Procter & Gamble discovered long ago that you could breathe new life into a product, such as a box of Tide or a tube of Crest, by slapping the words "new" and "improved" on the package. The actual improvements may be little more than a sprinkling of little green "fresh scent" granules that make your clothes smell as though they were line-dried at a French bordello or a new shade of translucent gel that adds a loud, Las Vegas hue to your gingivitis.
But we swallow the packaging hook, line, and sinker, and walk around with tingling smiles and smelling like a car air freshener. This is the sort of trickery that came to mind when I received a press kit hailing the new and improved Fog City Diner.
"Fog City Diner in Dallas, the popular Uptown restaurant, just commemorated three years in the city, has unveiled a new menu and has returned to its parent company," says a news release. Buried in that sentence's tangled syntax is the suggestion that more than a few people recognized that Fog City wasn't up to snuff in its Dallas incarnation. (In addition to the San Francisco original, there is a licensed version in Osaka, Japan; a corporate version in Las Vegas; and another one scheduled to open in Chicago in April.) A dramatic rebirth seemed necessary via a purchase by the restaurant's founder, San Francisco-based Real Restaurants Inc.
Real Restaurants, which had licensed the Fog City concept to a group of Dallas investors that included Dallas Cowboy Troy Aikman and Texas Ranger Will Clark, determined that the food and service here had slipped irrevocably, muddling the crisp, creative approach of the original. With menus under the eye of acclaimed California chef Cindy Pawlcyn, Real Restaurants has some of the nation's finest and most provocative dining venues. After sampling the original Fog City and a few of the company's creations such as Mustards and Tra Vigne in Napa Valley, and Bistro Roti and the Pan-Asian beer house Betelnut in San Francisco, anyone could conclude that this Dallas component was little more than a foggy imitation. That's a troubling contradiction for a company named Real. The food lacked focus; the service was erratic. "It's been a realm of trial and error," says Executive Chef Tomas Lee. "We're trying to get to that point of being consistent and people coming back."
On the surface, the changeover seems as deep as the new-and-improved starburst packaging splashes on a box of reformulated laundry soap. A few Texas-inspired menu creations have been dropped, while others have been added, and a few more have been tweaked. Nothing dramatic, really.
The perceptible shift here is in attitude. The service is crisply efficient, congenial, and seemingly attuned to customers. On my second visit, a manager, a waiter, and a busboy each recognized me from a previous stop and inquired about my experience--which, honestly, wasn't very impressive.
A seared rare tuna, avocado, and orange salad--a big hair mound of watercress over sections of orange, less-than-tender avocado, and a trio of tuna slices--suffered from a lack of freshness. The tuna had a grayish hue instead of the deep pink characteristic of the freshest rare flesh. The flavor was limp, tired, and void of crisp cleanliness, which is essential if rare tuna flavors are to come alive. A crust of crushed peppercorns was mushy, perhaps because the peppercorns were ground too finely and easily absorbed the moisture of the fish.
The truly surprising dynamic of the dish was the tang tug-of-war between the sections of tart orange and the dribbling of bright orange achiote (a chili seed) vinaigrette across the tuna slices. But this liveliness was not enough to rescue the fish. With riper, tenderer avocado and fresher cuts of tuna, this preparation would have been a stunner.
Slathered with a single slice of perfectly melted New York cheddar on a square bun, the hamburger also had its drawbacks. The thing was so soggy, it gummed the lower portion of the bun into a gooey mess. Plus, the meat had the sharp bite of grill grit coupled with an off flavor reminiscent of rancid grease--a burger definitely not dominated by rich meat flavors. A side of hearty fries was adequate, but lacked seasoning. Interestingly, this was the preparation that turned me off to this Dallas venue two years ago.
But subsequent visits elevated the experience significantly. According to Lee, one recent menu tweak is the replacement of straight chicken quesadillas with a version made of cambozola, grapes, and almonds, a swap that emphasizes a simple but vibrant layering of flavors over straight chew goo and caloric weight. The soft, flaky tortilla holds a restrained application of sharp cambozola (a German blue cheese) that provocatively plays off the tang and juice of the halved grapes, while bits of almond lend a heartiness and firmness.
