Grape Lift

Marty's Bistro is attached to its wine shop, which means a good deal on vino.
Stephen Karlisch

Caviar is the lusty ghost hovering around Marty's Bistro, the full-service restaurant that grew out of the 59-year-old wine and gourmet food shop. And a rare ghost it must be. The left flap of the menu is riddled with explicit, blown-up color glossies of the stuff: a piece of toast hoisting the lewd, sticky globes; a bone spoon of glistening gray fish shot plunging into the page from the upper right-hand corner; and white half-shells cupping little piles of the sturgeon booty. Marty's has all three Caspian varieties: beluga, oscetra and sevruga at prices ($67 for an ounce of the budget-conscious sevruga beads and $84 for the top-of-the-line beluga) that assure the closest most bistro lizards will get to these fish buds is the menu photos. In addition to the visuals, the menu also has little caviar briefings, explaining which fish (size, age) expunge it and what flavors can be discovered once the eggs are ingested and bantered about the tongue. There's even a note on the menu broadcasting that Marty's does not serve its caviar with onions, chopped egg and capers (how gauche), as these substances are "often used to mask the flavor of lesser-quality caviar." Maybe. But couldn't they offer some tar-black lumpfish millet with the onion-egg-caper combo and let us indulge in the icky eggy without cashing in the Krugerrands?

Just below and to the left of the piles of golden-black glistening eggs pocking the menu page is a little eruption of marbled pink: slices of smoked salmon "tender" carved from a slab of salmon flesh. The fish is served on a busy platter. Three thick slices of tenderloin are fanned at each end of the plate. Triangular toast points fidget about the edges, and the plate holds little reservoirs of red onion, capers, cream cheese and a pair of cream spreads: crème fraîche and a dill tartar sauce.

Don't mess with all these distractions. Like what is explicitly stated about the caviar, the fish implicitly begs to be left alone. These salmon slices are so silky, so delicately flavorful (with a subtle wisp of smoke that doesn't impinge on the richness), it would be just as criminal to smear this fish with dilled mayo as it would to fleck beluga with diced egg yolk. It's best to eat it as is without foundations or frills. Instead, use those sides to doll up the toast points to make little finger sandwiches once the salmon is gone.

And what would a caviar-flaunting bistro be without foie gras? Until recently, fresh French foie gras was barred from U.S. shores. But Marty's has a French bloc of goose liver cored with perigord truffle that is sliced and served with toast points. It also has the pan-seared variety "with apple buttered brioche and fresh blackberry sauce," the menu boasts. What we found were cubes of apple and simple stiff white-bread toast triangles, the same substance found on the salmon-tender platter. This was no brioche. And although the liver itself was firm and sleek, it lacked the fine richness that makes foie gras such a heady savor.

More satisfying was the Asian grilled quail coupled with spicy corn cakes and a ramekin of Thai-like ginger peanut sauce. The bird was juicy and tender and lacked that distracting livery taste (how is it that fowl liver flavors can be at once sublime and then irksome?).

Other Marty's birds include the rotisserie petite poulet, a half chicken massaged with a blend of house spices the menu denotes as special. The chicken was moist--too moist perhaps, making it slip into a flaccid droop. There was no crispness to the skin, and there certainly weren't any waves of flavor one might expect from a "special blend of house spices."

Marty's has undergone at least two significant face-lifts since its birth as Dallas' quintessential gourmet and wine shop in 1943. In 1998, owner Larry Shapiro dumped Marty's liquor business and introduced Café Tugogh, a gourmet takeout biz (egged on by the Eatzi's glitz across the street, no doubt), and Marty's Wine Bar. Late last summer, Tugogh was dumped, and all of Marty's divisions--takeout, gourmet foods, gift baskets, catering, wine and the bistro--were given separate logos featuring purple grapes in various culinary poses.

Set aside from the retail drone by gauzy sheers, the bistro has changed little since its wine-bar days when the walls were yanked out to expose a delicious stacking of old brick and dripping mortar. A bar with a concrete surface faces one wall, and a small by-the-glass menu, with a handful of whites and reds that can be converted into tasting flights, is offered. But stay away from the bar. We found ourselves almost begging for a glass of wine there, so invisible are the bar-stool squatters to the milling bistro staff.

Getting a bottle of wine is much more fun than the glass service anyway. One part of the Marty's retail machine that is not cut off from the bistro is the retail wine racks. The rows dump into the bistro, and you can pick any bottle you want and bring it to your table--at retail prices instead of the two, three or even four times mark-up common on most wine lists. Plus, if for some bizarre reason you can't empty the bottle, you can cork it up and take it with you. A team of sommeliers armed with exotic tools, maps and affectations could never make wine service this enjoyable.

And you need fun wine acquisition rituals to match this food. Marty's veal piccata was an odd strain of the piccata species. More like a cutlet than a pounded-flat veal patch, this relatively thick piece of meat coated with breadcrumbs and strewn with capers was mushy and a little oily. It was sidekicked with a tangle of angel hair pasta that was over-oiled, allowing it to slip through the fork tines with disturbing ease.

Bourbon molasses barbecue sauce was supposed to be bathing the grilled pork tenderloin, a row of small medallions that were moist and savory. But there was no barbecue sauce to be found, nor were there hints of the flavors described in the menu's sauce verbiage.

But citrus beurre blanc was evident in the seafood en brochette, outfitting the otherwise vapid sea scallops, gulf shrimp (juicy) and halibut scraps with a little zing cling on the tongue. It's not that these sea scraps descended into putrescence; it's just that the scallops were not consistently firm and flirted with gelatinousness, while the fish consisted of flakeless specks of near mush.

Where Marty's really shines is with game, the kind that used to be wild but is now domesticated (sometimes with government price supports for God's sake). The New Zealand venison chop with grilled balsamic onions was juicy, tender and mild. The balsamic onions robustly sparred with the gamy sweetness in the meat, kicking it to the forefront (without obliterating it). But the vegetables (broccoli and cauliflower) and a side of wild rice were oily, the same problem that marred the angel hair tresses.

Buffalo is often a disappointing carnivorous careen featuring dry, tough flesh with flavors that seldom heave beyond salted cardboard. But Marty's pepper-seared buffalo rib eye is sublime, the best piece of bison (in any form) I can remember tasting. The meat is juicy and rich and silky, with a potent pepper bite that doesn't distract. Plus, it was topped with a brilliantly subtle enhancement gizmo crafted to bring out richness without throttling the meat flavors: melted leeks, little buttered yellow strips that looked like noodles but melted on the tongue like no noodle ever could.

Dessert was adequate--not anything to get all twisted in a knot over. The blueberry-lemon mascarpone was dense and creamy, and while there was little evidence of lemon flavor in the smooth cheese, the blueberries were fat, juicy and punched with flavor.

They looked a little like those grapes doing logo poses for Marty's sliced and diced divisions. Which leaves you to wonder what the next Marty's face-lift will bring.

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