Ghost of restaurants past

That's a haunted house there on Maple across from the Crescent.
You can't tell by looking--the place still has plenty of drive-up appeal, the bushes are trimmed, and the porch is painted--but it's inhabited by ghosts.
Not the spirits of the people who used to live there, but ghosts of what it used to be.

From the outside, the place looks just as it did when Paul Pinnell and Russ Hodges opened J Pinnell's in Capriccio's old location. Instead of bats and cobwebs trailing from the railings, the clue that something's wrong is the quick-print banner saying "Maple Avenue Cafe." It gives the place a tentative, impermanent feel (maybe they haven't really decided on that name, maybe it's only going to be open temporarily, maybe...this isn't really Maple Avenue!).

That banner's been up on the porch just a tacky touch longer than it would have been if this were a first-run place. But Maple Avenue Cafe is a fast replacement for a fine restaurant that didn't make it--that's the ghost.

The house's former tenant, J Pinnell's, was going to be one of Dallas' great restaurants. Everyone thought so, even before it opened.

Paul Pinnell was one of the best-loved hosts in Dallas. His faithful fans have followed him from Universal to Laurels; now he's at Nana Grill. Russ Hodges was a veteran of the early days of Routh Street Cafe and the Crescent Hotel. One of the most talented guys we've got, he's going to head the kitchen at the Dallas Fog City opening this December (just down the street from Maple Avenue Cafe).

Both these guys were winners--how could they lose? What could go wrong? It just goes to show how strange the restaurant business is. J Pinnell's didn't last a year.

When Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown are in Cuba talking about the kind of person they expect to fall in love with (I'm talking about Guys and Dolls, in case I lost you), Jean Simmons (excuse me, Sarah) claims she'll know her man by his "strong moral fiber" and the "homey aroma of his pipe." Sky's looking for something more elusive--"chemistry."

Yeah, chemistry. And it's a similarly mysterious kind of chemistry that makes a restaurant work. Or not. (I don't think that's pushing it, but it's easy to confuse food and love.)

It's chemistry that failed at J Pinnell's--somehow the winning ingredients didn't make a good mix. It didn't click. And it's chemistry that's lacking in the instant replacement, Maple Avenue Cafe.

Al Heidary, who bought the restaurant last summer, has a history of banking on someone else's inventions. It's worked well for him next door at Old Warsaw, for instance, where the guests thrill to the same strolling violinist and extravagant service they did way back when. But there's a lazy feeling to Maple Avenue (why don't they put up a permanent sign?).

The menu retains a couple of Pinnell favorites, but mostly it's a checklist nobody worked very hard to put together. This is an arranged marriage. There's no romance.

We lingered over the wine list; our server (who was thoroughly charming and helpful and seemed to be the maitre 'd as well that evening) finally offered to bring us the list from Old Warsaw if we didn't see anything we liked. But the wine we did order was "sold out"; isn't that what happened to my colleague at the Morning News when she visited this restaurant? Odd coincidence. We, too, were offered a slightly more expensive bottle, but I can't help but wonder if this isn't just a way of clearing out the cellar next door or something. This is, supposedly, a brand-new restaurant--you'd think the cellar and wine list would match.

The fine old Victorian house still looks the same; it's a beautiful setting, comfortable and gently lit, with warm wood paneling, rich textured fabrics, and carved moldings, as well as nice high windows and fireplaces. Especially nice on a dark, rainy night. You could sit there for hours, sipping whatever wine you ended up with and talking.

Not necessarily eating, though. Maple Avenue Cafe is a waste of good space. Appetizers were a yawn. Calamari, ceviche, crab cakes, shrimp cocktail, escargots, corn and rock shrimp chowder (a J Pinnell's recipe), and asparagus bisque. We lingered over the menu because, although the list was long enough, nothing was particularly appealing. I don't mean to sound recherche, but it all seemed rather uninspired.

And though food doesn't have to be exciting to be satisfying, at J Pinnell's you were accustomed to an inspired kitchen, and those happy ghosts come rattling around again when you miss it.

Entree ideas didn't thrill, either: veal, lamb, a couple of beefs, a tilapia, salmon, snapper, roasted chicken (J Pinnell's again, with garlic mashed potatoes). In the end, we started with shrimp cocktail, and what can I say? The shrimp were firm, sweet, juicy; the sauce was red, spicy, thick. That would about cover it.

Crab cakes would have been better if the kitchen had used all the crabmeat in one cake and left out some of the crumbs and peppers that stretched it into two. The texture was crusty on the outside and pasty on the inside, and the two sauces didn't add much--one was a very pastel green basil sauce and the other an equally white smoked tomato. They tasted as pale as they looked.

The salmon fillet over new potato hash was a dish that sounded like it had some dash to it. Blue cheese was promised in the "hash," though I caught only a gentle whiff; the salmon was grilled. This could be good, but it missed by that much. The salmon was nicely cooked, but the hash was an idea that got lost in the translation to the plate.

Steak is always a solid idea; ours was rare, but slightly mushy-textured, as beef tends to be when the outside isn't seared enough to give the meat some shape. The delicious garlic mashed potatoes made another appearance here, along with some little, not-very-caramelized onions.

Creme fraiche brulee seemed like a good idea, but the custard oozed out from under the sweaty sugar cap in a way that made you avoid metaphor.

As usual, ghosts of things that might have been are much more disturbing than ghosts of things that used to be.

Maple Avenue Cafe isn't much more than re-used space right now, its kitchen still overshadowed by the cooks that used to work there.

So keep your eye on that banner: it could change next week.

Maple Avenue Cafe, 2618 Maple Ave., 871-1181. Open for dinner daily from 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m.

Maple Avenue Cafe:
Crab Cakes $7.95
Creme Fraiche Brulee $4.95
Grilled Salmon on New Potato Hash $16.50

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