"What the hell is this, and why does it cost so damn much money?" These are the only truly engaging questions that dining at Enigma provokes. Not that this place isn't baffling on many levels. It's just so strenuously contrived that instead of wondering what kind of eccentric mind is at work here, you find yourself asking who would devote so much cash and effort to fabricating a restaurant designed to fill us with wonder. Somehow, the place has everything backwards. So it's no surprise that the wonder dissipates, and you're left with a persistent question: Why?
After its lease expired late last year on the McKinney Avenue space that was the restaurant's home since it opened in 1993, Enigma moved to the huge, two-level property on Routh and Cedar Springs that once housed Americana and Routh Street Cafe. Having purchased the building, Enigma's owners immediately set about to field-dress the place, taking it down to the studs and concrete and installing new plumbing, wiring, and a telephone system. The walls were covered with textured wallpaper and painted white. A new staircase--a surreal, undulating thing with a hand-carved banister that looks as if it were composed on an Etch-A-Sketch by Timothy Leary on peyote--was supposedly scrawled out on a piece of paper by one of Enigma's managers. The contractor told him he was out of his mind. But money talks, and the thing was built--an oddity that adds to its allure.
Yet the most puzzling thing about Enigma is the silly lengths it's managers will go to create an aura of obscurity. "We don't have any sign out front," says General Manager Bob Bablu. "We never expose ourselves." Bablu goes so far as to say that he doesn't want Dallas to know Enigma even exists in these new digs, at least until this currently operational restaurant is completed with a fresh infusion of artwork, which he estimates will take anywhere from one to two years. (After making repeated requests to pull this review, Bablu also refused to let me interview his chef and would not allow Dallas Observer photographers on the premises.)
Legitimate obscurity comes from what often are ingenious adaptations to restrictive circumstances (speakeasies, Harlem jazz clubs, wealthy business people desiring distance from a threatening public), not from unnecessary secrecy generated in the hope of creating a provocative aura of eccentricity. The fact that Bablu wants to shrink into some contrived fine-dining underground culture shows that he either doesn't understand the enticement of the genuinely enigmatic, or someone in the operation is suffering from acute bank-account obesity--or both.
Which brings us to the one mystery in which the Enigma staff consistently loves to indulge: the identity of Enigma's owner. Manager Ramsey Elissa fingers Robert Childress, a 33-year-old Londoner and heir to an oil fortune, as the deed holder. But this seems little more than a puff of smoke. Shortly after Enigma opened five years ago, Bablu reportedly claimed the owner was a 36-year-old wealthy London businessman, who he also added was handsome. Oil wealth may make you erratic or insanely arrogant, but it certainly won't reverse the aging process. There was even a rumor floating around that the owner was Elton John, and this speculation may have some legs. Could the vigorous expansion of Enigma so closely following Princess Di's rescue of Elton John's musical career be more than mere coincidence?
In the end, we'll probably discover that the proprietor is the dishwasher's mother.
And dishwashing at Enigma is a deadly serious business. Everything is hand-washed and delicately handled--a fairly challenging business considering that the tables look as though they were set by a Vegas blackjack dealer trainee. Glasses are set on their sides with mismatched flatware fanned out from the bowl. Place settings vary wildly and are deliberately shuffled and assembled seemingly at random. Settings include pieces by Erte, Versace, Lilly Dodson, Rosenthal, and Baccarat, some costing as much as $1,500 each, and a good number of them costing several hundred dollars. A few of the glasses are extraordinarily odd, with one resembling a miniature bed pan and several others with a series of tentacled stems jutting out from the bottom of the bowl, like a set of legs on an X-Files extra.
Tables of Italian marble are surrounded by black laminate chairs or bright suede bucket seats on three legs, the third limb a wooden protrusion slithering out of the back of the seat like a quivering tongue. Bronze statues by artist Bill Mack--mostly of naked or semi-naked women in various positions with stretched and flexing limbs and torsos--give the place the feel of a bordello yoga class. A number of similar brass reliefs by Mack, along with other pieces, will slowly seep into the new space over the next year, making their way primarily to the second level, which will be used for private parties. The art and other artifacts are supposedly stored in a tri-level condominium somewhere in Dallas where the mysterious owner catalogs his eccentricities--all in the service of Enigma.
