It's early in The French Room. It's filled not with diners but with music plucked and bowed from a string quartet. A harpsichord joins the jam. Later, "Musette" by J.S. Bach is played. On a harp. The music does much to craft the rarefied ambiance. The music sets the pace. The music is shrill.
Bouncing and reverberating through an empty room with marble floors and high ceilings featuring frescos of cherubs prancing through billowing clouds, the violins chafe the ears. Conversation is stunted. Ordering wine is a pickle.
We ask our server if he wouldn't mind turning it down--strange for a musical genre that doesn't employ a drum kit or sampled hard consonants from a female larynx. "My pleasure to serve you," is the favored reply. Someone at our table orders a glass of white Zinfandel, a very un-French Room thing to do, apparently. The French Room doesn't have that wine. The point is made gently but firmly. Hmmm. Is this where the pleasure stops?
To many in the culinary trades, white Zinfandel is a wine list pollutant. Humbug. I say it's a godsend. How many former white Zinfandel sippers stumbled out of the pink into a glass of slightly sweet Chardonnay before being smitten by Merlot before Sideways infected them with a Pinot fetish? Can Côtes de Nuits be far out of headlight range? How many of those now locked in Pinot's grip once only sipped beverages made from amber waves of grain?
To his credit, our server steered our guest to a German Riesling, which our guest eagerly sipped and unraveled accolades for when asked for an opinion, but who knows? When wine is intimidating and you discover your favorite pink drink is a black sheep, you'd swear a tightly bound Bordeaux clutched in the throes of dumbness tasted like nectar (pass the Splenda, would ya honey?).
Today, Zinfandel is the fourth leading wine grape variety planted in California--more than 50,000 acres of the stuff. A majority of it is used for white Zinfandel. Red Zinfandel accounts for a measly 2 percent share of the total 160 million cases of California table wine shipped in the United States while white Zinfandel gulps a 14 percent share. It's the third best selling wine in grocery stores after Chardonnay and that Sideways stepchild, Merlot. So why not keep a wine list slot open for it? It's cheap, unobtrusive and your audience would be much more receptive to a bait-and-switch if they knew they have the option to revert to form than they would if they were oh-so-politely made to feel like a wine boob. The French Room, after all, is in a downtown hotel built in 1912 by beer baron Adolphus Busch, whose name today is best known for branding a minor-league NASCAR racing series.
Funny how the only other hiccup in The French Room experience was wine-centered as well. It was the bottle of Alsatian Pinot Gris, a crisp, slightly nutty sip. The wine was poured. The bottle was deployed to a service table and wasn't seen again for centuries until a row of empty and near-empty glasses finally triggered the service instinct, and the wine was quickly retrieved and re-poured.
From there, service catapulted to the highest reaches of professionalism. A sommelier was dispensed, steering us toward a 2002 Joseph Drouhin Chambolle-Musigny and away from a California Pinot Noir that was roughly half the price. The selection was good, though. The delicate cherry and spice flavors were more adapted to French Room cuisine than the rich fruit forward notes of the Pinot.
The notes on the menu are forward, too. Try this: Study of veal and wild mushrooms--roast tenderloin, butter shank and crisp sweetbread alongside truffle whipped potatoes with natural jus and date jam. Actually it's lamb jus, and it's dribbled across the three medallions of veal substance arranged on a rectangular plate like a dessert sampler. "On the veal, you have a study of veal," emphasizes our server. "It's going to be the veal tenderloin, veal shanks and veal sweetbreads. Do you like sweetbreads?"
We'd never had them like this, coated and fried. They're buttery, rich and smooth. Shank is deliciously rustic. Tenderloin drools juice and flashes hints of pink when cut. It's so precious, this study.
Duck is just flagrant decadence. "It's going to be medium rare," says our server with meticulous articulation. "Crispy outside, and the center is going to be medium rare." But this isn't even the half of it. Off to the side of the thick ribbon of sliced duck breast is a dab of duck confit tangled around tobacco-brown shards of caramelized pearl onion. This cluster is capped with a lobe of foie gras-- an exquisite sliver of liver with a thin but sturdy veneer shielding creamy depths profusely sweating rich nutty flavors. A tiny, bright orange dab of butternut squash purée tacks down the other end of the plate. It's as rich as custard. The sauce? "Dried sherry port wine sauce," says our server. "If I may?" He pours. He deposits the silver pitcher in front of the plate. Duck breast is tender, juicy and rich.
Duck must be a significant composition. Our server returns for commentary: "I want to tell you, this duck looks just wonderful," he says. "This is," he pauses and looks up toward the cherubs wallowing in the cloud puffs on the ceiling, "I don't know...superb. Well, bon appétit."
Almost all of this meticulous meddling is the work of Executive Chef Jason C. Weaver, who slipped into the French Room kitchen last August, bringing with him a decade of kitchen wear at some of America's top hotels including the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Dearborn, Michigan, the Mandarin Oriental Miami and the New York Mandarin Oriental. His stint in the Marine Corps probably didn't hurt either.
His compositions are as architecturally stunning on the plate as they are sensually compelling in the mouth. Witness the seared ahi tuna and ahi tuna tartare. "Let's go from the bottom to the top," says our server, pointing to the layers on the plate. "Seared ahi tuna, cucumbers, micro cilantro, tuna tartare, over easy quail egg on top." The quail egg looks like an excerpt from a Lilliputian breakfast. It's still warm; the yolk runs when the yellow is pierced. Two long slivers of chive rest like chopsticks off to the side of that egg.
The seared tuna is encrusted in chervil and thyme, more of a Mediterranean touch than anything. It is satiny and rich. But the tartare is clearly an Asian structure, with the coarsely ground tuna grains posing like rice in a sushi roll. The tuna is impeccably clean with hints of lemon sewn throughout--a stunning piece of work.
Chilean sea bass comes in a bowl, resting in a puddle of herb sauce, like fresh pea soup, bright green and smooth. A few feta-ricotta tortellini erupt from the green pool like snapdragon blossoms. Bound in potato, the fish is moist, flakes under the slightest pressure and is racy and sweet--slyly hinting at a wild streak.
Salmon behaves similarly, crusted as it is in horseradish. The fish glistens peach on the inside. Shivering rare. Bracing in its raciness. But this is tempered. Accompanying the salmon is a ragout of short rib and rock shrimp. Herb spaetzle, too. Obviously, this isn't French food, it's Euro-Yankee heterodoxy with a little Japanese manufacturing prowess thrown in for dazzle.
The coda is proof: a delicious baked apple and hazelnut strudel with caramel sauce brushstrokes on the plate that look like stag beetle pincers. Mango opaline with coconut cream and raspberry sauce tugging at a scoop of mango sorbet adds a little drama.
So come to the French Room: one of Dallas' truly great forays into dining opulence. Bring an open palate, an open mind and an open wallet. Just don't ask for white Zinfandel. Have a Busch Light instead. 1321 Commerce St. in the Adolphus Hotel, 214-742-8200. Open 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. $$$$
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