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Full o' bull

There are at least five indicators that tell you a new restaurant is not just another place to eat, but a major seismic event: 1) you need a reservation to get in on a Monday night; 2) every Mercedes in the parking lot has a model number of 500 or greater; 3) the valet and host staffs alone could easily fill most Dallas restaurants; 4) there's a wine on the list for $35,000; 5) someone ordered it last week.

By these measures, III Forks is a big deal. In addition to having a wine (a 1926 Chateau Haut Brion) costing as much as a year at Harvard with full beer privileges, the place can seat more than 1,000 and has a kitchen staff that includes 35 chefs and a front-of-the-house staff numbering more than 200. You need a golf cart to traverse the long, polished hardwood floor of the foyer that separates the entrance from the host stand, and there's a towering, 24-karat gold-leaf dome rising above the restaurant's roofline.

It's overwhelming. So overwhelming, even the staff doesn't know what to make of it. Look what happens when III Forks' public relations department is queried on the genesis of the operation:

Me: What exactly are you trying to create with III Forks?
Forks PR: A grand steak and seafood house. All of our food is Texas-French style. So we believe our building falls along that same sense.

Me: What do you mean by Texas-French?
Forks PR: Sorry, I don't understand the question.
Me: When you say Texas-French, what does that mean?

Forks PR: That's the style of food that we serve, and I believe that the building is also in that style.

Me: I'm not familiar with a Texas-French style of food. What does that mean exactly?

Forks PR: Humph. I'm not sure how to explain that. What do you mean by "what does that mean?"

Me: How does Texas-French incorporate either traditional French or nouvelle cuisine?

Forks PR: I would say it's a great mix of traditional Texas and traditional French. Texas-French.

Me: OK. Well then how does the restaurant itself carry French architectural or decorative influences?

Forks PR: I would say the whole restaurant in itself is built in the Texas-French style.

Desperate for a straight answer, I prodded Executive Chef Matt Chisholm. (Just days after I spoke to him, Chisholm abruptly departed III Forks. See Hash Over, this page.)

Me: How would you describe Texas-French?
Chef Chisholm: Captain Bob Cooper, the founder of III Forks, is 257 years old, and he maintains his age because he drank from the Fountain of Youth 200 years ago.

Me: Where is this fountain located?
Chef Chisholm: The Fountain of Youth is in East Texas. So Captain Bob Cooper believes in his heart that the French stole all the recipes from Texas. So when we say Texas-French, what we mean is that all the recipes we do are original adaptations of our own creations rather than us taking from France. And what it comes down to is what we serve here is real Texas...I mean, you don't raise beef in France.

More than a restaurant, III Forks is a virtual employment pool for the White House press office. It's no wonder the stock market is so bearish. All the bull is under that 24-karat gold leaf dome.

How much bull? Let's count the ways. First, there's the whole convoluted conundrum of the Texas-French designation, which roughly translated means it's French because there isn't a speck of French pedigree on the plate. It's 100 percent Texas mutt--or more accurately, steer--thumbing its snout at the fussy snoots.

And as far as I can tell, other than the stained glass in the foyer, which was handcrafted in France, there are no French architectural strains in the place either. The 21,000-square-foot building with garish moldings slobbered all over the walls and ceiling looks more like a muscle-bound Plano estate than a chateau.

Then there's III Forks head honcho Captain Bob Cooper, an alias for Del Frisco's Steakhouse founder Dale Wamstad, who high-tailed off with untold millions after Wichita, Kansas-based Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon scooped up his restaurant in 1995. He wanders around the place greeting guests, telling folks how honored he is that they've stopped by his humble steakhouse. Only in Texas is a restaurant the size of a zeppelin hangar considered humble.

Yet if he's the savvy businessman his millions indicate, why isn't he selling drops from that East Texas fountain for the same price he slaps on his Australian lobster tail, which weighs in at $84?

Even Executive Chef Matt Chisholm offers his share of bull. He's actually none other than Matthew Antonovich, former executive chef and cofounder of Sipango. (He says he hasn't legally changed his name. Yet.) Antonovich--I mean Chisholm--is a co-proprietor in III Forks along with front-of-the-house manager Jonna Fitzgerald, a onetime Miss Texas who plays the fiddle. Instead of artwork, the foyer has big color photos of Chisholm, Fitzgerald, and Wamstad. This restaurant is not about subtlety.

But that's probably the ingredient least necessary to a good steak. I say this because III Forks is the first place I've visited in a long time that's made me glad I'm not a rabbit or a vegan. Every cut, from the medallions of tenderloin to the rib eye, is juicy, tender, and sweet. And there's really nothing to the preparation. It's dusted with a blend of seasonings and tossed on a high-temperature broiler--the same process used by virtually every decent steakhouse in the land.

So why the difference in flavor? The secret to good steak lies not in the kitchen, but in the barn, the slaughterhouse, and with the butcher. You have to have intimate knowledge of where that steer has been, how it lived, the complexion of its inner beauty.

Plus, you have to make sure that when the meat kisses the grill, it has plenty of moisture to ensure tenderness and flavor. "Beef is a buying experience," says Chisholm. "People tend to over-age their beef. They tend to dry-age their beef. They tend to not buy the right product."

Yet beef is not the only thing this bull session pulls off with its minimalist, pasta-less menu. The house salad is a compelling little clump of leaves with crumbles of blue cheese in an earthy, vibrant dressing thrown together with balsamic vinegar and molasses perked with orange and lemon.

Without a doubt, the shrimp cocktail has the firmest, most succulently sweet crustaceans ever to do pull-ups from a glass rim. They come with a cocktail sauce or a remoulade that Chisholm claims were created through a great expenditure of effort. But dipping these tasty things in sauce seemed like putting a vinyl top on a Porsche.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the rest of the menu's swimmers. The sea bass with shrimp, capers, tomato, and mushroom treading in a butter and white wine sauce was mushy. And the generous seafood salad was loaded with ocean flesh that had all the engaging flavor of a high-fiber shake. But this is what happens when you believe gills and hooves are interchangeable.

Still, while III Forks slips with fish, it gets its traction with tubers. The herbed mashed potatoes were silky, moist, and flavorful.

It doesn't do badly with roots either. The carrot cake is a case study in simple elegance. Instead of a jumbo wedge of sticky frosted bulk good for two bites, this rendition was as easy to eat as it was tasty. The basic cake is baked in a loaf pan, sliced thin, and mortared together in layers with a cream cheese frosting--hearty, moist, rich, and, best of all, approachable.

Which is what service was, for the most part. And this is no small feat in a room with the brisk to-and-fro server flow resembling a knot of subway commuters during rush hour. Yet the service was attentive, sincere, and friendly--a dynamic that lent calmness to the surrounding frenzy.

Taking pot shots at this overblown, kitschy steak castle is too easy. There's a riser near the host stand where a musician plucks guitar and croons country ballads. The dining-room chandeliers are fashioned from deer antlers. A globe the size of a presidential fib sits anchored in a wood-and-marble stand in the foyer.

If a successful operator's idea of a good time is to spend millions (reportedly five) on a "Texas-French" feeding trough so he can stroll around telling strangers he's a 257-year-old captain humbly honored that they decided to stop by to lap up his bull, well that's fine. Just make mine medium-rare.

III Forks. 17776 North Dallas Parkway, (972) 267-1776. Open for dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday, 4:30-9 p.m. Sunday. Open for Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. $$$-$$$$

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III Forks

17776 N. Dallas Parkway
Dallas, TX 75287

972-267-1776

www.iiiforks.com


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