The hostess headed the parade of women through the restaurant to the corner table, a string of groomed, polished (need I say blonde?) trophies trying to preserve their prize, their cheekbones high, their skin tanned and tight, their outfits as unnaturally stylized and contrived as only couture can be. One's a vision in faux leopard, from flowing scarf to high heels, another balances a black matador hat on a shiny chignon, and another is roped entirely in chain mail Chanel--she jingled seasonally as she walked.
They used to be one of our main exports, but you don't see women like this in Dallas anymore--I felt nearly nostalgic at the sight. Sartorially, Dallas has gotten a little less idiosyncratic. People are getting so damned tasteful--appearance is so much less about decoration--and this burnished and blepharoplastied bunch clashed with the thigh-high Lycra style that was seated at most of the tables. Chic is not just about big hair anymore--it's about hard bodies, too. It's hard to imagine that these women ever sweated it out on a Stairmaster--I mean why perspire when you have a perfectly good plastic surgeon, for God's sake? But even though their fitness was mostly financial, they still had the style sense to see and be seen in the latest, coolest place in town. Fashion, not fitness, impelled them to schedule a lunch at Larry's place, NorthSouth.
Larry North, of course, is more than a fitness trainer, more than the owner of a successful chain of gyms, more even than a personality. He's as close to a celebrity as Dallas ever produces, and he's become a phenomenon, which we produce more of. The Northing of Dallas has been thorough; there are more North Total Fitness Centers than drive-through banks, there's a North plate on the menu of practically every restaurant in town, and recently his food philosophy has even infiltrated the common man's land of convenience stores with "Larry North's Better Choices," a selection of low-fat fast food, sure to be a big hit with the after-school set and whoever else eats meals from 7-Eleven. It's almost too easy to take a shot at Larry North--you can't miss a target this big and obvious. Like Susan Powter's before him, Larry's message sounds evangelical. It's a tone we respond to especially brainlessly in Dallas, a city of mega-churches, the buckle of the Bible belt. Larry wants to see that belt taken in a few notches.
Larry's latest pulpit--now that he's got a TV show, a couple of books, and radio talk shows spreading his word--is NorthSouth, the 7,200-square-foot restaurant in the space formerly occupied by everything else in the Quadrangle. (This has to be the largest restaurant without brewing equipment in the city.) But Larry's disciples are legion and lunch (with the ladies) nearly filled the place, while a weekend dinner reservation request brought the Star Canyonesque response, "You can come at six or ten." The place is pleasantly warm-looking and steers clear of any spa-like references in its decor. It's simple in a nineties Tuscan, not eighties minimalist, way, and though this look is firmly dated, it does promise ease and comfort. Just remember, though, that this is the restaurant of a man who recommends that you purchase bulk frozen, boneless chicken breasts and grill them all, so that when you're hungry for a little something, you can just gnaw on a chicken breast. (Are we really ready to accept boneless chicken as a viable replacement for Doritos?)
The name, reminiscent of gray and blue to Civil War buffs, has to do with the war on fat, which is referred to in Larry's newspeak as the "North program," and is a kind of un-philosophy that loftily refuses to prescribe and instead can be summed up as "making choices." Here are the choices at NorthSouth: You can be "body conscious" and order your food "North," that is, low-fat, or you can order it indulgently "South," the traditional way. See, Larry doesn't want to tell you to eat the North way, he just wants you to want to eat the North way. The menu says, in a philosophical essay printed on its cover, that "Larry doesn't care what you choose to eat; he just wants you to know what you are eating." There's a whole chapter in Larry's new book about how to be assertive about ordering low-fat food in restaurants. His menu is meant to simplify things for low-fat eaters and to prove that low-fat cooking doesn't have to sacrifice flavor. (Of course, the exact opposite can be easily and more cheaply proven simply by comparing a baked tostado with a fried one.) But the menu's subtext is a mom-worthy guilt trip for "carefree" diners, who "feel like splurging," who aren't "body conscious." Like me. Not that I don't work out. Like everyone else, I go to the Larry's place nearest me. However, I don't consider eating a form of discipline.
"You want me to take that 'North'?" our waiter asked when I ordered the turkey meatloaf.
"What does that mean, exactly?" I wanted to know.
"Oh, I don't know, they take the fat out, make the mashed potatoes with Butter Buds..." Never mind. Spare us the sordid specifics.
