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Goodbye, Old World

As I write this, it's been just a week since Andre Soltner retired.
Now that's hardly big news to the general population (raise your hand if you know who he is), but to folks in the slice of the pie chart that makes food and wine its business, this is big news.

Andre Soltner was the chef-owner of Lutece, and Lutece, in New York City, was one of this country's great restaurants. It may still be, but with Soltner gone, who knows?

Lutece was sold many months ago to restaurateur Michael Weinstein (need I say, not a chef but a businessman who also owns such mega theme restaurants as America). Weinstein has a new chef in place at Lutece, and the restaurant will go on, certainly.

The menu will change, perhaps gradually, and you can bet we're going to be seeing Lutece T-shirts and gimme caps and maybe bumper stickers ("Lutece Lives!"), but there's no doubt in anyone's mind that the restaurant will never really be the same.

Except when the restaurant closed for the traditional summer holiday, Madame Soltner greeted guests and ran "the front" of Lutece every night; Chef Soltner was in the kitchen, frequently emerging to tell guests to "forget the menu," he'd just cook them something special. Without Soltner, Lutece may live, but it will definitely be a different thing.

The point is as plain as the food on your plate: the chef shapes the restaurant.

It follows that with founding chef Christian Gerber outta there, and Russell Hodges in the kitchen, Juniper is not the same restaurant it was with Gerber manning the pots and pans.

In the three and a half years since its opening, Juniper had become a unique part of the Dallas restaurant landscape. Namely, it was Dallas' last bastion of French cuisine.

Once the top of the gastronomic food pyramid, French food has been almost completely ousted by "New American" and "Mediterranean" cooking. There are almost no French chefs, and there are hardly any fine French restaurants left in Dallas. Now you can scratch one more off the list.

Juniper liked to call its cuisine French Provencal, to correctly distinguish itself from the old butter 'n' cream concepts of French haute cuisine (and to attract at least some of that Mediterranean market), but everything had a distinctly Gallic polish and flair. Gerber is an old-fashioned European chef, trained since youth in the Old World apprentice system, uncompromising, probably viewed as a tyrant in the kitchen. (He may not do it, but I can picture him throwing pots and pans.)

His successor, Russell Hodges, is as American as apple pie and surfer music--in fact, he was originally interested in music, not cooking. (He may not do it, but I can picture him playing an air guitar.)

He's also a genial guy, with a great list of restaurants on his resume.
Hodges doesn't claim to be--and doesn't seem to be--as good with Euro-food as he is with American fare. His previous experience, as far as I know, has been entirely with American restaurants. He apprenticed in Dallas through El Centro, he worked at Routh Street Cafe in its glory days, he was chef at Beau Nash, he was one of the principals of J. Pinnell's.

Obviously, Hodge's Juniper is going to be very different from Gerber's; right now, it's hard to say how Juniper will label its new cuisine.

In America, dining is becoming an event, a theme park with souvenirs, product lines, coffee mugs, loud music, video monitors, and decor to rival Disney. Weinstein's America, for instance, has the cultural diversity of the country spread out in big murals all over the walls, summed up in regional cliches on the menu and cute slogans on T-shirts. Like so many new restaurants, it's huge and loud; it's about volume and energy. The new concept restaurants skip over intimacy and go for celebrity.

Juniper is about something much more subtle than that--unobtrusive excellence, quiet pleasures, the apex of civilized dining, the sum of simple perfections. A serene room, a fine wine, good, freshly prepared food, smoothly efficient service.

Christian Gerber and owner Nancy Foree created a place where one could dine in the most old-fashioned, essentially human manner. You could count on good food, enough calm to talk amidst, effortless service, and pleasant, rather than stimulating, surroundings. They sound like lukewarm words, but the point is, a restaurant such as this leaves the spotlight vacant for the guests and the chef.

I'm sure Hodges and Foree have every intention of leaving that part of Juniper in place, but it's tough to change formats in midstream. My impression is that Juniper is still adjusting to the change, yet this is the kind of restaurant where even small mistakes show up because there is no razzle-dazzle to distract the diner. Any imperfection is a glaring one.  

The weeknight we visited Juniper, we were anticipating a wonderful meal. I've eaten everywhere Hodges has cooked in Dallas, and I'd had especially good food at J. Pinnell's, so I had some taste memories to live up to. But we finished dinner with a let-down feeling--neither the food nor the service was as wonderful as we'd expected, or as good as it should have been. (Of course, the latter is much more irritating and unforgivable than the former. You can't fix poor service. You can always send a dish back to the kitchen to be cooked a little more, but once you've drunk half your wine before the entree finally arrives, it's gone for good. No point in hurrying when you've missed the bus.)

