at Lefty's). On its written menu, the Wood Grill looks like a proven experiment. There's the bargain-basement lobster, the mussels marinara, the New England crab cake and the lobster diavolo. Then you hear the list of specials dreamed up daily by the chefs and it's all news: How about snapper on top of curried rice with green peas and a pineapple-spiced rum sauce?  

A summer special, gazpacho, was cold, tart, sweet, and utterly refreshing, processed slightly more than traditional gazpacho so the vegetable texture was just nubbly instead of chunky, just thick enough to support the weight of some big irregular croutons and flakes of white crabmeat. The only dish that disappointed was the appetizer of shrimp and scallops, and it really suffered only by comparison: The scallops were very slightly overcooked, not to rubber but to greater fibrousness than I like, and for some reason the flavor of the shellfish didn't shine. The lobster cake, on the other hand, a special appetizer, was a marvel. Crisp-crusted, the tender patty broke open at the touch of a fork and the texture was wonderfully light and creamy, with big chunks of celery to complement the meatiness of the shellfish, the whole idea of crab cake not changed but just adapted to suit the flavor and texture differences between the two shellfish.

There's a bar off the main dining room, and we were delighted to hear Arthur Riddles and his boys slide into some smooth jazz as we were ending our meal. A conversation with Guercio brought forth words I never thought I'd hear said by an operator about a restaurant: "We tried a blues band a few nights," he told us, "but they were too loud [italics mine] for people to talk." We took the dregs of our wine and our labor-intensive but lousy cappuccino (our waitress wasn't used to the machine and she apologized--we weren't charged for it) into the bar after our meal to hear a few numbers.

For lunch, the menu repeats itself frequently, but in a lower price bracket. And we tried one dish that had caught our eye at dinner: stuffed shrimp. This is one of those recipes like deviled crab that is so retro it should be cool again, like chunky heels, white nail polish, and polyester. Foods are just like anything else: They're introduced, they become fashionable, then they're overworked and get tired, and finally they disappear completely for awhile, to be revived again by some nostalgic or desperate thrill-seeking cook. But you can't hold onto your Newburg like you can your platform shoes, waiting for what went around to come around. In his new cookbook, An American Place, Larry Forgione gives it a shot, reviving a number of old-fashioned, now unfashionable, dishes: chicken a la king, for one, Waldorf salad for another, cod cakes, and even pigs in a blanket. Stuffed shrimp is one of these dishes. Evidently, as far as the Wood Grill's chefs are concerned, if it tastes good, it never goes out of style. But then, the Wood Grill prepares food with integrity. The shrimp curled tightly and mounded with a sweet-salty mixture of Ritz crackers and herbs is drizzled with butter, then baked in a quarter-inch of melted butter. They came to the table as hot as boiling oil and were so rich they gave you a headache, and yet you couldn't stop eating them, one decadent nibble at a time.

On the nouvelle side, a slab of tuna nestled in a soft bed of refried black beans, topped with pico de gallo made with diced watermelon. The pink-and-black presentation was as striking as the flavors, which improbably worked.

Another diner friend indulged in a personal lobster festival--a cup of the bisque, persimmon-colored, caramel-sweet, with the deep flavor of dark-roasted lobster in a soup as smooth as ice cream. She followed this with a whole lobster, cooked by a man who knows how. It didn't gush water when you cracked into it (it had been drained adequately, as they often aren't); the tail had been snipped down the middle; and with some dexterity with the cracker and persistence with the little fork, one was able to extract the very last bit of meat out of the one-pounder. The flavor of the flesh provided all the motivation for a job well done.

Pecan-breaded rainbow trout is another fish dish that makes an appearance twice a day at the Wood Grill, the delicately moist white meat thickly and thoroughly coated with ground nuts and whose oiliness was offset by a whiff of dried tarragon. A dollop of homemade tartar sauce was the unpretentious finish.  

Most of the entrees came with an ear of corn and a nice small baked potato, rubbed with salt so it barely needed butter, much less the sour cream and chives served with it.

Desserts, except for the wild berry torte that is flown in from Italy, are made by the kitchen: We liked the key lime pie, solidly congealed, with the yellow bitterness of the true fruit, and the sour rhubarb strawberry pie, a Yankee classic too seldom seen down here.

So far, the Wood Grill is pulling them in for lunch and dinner, and my guess is it will become a neighborhood anchor. Guercio says a chef friend asked him, after the Wood Grill had been open for a couple of weeks, "Are you proud of the food yet?" The answer was "yes."

Daddy Jack's Wood Grill, 2723 Elm St., 653-3949. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.- 2 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday-Thursday, 6 p.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 6 p.m.-11 p.m.

Daddy Jack's Wood Grill:
Grilled Portobello and Asparagus $6
New England Crab Cake $5
Lobster Bisque (cup) $4.50
Pecan-Breaded Rainbow Trout with Tartar Sauce $13
Grilled Red Snapper topped with Gulf Shrimp and Lobster Brandy $18

Lobster Bisque (bowl) $4
Pecan-Breaded Rainbow Trout $7
Baked Stuffed Shrimp $8
Lobster Insanity!!! (One pound Maine lobster, boiled) $8.95


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