Larry has a real friend in Sally Francis, who did the public relations for the restaurant and has done a good job of spreading the word that this is a place to eat not just spa food, but real food. Knowing well that a restaurant requiring instructions is a restaurant doomed, her publicity people spread the word about how NorthSouth was going to work well before it opened. Unfortunately, faced with the menu, it's still not exactly clear how some of these hopelessly "southern" dishes are going to go "North," unless you're okay about ordering chicken fried steak only to receive a grilled or baked chicken breast.
Because there's one obvious and unsolvable problem with cooking traditionally rich foods without the proper cooking oil--they don't taste good. The only "good" thing about turkey meatloaf, for instance, is the absence of fat--nobody's going to be able to sell ground turkey meat on the basis of how good it tastes. You could, you know, get the same low-fat effect just by ordering something else. If you do order the meatloaf, you'll be served two thick, pale slabs, as dense as cement and about the same color, slicked with a transparent glaze in which a couple of slippery mushroom slices are entombed like flies in amber. With it, garlic mashed potatoes made with (shudder) Butter Buds. The lesson is, if you want to eat meatloaf, you need to resign yourself to the fat grams in beef and pork and gravy. If you want to eat lean, order something else. Like the so-called tortilla-crusted snapper, which was actually topped, not crusted, with thin strips of crispy tortilla and doused with a tart tomatillo relish. This was a good dish, with authentic origins; and although I didn't order it "North," it couldn't have had an outrageous number of fat grams, unless you were actually going to eat the school-lunchroom-looking wad of corn casserole, apparently glued together with egg whites, that came with it. On the other hand, the "Deep South" plate at dinner--a 20-ounce slab of porterhouse with a whiskey sauce and potatoes fried with onions--was surprisingly bland, too, proving that indulgence isn't always as much fun as it seems like it's going to be. The meat simply didn't have much flavor, and the potatoes were perhaps cooked ahead and held. The "Far North Plate," another slab of protein, was better: The tuna was nicely cooked, and the touches of lime, sour onions and cucumbers, and soy set off the heft of the fish nicely. Better to choose something naturally leaner than beef, like venison, sided with wild rice (a pretty complex carbohydrate).
Larry's wife, Melanie Peskett-North (who has her own low-fat catering business), is the mind behind the menu, and even though the talented Tony Knight (whose career has led him through the best kitchens in Dallas) is in charge of the kitchen, there's only so much you can do with these restrictions. Lots of things we ate were perfectly good, North or south. But the emphasis is still askew: The food should be good, period. No other agenda, no other goal.
Even though he discourages drinking alcohol if you're serious about getting lean, Larry has a list of wine, beer, even cognacs and dessert wines. And there is a list of desserts, each one labeled with an arrow pointing up (North) or down (south). Perhaps because the commitment had been made to fat or not when the recipes were developed, the desserts worked better than most of the entrees we tried. Apple-apricot crisp, a North selection, was good, the tartness of the fruit just balanced by their caramelized sweetness.
Right on the heels of the restaurant comes the new lifestyle cookbook, Living Lean, with a toothy picture of Larry on the cover, filled with as many mindless slogans as Brave New World: "Feed the muscle, starve the fat!" "It's not about perfection, it's about progress!" "Reveal the thin from within." It's reminiscent of Adelle Davis' proselytizing which was adopted in the sixties and seventies and had us all baking cookies no one would ever want to eat and stirring brewer's yeast and (non-instant) powdered milk into everything. And, though Larry's menu is all updated for today's tastes (so the ingredient list includes portobello mushrooms and jasmine rice), it still adheres to a creed, when cooking should have only one rule: Make it taste good.
NorthSouth, 2800 Routh St., The Quadrangle, (214) 849-0000. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.- 3 p.m. For dinner Sunday- Wednesday 5 p.m-11 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday 5 p.m.-midnight.
Mel's Famous Turkey Meatloaf with Marsala Mushroom Sauce and Garlic Mashed Potatoes $9.95
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Tortilla Crusted Red Snapper with Green Chile Tomatillo Salsa and Roasted Corn Casserole $10.95
Deep South: Grilled 20-ounce Porter-house Steak with Jack Daniel's Sauce and Lyon-naise Potatoes $25.95
Far North: Lime Crusted Ahi Tuna with Pickled Red Onions and Cucumbers and Soy Ginger Sauce $16.95
Apple-Apricot Crisp with Caramelized Apples $6.50