A Fog City signature, the salmon BLT is a veritable poster dish for the brilliance that's possible when simplicity is coupled with relentless attention to detail. A grilled slab of salmon exploded with fresh richness, while thick, chewy slices of hickory-smoked bacon lent smoke and heartiness without clouding it with fat. Fresh spinach, tomato, and a restrained application of a caper-tarragon mayonnaise on focaccia bread provided the flavors a medium for mingling without choking the construction.
Maintaining--perhaps surpassing--this heightened pitch, the smoked ham-spinach ravioli in roasted tomato-sage broth triggered a flurry of fork-stabbing at our table until the plate was reduced to nothing but a few saucy smears. Three large and chewy ravioli with ricotta cheese, ham, and spinach topped with thinly sliced jack cheese were slathered in a broth created from braised ham hocks simmered with a mirepoix in chicken stock for six hours. This stock is then added to browned butter, fresh sage, and tomato, which serves as a thickening agent as the stock reduces. The result is a smooth sauce bordering on creaminess with a range of clean flavors that move from tangy to smoky to sweet. It was elegantly satisfying and well balanced.
A bit perplexing, though, was the spicy venison meatloaf. A thick, dense slice of loaf topped with tomato sauce, this preparation was neither spicy (despite the presence of jalapenos) nor particularly interesting in its display of venison flavors. Because venison is so lean, pork is added to the mixture to help bind it into a loaf. But the preparation seemed to swamp the distinctively sweet, nutty venison gaminess. As a traditional meatloaf, the dish was successful. But I was looking for an unusual flavor twist and a firm spark, as the menu heading implies. Both were conspicuously absent.
A tall side of garlic mashed potatoes in a minimal ladling of light, earthy wild mushrooms was creamy with just the right charge of garlic zing.
Swinging back to the less sophisticated side, the flatbed chili dog again shows how attention to detail can make the most pedestrian concoctions shine. Made from a halved Chicago firedog that's browned on the griddle, this spicy sausage comes with a lean chili thickened with masa instead of flour and topped with red onion and white cheddar. The chili application is moderate, so the thing isn't a swampy mess, while the meat flavors are allowed to break through. And unlike my burger accompaniment, the fries were seasoned with a flaked salt and lemon-pepper blend, a touch that made all the difference.
The warm chocolate-chili tart topped with coffee ice cream was actually a surprising cap on this refined diner grub. Despite the name and its imposing looks, this Cindy Pawlcyn creation wasn't asphyxiated in richness. A warm, crumbly dark-chocolate tart toned with ancho chilies was actually light and the chili heat finish combined with the ice cream chill made for an interesting interplay.
It's hard to do anything but laud a diner that would even offer a respectable wine list, and seemingly criminal to nit-pick the contents. And Fog City's is relatively broad in its varietal representation, if slightly unimaginative in composition (Silver Oak Cab and Duckhorn Merlot are practically wine-list cliches). But perhaps the most intriguing thing on the list is a quote attributed to Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: "A wine drinker, being at table, was offered grapes as dessert. 'Thank you,' he said, pushing he dish away from him, 'but I am not in the habit of taking my wine in pills.'" Wash it down.
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The crisp air-stream shape of the diner--with its mahogany interior, underlit onyx bar with a rippled chrome ceiling, black leather booths with brass accents, and windows that saturate the place with natural light--offers a comfortable, sophisticated atmosphere that seems right at home on McKinney Avenue. And the focus on placing the whole operation into the same league as the rest of Real's roster should yield tangible benefits for Dallas diners, giving the term "new and improved" a meaningful bite.
Fog City Diner. 2401 McKinney Ave., (214) 220-2401. Open 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday.
Dish it out; we can take it at email@example.com. J
Seared rare tuna $7.95
Cambozola quesadilla $6.75
Grilled salmon BLT $7.95
Flatbed chili dog $6.50
Spicy venison meatloaf $11.95
Smoked ham-spinach ravioli $10.95
Warm chocolate-chili tart $4.95