I was asked recently by a neighbor what standards I use when assessing a restaurant. This is the question that comes right after "what qualifies you to be a critic?" as the top-three most commonly asked. (No. 3 is "How often do you go out to eat?") If I'm not going to be impertinent, the answer actually changes from restaurant to restaurant. It's not that I'm wishy-washy, it's that every place is so different there can be no absolute standard.
Comparing restaurants, even ones that serve the same kind of food, is like comparing your children. It's meaningless and can be damaging. You have to keep in mind what the restaurant is trying to do, whether it fills its niche, whether it fills its potential. Plus, you have to remember where it is--this is Dallas, after all, and not New York. Really, reviewing a restaurant is more like reviewing a performance than a product. There are that many variables and interpretations, that many different wishes and ambitions to be fulfilled. Beyond ascertaining for sure that the restrooms are clean and that the beef is really beef and not horse meat, there aren't any absolutes.
This all explains why I can say I like Flip's, one of the most multiply ambitious restaurants in Dallas.
The subtitle, "wine bar and trattoria," doesn't say it all by a long shot. Its hours alone tell you this is more than a restaurant. It is a wine bar--maybe 30 wines are available by the glass--but it's also a beer bar. It's also a blues club, an art gallery, a first-date haven, a hangout for aging and infant hippies, a neighborhood fixture.
The spheres and towers of chrome outside the door signal the art aspect as do the art tables inside, each a glass-topped sculpture. Ours was a glittery moonscape populated by toy dinosaurs and framed in newspaper headlines. Unfortunately, our moon was eclipsed--the light was so spotty we could barely see the scene arranged under the glass. It was soon all covered up with plates of food, anyway, delivered by our serious waitperson.
There was a plate piled with Flip's "Italian nachos," evidently a Greenville Avenue specialty because these were very like the "Ital-chos" served up the street at Terilli's. A pile of pasta chips was not quite loaded enough with melted mozzarella, pepperoncini, tomato wedges, and a choice of extras. (We picked artichoke hearts.)
Flip's is highly democratic: Pastas were offered mix-and-match, too. The generous portion of thick, barely chewy, house-made rigatoni was good topped with spicy marinara, though the additional topping of sauteed vegetables seemed to have been waiting for us too long. Both dinners and pasta come with soup or salad and bread, making the pasta prices ($10.95 to $13.50) more of a deal. Lasagna was fine, though of the messy variety. (I prefer less sauce, more pasta, making a cohesive, to my mind more elegant dish.)
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The focaccia-crust of one pizza was a little too "white bread"--soft and perfectly round--but the quattro formaggio on top had melded deliciously into a single golden sheet, from which you could still pick out the characteristic taste and fragrance of each cheese (mozzarella, fontina, provolone, and Gruyere). I preferred the prettily named "mezzaluna" pie, an assertively crisp, almost hard crust of nutty whole wheat lightly spread with pesto, polka-dotted with globs of white goat cheese ( I would have liked more) and braced up with intense strips of oiled sun-dried tomato.
Flip's new chef is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, an institution which turns out some top chefs (The Riviera's David Holben is a local star alumnus) and a lot of Holiday Inn-caliber hotel chefs, but you can't judge a chef by his schooling. The food at Flip's is good, but I couldn't compare it to Mi Piaci, Pomodoro, or Ruggieri's. The point is, I don't have to. I only have to compare it to other wine-and-beer-bar-art-gallery-music-venue-hangout and there isn't one.
Flip's Wine Bar & Trattoria, 1520 Greenville Ave., 824-9944. Open Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sunday, 5:30 p.m.-2 a.m.
Flip's Wine Bar & Trattoria:
Italian Nachos $3.95
Rigatoni con Sauce Marinara $11.50
Pizza Quattro Formaggio $8.50