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Fruia's Tre Amici

Chef Tim Soufan welcomes you to Dallas, circa 1999: prime beef and a massive dining room... at slightly reduced prices.
SARA KERENS

Does Dallas need another steakhouse? Well, it's not as if we've really added one, as Fruia's Tre Amici merely fills in a gap vacated by Rick Stein's—covering, fortunately, some of Stein's bordello red paint scheme in the process. But the massive new restaurant's opening brings up a more interesting debate, one that never seems to trouble this steak-friendly city: wet or dry?

Not talking about those pernicious rules governing the sale of alcohol in some parts of town—and, indeed, you must momentarily surrender your driver's license before ordering drinks for the first time at Tre Amici, thereby joining the mythical "private club" and satisfying long-dead religious zealots. No, I'm more concerned with the treatment of red meat.

Curing beef by allowing it to hang in a controlled setting (dry aging) or rest in vacuum-sealed bags (wet aging) greatly improves the taste and texture of the meat. Depending upon conditions, it can sit for a month or more, withering gradually and developing the husky, nutty character craved by aficionados—the result of a natural rot that breaks down proteins while dissolving the tissues and collagens that make fresh cuts so unpleasantly chewy. Until the advent of plastic, butchers used the dry process almost exclusively, carving away decrepit flesh and moldy spots before presenting it to customers. Nowadays, some 90 percent of all beef sold in the United States goes through wet aging...if aged at all.

Why the dramatic shift? After all, dry aging produces intensely flavored, tender steaks noticeably superior to their counterparts. And by some twist of enzymatic alchemy I've never fully understood, it also traps more moisture when the meat hits the pan. Of course, the difference is a matter of degrees to some people. More important, as steak waits in dry dock it shrinks significantly. Wet aging prevents this, maintaining size and weight, giving restaurants a more stable sense of such things as inventory and pricing. It's a tradeoff, in other words: supple flavor in exchange for consistent size and a little cushion in the wallet.

Once upon a time, when Judd Fruia served as general manager of Pappas Bros., he held firm and dry against any diminution of steak. But with the opening of Tre Amici, he switched sides because, as he puts it, "Dallas is a wet-aged city."

Hmm...the proud home of steak settling for second best?

Well, at least Fruia's kitchen knows how to coax the most from a wet-aged prime cut. Ordered rare, the rib eye shows a cool center and feels like glossy cashmere on the tongue, if you'll pardon the hyperbole—gentle, almost feminine, though somewhat slick and struggling to find that beautiful melt-away sensation. Flaked carefully with a few grains of salt and a little pepper, the taste finds plenty of space to roam, lumbering slowly, draping across your palate, lingering. It's kind of sexy and oafish at the same time.

Tre Amici, however, is styled not just as a steakhouse, but one "with Italian flair"—which translates into something a tad offbeat. Imagine, for example, Bolognese with Texas accents...in other words, a serving of pasta sloshed in meat sauce spiked with a healthy wallop of heat. Otherwise limp, soggy fries reek of salvation in the form of truffle oil and grated Parmesan, a hollow, piquant and altogether trendy combination likely to excite those who call themselves "foodies."

The kitchen's lobster bisque claims traditional lineage, at least according to the menu, but a quick taste exposes the claim. Instead of competing sensations of richness and sharp alcohol floating over a grounded mirepoix, barely sustaining sweet shellfish, you get something entirely unique. First, the expression of heavy cream envelopes your palate followed quickly by a curious whisper of something akin to coconut liqueur. Before you think, "whoa, that's kinda wimpy," another force swoops in, vengeful in nature and ready to disrupt the party and kick the living crap out of softer flavors—the nature of Texas once again, boastful and spicy. This is definitely not your typical bisque...nor is it a simplistic Southwestern update reveling in blast furnace heat alone. Fruia's kitchen staff lassos the undercurrent of chili before it wreaks too much havoc, wrestling it to the ground. In so doing, they create an entirely new and intricately balanced stew of which slimy bits of lobster meat are the most distasteful aspect.

Tre Amici is a strange and wonderful place. It's all wrong, but very right.

Italian-Texas concept aside, nobody opens a 300-plus-seat monstrosity serving prime beef in such uncertain times. "We're not recession-proof," Fruia acknowledged in a phone interview, but this is his place—a nod to his family heritage, a lot of the things he learned from Pappas Bros., quite a bit of local flair and the attention to detail that made him so effective as a GM. For instance, there's a notch in the wall above the bar and to the right, largely hidden from public view. Here sits a piece of metallic sculpture impaled on a rod and sporting a few odd splashes of color. Out front on one visit, directly in front of the door, another sculpture: someone's vintage Camaro convertible, speaking of wealth and class and age.

Certainly this is a restaurant for a different era—the Clinton years, perhaps. Except the pricing is not obscenely Dallas. Yes, it can be expensive, but at $36, the 16-ounce rib eye rises many stories higher than Cadillac Ranch's suspect $34 Kobe flatiron steak, and the latter casts itself as a moderate roadhouse. Although shoved into the role of a side dish, the $8 Bolognese could serve as a meal.

So maybe Fruia has softened a bit. Consider the restaurant's salmon entrée. At medium rare, it emerges seeping fat yet firm and flaky, full-flavored without the overt aroma that turns so many people away from the fighting fish. A crispy sheen reveals all this in its plainest form. And a strange tapenade—which they refer to as pistachio pesto—highlights the basics with notes that are warm, earthy and biting with candied fruit. If you thought steakhouses were unable to cook up a decent fish, this will disabuse you of such notions. If you believe only name chefs can balance bold and subtle flavors, well, just who is Tim Soufan, anyway?

This is a solid restaurant, but not without flaws. Crab cakes present neat, mellow hunks of meat with no wasted filler, seared to a royal gold. The simple assembly is not quite robust enough, however, to stand up to an astringent sabayon, ripe with capers. But the kitchen really falters at the finale. "Tres brûlée," a trio of mini crème brûlées, suffers from a lack of the subtlety displayed in the main dishes. Chocolate flavor supplants the custard's welcome nature, the strawberry resembles Yoplait and pistachio feels artificial.

Ah—finally a little of the old Dallas, a round mound of pudding that feels artificial. But as far as the rest of it, Tre Amici is difficult to pin down. Not an overburdened steakhouse, not authentically Italian—so call it a bizarre fusion of comfort, Italian and Texas.

Finally, in answer to the wet or dry conundrum, dry still prevails. But what is it they used to say before NASCAR became all prettified? Oh, yeah: "Second place is the first loser." Well, Tre Amici reminds us that second still scores a hell of a lot of points.

18020 Dallas Parkway, 972-250-4400. Open 5-10 p.m., Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Bar opens at 4 p.m. $$$-$$$$


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