Ours was one of only two tables filled in the dining room; nevertheless, the host was brusque, a little stiff, and didn't make us feel particularly welcome, but hurried us to our table and into our seats so he could go on to the next thing. Even though, frankly, there didn't seem to be anything pressing.

We were served good bread with a cruet of olive oil, as well as butter, if we preferred it--a nice touch in these dairy-free days. I like olive oil, but, like the king in A.A. Milne's rhyme, sometimes I want "a little butter to my bread," and I hardly ever get it anymore.

Escargots were served with wild mushrooms in an overwhelming sauce; the earthy flavor of mushrooms dominated the dish, although why I complain I don't know, since escargots are always overwhelmed by something, usually garlic.

The lamb fan among us had the rack, of course, which had been cooked past the requested medium rare to a discouragingly pale pink. You didn't notice it at first, though, because the little fans of meat were almost entirely covered by a pile of potatoes, quartered and roasted with rosemary.

The jumbo crab cake, on the other hand, which the determinedly fit one of us ordered in place of an entree to go with his salad, was wonderfully thick and meaty, the sweet shellfish set off by basil and smoked tomato. But a special entree of duck and sausage, the breast sliced and laid in an overlapping circle with slices of rather dry sausage, missed. There was nothing to hold it together, no reason to bring these things together on a plate.

Our next dinner at Juniper was on Saturday night, and the joint was jumping. The place itself deserves a historical marker from the Dallas Restaurant Association; countless restaurants have had their genesis in the charming, cozy old house, which has never been altered drastically. When it's full, the wood floors and small dining rooms leave no place for sound to go, so the volume rises. But the rooms are small, so the loudest it gets is a convivial buzz.

Perhaps the crowd was more than the staff could handle, but it took forever for salads to arrive, and the dessert service was disaster. We'd ordered a souffle ahead; our waiter didn't take any more dessert orders until it was served, so the souffle was gone by the time the coffee and other desserts arrived. Oops again.

I started with the foie gras, a holdover from Pinnell's menu, the slippery slivers of seared liver swimming in a syrupy vinaigrette sauce of port and dried berries over field greens, a mouth-watering counterpoint of meat and leaf. My dining companion ordered the goat cheese bruschetta, warm herbed cheese smeared on a crouton over rocket--which we also know as arugula--the leaves very unfortunately still slightly sandy. Lettuces love sandy soil. I don't.

The baby spinach had been bathed properly, though, and the tender leaves were adorned lavishly with creamy Roquefort and bits of that New American fave, apple-smoked bacon. The waiter explained that the "braised veal roast" was a veal shank, basically a variation of osso buco. Nice idea, but this particular shank of veal had evidently been cooked earlier and reheated. The dry lumps of meat had that rubbery texture I remember from leftover pot roast. It came surrounded by a sea of white beans soaked in a rich, spicy tomato sauce that reminded me of Sunday night supper pork and beans, deluxe. I would have been happier with a big bowl of beans and more bread.

A special of salmon was perfectly lovely--the big flakes of peach-colored flesh slipping away from each other in a saffron sauce with colored pasta. So was the thick beef tenderloin with five kinds of pepper (we didn't count), big portabello mushrooms, and a deep red wine sauce.  

The souffle I mentioned earlier was allegedly raspberry; it came with a fudgey sauce. Tart tatin was an uncaramelized miss. But here's what was impeccably marvelous: a big scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream, just melting around the edges, with chocolate sauce in a delicately crisp cookie cup.

Okay, you get it--the American classics--crab cakes, beef steak, salmon, ice cream--were the finest foods we ate at the new Juniper. That's only a part of what Hodges is doing with this menu, but it's the part he does best.

Of course, I still miss the French version of Juniper. Dallas needs more French restaurants and has plenty of fine American ones, but restaurants are made up of more than the public sees, and all kinds of things cause chefs to come and go.

Juniper is the kind of restaurant that should showcase what the chef can do. I suspect--and hope--the food will evolve as the place, and its chef, get to know each other better.

Juniper, 2917 Fairmount, 855-0700. Open for dinner Tuesday & Wednesday 6 p.m.-10:30 p.m., and Thursday-Saturday 6 p.m.-11 p.m. Sunday brunch is served 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. "Early In" Special is available 6 p.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Prix fixe $16.50
"Early In" special, three courses $25
Jumbo Crab Cake $8.50
Foie Gras $9.95
Juniper House Salad $4.50
Braised Veal Roast $17.50
Five Pepper Tenderloin $19.50
Seared Rack of Lamb $

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