Enigma's service is impeccable, with execution as warm as it is deft. Fortunately, the food picks up on this cue and sends it on a gust of loftiness. Despite the fact that the menu reads like the cast of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom--ostrich, kangaroo, alligator, buffalo, elk--each dish is meticulously prepared and assembled, with no two preparations ever presented in exactly the same manner. The rabbit with mixed greens, an assembly of yellow tomato, mesclun, mushroom, and generous chunks of juicy, firm rabbit slathered in an Asian-like sauce, offered a wisp of smoke and a subtle balance of contrasting flavors and textures.
Equally satisfying, the oyster salad was loaded with slightly warm, sauteed oysters that were tender and chewy with a rich sea-washed nuttiness. The whole assembly of cucumber, jicama, julienned carrots, pine nuts, and mesclun was sparked by a vinaigrette that was racy yet restrained,.
Enigma's seabass, grilled lightly and then baked, was the best rendition of this dish I've encountered so far. Stuffed with shredded spinach and tarragon, the flesh was buttery, tender, and succulent with the delicate flavors sublimely drawn out by a light, creamy sauce. A bed of shoestring potatoes was crunchy and void of cumbersome lubricants, while an accompanying medley of baby beans, carrots, and chunks of sweet potato was steamed to perfection.
The Marlin Perkins side of the menu was equally compelling, though perhaps not as approachable. The alligator sirloin--chunks of gator with shitake mushrooms in a slightly sour hot sauce that spilled out of a thin, waffled potato shaped like a blossom--was slightly rubbery, which isn't necessarily out of character for a lizard. Not even webbed feet trip up Enigma's kitchen. The honey-roasted maple leaf duck with sauteed pears, wax beans, and mashed potatoes was a brilliant assembly of perhaps a dozen medallions roasted with a healthy layer of fat intact, giving the meat a sweet, juicy richness that was startling in its complexity. In fact, virtually everything on the menu is as dazzling as the decor, and far more balanced.
The only irritants here, other than the obsession with secrecy, were the menu structure and the music. A bundle of loose sheets of paper, each menu is a different collation of disparate pieces. It is nothing more than a random collection of cheap, garish letterheads that look as though they were acquired from an Office Depot closeout table. My pasta combination selections were plastered on a page with cartoonish soccer balls, golf clubs, and tennis rackets dancing over its edges. My entrees were plopped on a flower-patterned paper that looked as if it were copied from a can of Glade air freshener. And the layout, riddled with distorted type and other computer-generated lettering cliches, looked as though it was executed by a den mother who just discovered desktop publishing--a touch that cheapens a venue so seemingly concerned with art and detail.
And an endless repetition of Kenny Rogers tunes and other junk loudly plunked from a computer-controlled player grand piano doesn't do a thing for an atmosphere devoted to the mysterious. How about some Eric Satie, Claude Debussy, or Igor Stravinsky?
Another thing some might find offputting is that Enigma doesn't serve soup or beer as a matter of philosophy. Which wouldn't be so bad if the wine list weren't as tepid as it is. But Elissa says this will soon be remedied.
Enigma is a museum-like showcase of compelling artwork, table settings inspired by controlled chaos with an eye toward beauty, and exotic furnishings that so brazenly push the edge of refined taste, the whole effect is endearing as well as invigorating. There is no other place like it. That's what makes all this secretive posturing so ridiculous. Enigma elegantly lives up to its name without all the contrivances, and offers some exceptional culinary creations besides. Yes, it's absurdly expensive, and Bablu likes to revel in the fact that he can get away with charging prices that rival the Mansion's. But front-row seats at a bordello yoga class never come cheap.
Enigma. 3005 Routh St., (214) 999-0666. Dinner served daily 5:30-midnight.
Rabbit with mixed greens $14
Oyster salad $14
Alligator sirloin $35
Honey-roasted maple leaf duck $32
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