Nothing up his sleeve: With a little culinary sleight of hand, executive chef J. Chastain makes this beautiful tuna vanish.
Nothing up his sleeve: With a little culinary sleight of hand, executive chef J. Chastain makes this beautiful tuna vanish.
Meredith L. Moore

Flavor Pulls a Disappearing Act at the Second Floor

What has yellow skin and writes? A ballpoint banana, of course.

Stole that one from the classic 1966 version of Batman, the one where Penguin purchases a surplus nuclear submarine under the alias P. N. Guin to fool Navy officials, and the Riddler fires skywriting surface-to-air missiles. Usually Frank Gorshin's Riddler posed less esoteric questions: What goes up white and comes down yellow and white (an egg), or what people are always in a hurry (Russians)?

There's something compelling about a riddle, whether wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma or not. That's why we remember the childish mind twisters from Batman's archenemy, why Houdini's escape antics endure or the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't illusions of a Copperfield deserve their own prime time slot. When a performer can flick his cape and cause the Statue of Liberty to disappear...well, you know there's a trick, but it's impressive nonetheless.


The Second Floor

Casear salad $9

Calamari $12

Sliced tuna $14

Hudson Valley foie gras $24

Blue cheese burger $14

Chicken pappardelle $14

Day boat scallops $24

In that sense, J. Chastain, executive chef at The Second Floor, deserves acclaim.

Imagine the setting: a front-row seat—the others often being empty on my visits—to a plate of bright tuna slices interspersed with watermelon; the fish is so delicate it seems to melt on your tongue, the fruit juicy, saturated with vinegar and redolent of summer. Each piece seems just right on its own—expressions of fresh, tangy flavors with a sharp, citric burst from a few strategic flakes of lemon-flavored sea salt. But sooner or later you yield to temptation and slap a little of the fish and melon together and, voilà! The tuna disappears.

Oh, you know it's there. You can feel it collapsing gently on the palate. The flavor, however, has vanished under a sweet-sour shroud.

This kind of thing happens over and over throughout the meal. A beautiful lobe of foie gras, seared to the point where solids just about dissolve and a rich caramelized crust crackles into the skin, sits atop two slices of what the menu calls brioche but appears to be Southern spoon bread laced with cinnamon. It's an inspired pairing—the gritty spice should plunge into the liver, dragging its more rustic, gamy flavors to a greater depth. But in this case the foie gras bows to the bread, the cinnamon in turn yields to the liver. Eventually the dish resembles two annoyingly polite drivers stopped at a crossroads, each waving the other ahead first.

But perhaps I promise too much intrigue. The cooking, while technically perfect, generates little excitement on delivery. Fried calamari, for instance, arrives on a massive plate alongside a puddle of sauce bearing a subtle kick. It's tender and clean, dusted heavily with herbs, easy to dig into—and easy to forget.

Then again, who remembers calamari? The massive plate, on the other hand...

On a lunchtime visit I ordered the tuna and a Caesar salad, to be served at the same time. The former, arrayed on a long, stark white rectangular slab of china nearly bumped the ginormous bowl of greens to the floor. "Our tables are too small for our plates," the waitress acknowledged while helping me shift things around. "That's one of our fun quirks." My dinner guest on another occasion observed the same thing as we shuffled empty glasses to make room for entrees. She sat on a bench along the back wall, propped sufficiently higher than my four-button chair, which lost a button during the meal, causing the metal hook to poke me in a locale rather awkward to describe without subjecting myself to sophomoric ridicule.

Don't want to be the butt of any...never mind.

Presumably the consulting chef-design team Scott and Gina Gottlich thought through every detail and calculated the possibilities. Hotels often purchase two- and four-tops slightly smaller than the restaurant norm in order to hustle guests in and out of the breakfast area, and these have a similar feel. Oversized chinaware is part of the attire necessary to catch the trendy crowd's constantly flitting eyes.

There are times to, you know, buy some old-fashioned, functional plates and let the food go it alone.

Chastain's repertoire includes a Caesar so mundane that whole marinated anchovies disappear into an overabundance of dressing miraculously transformed into something akin to Miracle Whip. His blue burger starts with good ground beef charred until a rough yet sweet flavor emerges from the caramelized scars, but ends in surge of tart cheese powerful enough to wipe out the taste of meat, bacon and sautéed onions—again a one-note dish. Whole wheat pappardelle, served precisely at al dente, dissolves into a forgettable monochrome mass largely the color of kitty litter: gray-tan pasta, gray-tan chicken, gray-tan sauce, all dominated by the herbal waft of basil.

Those perfect touches become nagging—the exact pappardelle, melt-away tuna, juicy burger and day boat scallops seared on each side to a point just centimeters (sorry, learned that in Europe) beyond the elusive point where the heat barely touches in the middle. The chef has talent. So why do so many of his creations disappear from memory?

Maybe it's the setting. A consulting designer draping the space in beige and shades belonging to beige could not disguise Second Floor's conference room feel, as if it's haunted by the ghost of PowerPoint presentations past. Despite some stylish lamps dangling from the ceiling, fluorescent lighting remains. None of this shines on a series of mismatched frames encasing the apparent results of a faux finish technique class at Home Depot, signed by the artist. The restrooms are out where the terrazzo ends and durable carpeting begins, between two real conference halls.

Just beyond the frosted glass separating the dining room and lounge, it's a different experience. Behind the bar rest whiskey bottles by the dozen—the bartender claimed 75 labels, although the menu lists 65. An ethanol-fueled fireplace cube flickers in one corner, reassuring whatever trendy types wander in of the bar's worthiness. Soft, low-slung seating adds to this effect.

And here is where people, just a few, tend to stop.

So after a quiet dinner one evening, broken only by occasional bouts of rearranging as courses arrived and the rather startling appearance of four new guests as we finished up, I rode the escalator downstairs to Oceanaire. The long-established seafood destination, considered by many to be Dallas' best, swirled with activity and noise. Folks waited at the bar for tables, and a bevy of frocked servers waited on one particularly boisterous group.

Lacking Oceanaire's visibility, The Second Floor just seems to fade away, the unfortunate magic of location and signage—which, in some way answers another riddle: What's somber upstairs and rollicking down?

13340 Dallas Parkway (inside the Westin Galleria), 972-450-2978. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday and 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday. Breakfast 6 a.m.-10:30 a.m. daily. $$$


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