Full circle

It's a culinary Frank Capra script. Call it downright heartwarming.
The lovely old house that used to be home to Routh Street Cafe has been through some changes since the famous restaurant closed, as has Russ Hodges, who worked in that stellar kitchen with the first talented team under Stephan Pyles. His name is still familiar in Dallas, but almost as an itinerant chef. After leaving Routh Street Cafe, he was executive chef at Hotel Crescent Court, founding chef of both J Pinnell's and Fog City Diner, Dallas, and final chef at the late Juniper. In between, he had a career in Arizona.

Several months ago, chef Chris Svalesen called Hodges to help on a consulting basis as Svalesen took over the kitchen at Yellow. In the process, Hodges and T. J. Mand, Yellow's owner, hit it off. Mand called Hodges when he wanted a chef for his new restaurant. "It's where that Belgian place was," he told Hodges. "What, a waffle house?" "No, where Capriccio was, where Vaccaro's was. Where Routh Street Cafe was." "Oh yeah," said Hodges, "I believe I know that place."

Hodges clicked his chef's clogs together and presto! There's no place like home. A happy ending for all of us.

So here is Hodges, come full circle, ensconced again in the kitchen of the house that Stephan Pyles built. It must be a slightly haunted homecoming for him, but he knows all these ghosts and they're friendly. Good for Hodges, good for the old Routh Street building, but better for us. We get to eat Hodges' cooking at its best, in a complementary setting.

The restaurant is called Americana, and Hodges says he's picking up where he left off at J Pinnell's, only doing it better.

"Sometimes, when you learn what you can't do, it's strengthening," Hodges says. At Fog City and Juniper, Hodges' latest Dallas gigs, he was a self-confessed square peg in a round hole. A chef can't cook in a vacuum, and good ones can't cook in just any kitchen, either.

Diner cooking was too prescriptive, Hodges says. Fog City Diner, Dallas is supposed to be a clone of Fog City Diner, San Francisco. That didn't leave much room for a chef's creativity.

Juniper had a strong following of Francophiles who had French expectations Russ says he wasn't interested in fulfilling. Russ's metier is regional American cooking, of that particular type that had its genesis in the '80s.

In contrast, Mand has set Hodges up for success by letting him have carte blanche with the creative end of Americana--Hodges even came up with the name, which perfectly reflects his cooking philosophy and which he found while thumbing through a cookbook by James Beard, the greatest proponent of American food ever. The big guy would have liked this restaurant.

Hodges calls his current style of cooking "regional American seasonal." It's a culmination of all he's learned so far. The opening menu includes a lot of his greatest hits from other venues. Some dishes, like the foie gras, flashed and sauced with dried berries and port, will be remembered from J Pinnell, and some, like the crab cake, from the height of his misplaced efforts at Juniper.

Between them, Hodges and Mand have restored the award-winning modern interior, which they've brought it into the '90s with a healthy respect for that originally created by the late designer Tonny Foy. Instead of echoing with streamlined ocean-liner luxury, like the Cafe did, Americana is jazzy, more casual, and more approachable. The tables are set with Arne Jacobsen's 3107 chairs, purchased appropriately from Foy and Pyles' Baby Routh. The depressing powder-blue walls, a legacy of the Belgians, have been repainted a warm golden color, with simple blond-wood grids where the awful etched glass panels used to be. White-draped tables set with cobalt glasses and red napkins, and wall art by former Dallasite Dan Rizzie add touches of bright color. The effect is stylish, New World, classic.

The service, more solicitous than necessary, was at the same time less professional. Of course, you have to factor in the single-child syndrome; our waiter had absolutely nothing else to do that evening but hover over, worry about, and advise us. We were the only diners in the restaurant the entire evening. The valet was just as bored: He kept his textbook on computer language handy in the entry, several chapters of which he probably mastered during the course of our dinner, and the car was at the curb before we'd left the restaurant.

Wine and cocktails were complementary, because changing the name on the liquor license from "Chez Jacques" to "Americana" is more complicated than it sounds, and Austin takes its time with these things. We sipped a Robert Mondavi Chardonnay as we studied the menu.

The kitchen makes the bread, served hot, with a delicate crumb and a lightness like old-fashioned Sunday dinner rolls. It's not the European-style peasant bread we've come to expect from restaurant bread baskets, now routinely filled by Empire Baking Company, regardless of the restaurant's gastronomic provenance. Instead of butter, a creamy roule-style dip made of tomatoes, garlic, oil, and egg. The care taken with these set the expectations for the dinner to follow, with which we weren't disappointed.

