Like a pair of tectonic plates, itching to lurch forward but frozen into place by geological procrastination, Watel's changes little before making sudden leaps. It was in place on McKinney Avenue and Harwood Street for more than 10 years before scrambling up the avenue not far from Allen Street in 1998. More dramatic shifts were loaded in the tubes last year, when owner Renee Peeters decided to shut down Watel's, move it to a special events facility he had purchased on Allen Street and replace the French bistro with World Piece, a fusion concept founded on the foods and flavors mostly from the globe's tropical enclaves.
Then the landlord struck. Peeters says that as his lease was coming up for renewal, he was notified that his rent would leap 50 percent--a seismic event. So Peeters shuttered his restaurant on McKinney (now it's Joseph Gutierriz's Tutto) and shifted Watel's to his tiny special events cottage on Allen. He's now poised to open World Piece somewhere in East Dallas.
Through these shifts the menu has remained relatively inert, sticking to simple French dishes, such as cassoulet and organ meats such as calf brains, sweetbreads and veal kidneys. "When you look at the reviews, it's all about the organs," Peeters says with a sigh. "I was thinking of renaming it Renee's House of Organs."
One of those organ entries is calf's liver and onions in a balsamic sauce blended with veal stock and white wine. It's a dark, wide, irregular sprawl of organ; a little dry and sinewy, bound with the dark and mysterious threads that hold this bloodstream filter together. The balsamic reduction, sluicing in sweetness without being preponderant, foils the liver's slightly metallic stony flavor. Onions grip that sauce sweetness and amplify it.
But such gutsy signature dishes may go the way of the French Navy. "It just doesn't seem like people care about French food anymore," Peeters laments. "People have a misconception that it's going to be expensive, stuffy, formal, condescending, heavy." Watel's does have a loyal clientele, but they're growing old--or have ceased growing old altogether, as the case may be. Peeters says he's trying to entice their children, but Dallas is a city of sheep, he says, moving in herds from one hot spot to the next. Cracks are appearing in his Gallic fortification.
Fusion creep has crawled through some of the fissures, mocking the organs mercilessly. Just in case you don't fully grip the spiritual origins of the raw tuna, a pair of chopsticks is installed near the edge of the plate, right near the dollop of mango jicama relish threaded with carrot slivers. The tuna is just as it should be: tender and cleanly rich with no cables to be shoved from between the teeth with a menu corner. A glass thimble-like implement filled with soy-ginger dressing rests in the center of this loose mosaic.
Watel's menu is plastic-coated, with sharp stiff corners good for pushing sinew from between the molars in a pinch. The back of the long, wide bill of fare has colorful artworks composed by Peeters' brother. Print copies can be had for $45. Should you choose to leer at the art while attempting to settle on a menu entry, however, there is a slip of paper listing "also available tonight" creations. This slip also has by-the-glass wine selections from $6 to $15 with mostly forgettable California selections (drinkable stuff from the Languedoc would be welcome here) plus a "merlot du jour," surely an inside smirk in this post-Sideways anti-merlot cultural tide we live in.
Grilled shrimp and salmon niçoise also appears on this dining insert. This is a simple piece of joy. Salmon is pink flakes. The surface crunches. Shrimp are firm, rich and juicy--not bouncy like those cured-bead-of-silicone shrimp that infest menus. This seafood is soothed with a warm "niçoise" relish composed of garlic, tomatoes, onions, black olives, capers and artichoke heart.
Gradually the menu tightens its grip on French rails. Escargot is served in a white dish on a plate. The flaky pastry, shaped like a triangular throw pillow, rests on top. This isn't the best batch of snails we've come across. The beasts are a bit mushy instead of firm; they taste a little flat instead of vibrantly savory. And, of course, putting salt on escargot can be cruel and unusual, as nighttime memories of foaming garden slugs creep in with every jerk of the shaker. These snails rest in a tangy yet runny chardonnay-basil sauce, sweetened slightly with shallots.
Watel's sits in a tiny quaint cottage--an old house that was moved and planted on a vacant strip of land before Peeters purchased it. Floating through its votive-lit environs is a ghost of old-house scent, emanating from some mysterious source hidden under the hardwood floors or possibly up in the rafters. It isn't an unpleasant fume; it gives it soul.
Peeters has refurbished the back of the house, a spot he calls the sunroom. It's a sunken area with a brick floor that overlooks a green space, a refuge for power substation cables with the Dallas skyline peeking through as a backdrop. It's endearing, this rustic urbanity.
This winks from the menu, too. Sliced duck breast comes with a couscous high-rise, right there in the center of the plate. It rests with mint, tomato and scallions. Rosy breast slices, shaped like petals ripped from a lily bud, ring the green studded grains. The ends of the slices are tapered to a point, creating a meat orb by implication. Couscous is chilled, separate and aromatic. Meat is delicate, rich and tender--like mesh.
There must be steak, this being Dallas. No au poivre or other Gallic words here, though. This version is a simple tenderloin in Portuguese red wine sauce. It's tasty, perfectly prepared, a little stringy--not enough to deploy the menu corner, which is good, because the server snatched it promptly, perhaps figuring I could swipe it and frame it, flaunting its backside without forking over the $45 toll.
Service is odd this way. First time it's polite and accommodating; second time it's snarling and accommodating with a little aloofness tossed in for sweetness. The waiter seems impatient, and he flexes earnest expressions of annoyance. He compresses his eyebrows, curls his lip, stabs pen tip to paper and blurts, "You ready yet?" Very French.
Not sure how French crab lasagna is, but that doesn't matter, because it's good. The sauce crackles with tang, foiling the crab, which is uncommonly sweet. Pasta sheets are perfectly cooked, supple.
That lasagna makes a fine dessert prelude. Poached pears in port are dense, delicious fruit half-moons stained mahogany and piqued with cinnamon. House-made sorbets are potent pingpong balls sweating raspberry, lemon, honey, pistachio and mango, delivered through smoothly textured ice. Inexplicably they were soaking in berry sauce, something these balls had no use for.
So where does this leave Watel's? Peeters says he plans to execute a light overhaul of the menu, easing away from French into a realm he dubs Euro-Tex. With this, Peeters will exploit Texas' (mostly Germanic) European roots--sausage, cured and smoked meats--rather than the salsas, peppers and tortillas that frequently stamp the state's homegrown grub. In this vein Peeters offers a potato soup garnished in Hill Country jerky instead of bacon, and his cassoulet is packed with black-eyed peas instead of traditional white beans. He plans to substitute walnuts with Texas pecans, and his steak will be lapped in Shiner Bock sauce.
Question: Will the organ motif now embrace Texas calf fries? 2207 Allen St., 214-720-0323. Open for brunch/lunch 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Sunday & Tuesday-Friday. Open for dinner 6-9 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. $$-$$$
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Dallas dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.