The crab cake was a single, delicate patty instead of the usual two, but it was a big one, with a relish of corn kernels, kernel-sized cucumber and tomato dice, smoked tomato, and sprigged with Mexican mint marigold, known as "southwestern tarragon," even though Russ is not a "southwestern" chef: He serves American food which has a broader scope and actually nods toward our European heritage, too.

Rich, dank veal sweetbreads, the meat luxuriously fine-grained and more tender than the accompanying Portobello mushrooms (an interesting reversal of the usual role of meat and vegetable), were served over a central heap of whipped potatoes, with the evergreen aroma of rosemary and the rich crunch of pecans adding a contrasting liveliness of scent and texture.

The fabulous soup had the richness of a dessert:A brown, satin mushroom broth was made velvety with the tangy Wisconsin cheddar melted into it.

After this richness, entrees seemed dauntingly large and rich. A rectangle of salmon, cut two inches thick, was criss-crossed with grill marks, served on a hash of quartered new potatoes--browned and crispy-skinned, the insides still sweet and creamy--the richness of crumbled blue cheese on top and a lake of sauced blue cheese beneath gluing it all together. Rays of carrots and asparagus provided color, therapeutic crunch--and vitamins, I guess.

A wood-stack of rosemary-glazed lamb chops, tender and sweet, cooked to American Beauty red, with their bones all bundled together, rested on a bed of flageola. The combination, a French classic, is one that Hodges played with at Juniper, but this version was better. The lamb had a stronger flavor, the beans were more subtly seasoned, and the accompanying potatoes had a clever, livening touch of balsamic vinegar.

Ebler Farm chicken, a roasted, demi-boned bird, with slightly dry breast meat, came with barely truffled potatoes.

It was all sumptuous food, lavish and substantial.
It is my studied opinion that American desserts are the best in the world. The French and Italians soak everything in liqueur and cream (to make up for the dryness of their cakes, I suspect) and, of course, the Chinese and Japanese just don't quite grasp the concept. Desserts should be delicious at an American restaurant and these, all made in house, were remarkable.

Cinnamon-seasoned apple dowdy--Hodges was specific, labeling it a "dowdy" as opposed to "grunt," "buckle," "cobbler," or, heaven knows, mere pie--came with homemade rum-raisin ice cream.

Creme brulee--which Hodges should know how to make after his stint at the Crescent--had a crisp, bitter sugar top heaped with berries heated to a shrivel, the blueberries particularly nice with the thick, creamy custard.

Experienced diners all, we unanimously rejected the flourless chocolate choice, each because of our own nightmare memory of a gluey death-by-chocolate concoction, but the waiter insisted and brought it out anyway. It was an incredible chocolate dessert, probably the best chocolate dessert in Dallas since we lost the Quadrangle Grille's chocolate torte. Not the usual gummy, fondantlike thing, this pielike slice had instead a tender texture that melted to cream in the mouth, the perfect chocolate bitterness only barely tinged with sugar. The cream and the pearly, rich espresso ice cream that came with it just smoothed the intensity.

This restaurant is American in the best new gastronomic definition of the word. Hodges, when he's let loose to do what he believes in, has a clear sense of American cooking and eating: The heartiness and the underlying simplicity are not too cluttered with tricky technique and obscure ingredients. This food has a real old-fashioned sense, too, recalling the kind of American you met in Henry James, the turn-of-the-century Yankee that became a stereotype: bigger than life, rich, confident of success. Take another look at Americana's logo. That star over the "R" stands for Russ and it means something. I'd give him five.

Americana, 3005 Routh Street, 871-2004. Open for dinner Sunday-Thursday, 6 p.m.-10 p.m.; Friday- Saturday, 6. p.m.-11 p.m.

Wild Mushroom and Wisconsin Cheese Soup with Truffles and Aged Cognac $5.25
Grilled Veal Sweetbreads with Giant Portobello Mushrooms, Fresh Rosemary, and Spiced Pecans $8.25

Grilled North Atlantic Salmon on New Potato Hash with Fresh Asparagus and Warm Blue-Cheese Dressing $17.50

Roasted Balsamic Potatoes $22.50


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