At first glance, Dali Wine Bar & Cellar is a 7-Eleven. You drive down Routh Street, take a left at the 7-Eleven corporate offices sign and after a few seconds of, "Is this the right place?" you finally see Dali.
Me plus three walked into Dali, ready to drink. Oh, and eat. While the décor was nice, I was expecting, I dunno—art? Dali. Arts District. There should be at least one painting. Nope. Maybe they thought it would be too obvious. Or maybe they hoped the proceeds from an evening of boozery would raise them enough money to afford a dorm poster print of "The Persistence of Memory." Either way, the only art I found in the whole establishment was on the inside of the bathroom stall. There's a door graphic of a ballerino (that's a dude in a tutu) telling you that if you're an employee, you'd better wash your hands before you return to work. I think it was a dude in a tutu. Maybe it was just a chick with a really nice personality.
The restaurant has only about 10 tables, but if it's too cramped inside for you, there's a nice patio out front where you can enjoy some live blues.
After about 30 minutes, I watched the people who sat down after us get their first course, and it hit me: We don't even have water yet. A few minutes later, a manager noticed that we'd been overlooked, and he quickly sent a waiter over with ice water and some menus. I had to do some deep breathing exercises to get through our server's description of the night's specials:
Waiter: "Uh...and then, tonight we're also doing a lamb special, which is prepared, um—pretty much the same as the lamb on the regular menu. I think."
Me: "(Blink. Blink. Breathe.)"
When we ordered our wine and our food, we were bitchy. We had been wronged. We were here first, and some other table of chicks got their food first, and their food looked really good, and that just made us even angstier.
And then, the clouds parted, and a big fat rainbow that was the wine and appetizers came and fixed everything. We dove in, and I began to wonder if this had been the restaurant's strategy all along: make sure the patrons look ridiculously hungry before feeding them. (It would make sense of why they served those Nicky Hilton-skinny chicks so much sooner than they served us.) Whatever their plan was, the appetizers were amazing. There was the gone-in-four-seconds pan-seared quail served with a sweet jalapeño jam and sage pan sauce—awesome. A companion opted for the global sampler of cheeses for one, which comes with a huge portion of perfectly oozy Brie, some large mild Parmesan wedges, a variety of toasts and breads, fresh berries and balsamic figs that made it more like a sampler of cheeses for two. We got an order of pepitas (spicy squash seeds that are basically the high-class version of the bag of birdseed they sell at Rangers games) for the table, which had a nice kick and were great with our wine. I had the feuille-wrapped mozzarella cheese served with a hibiscus honey drizzled on top. The pastry was super light, and the sweetness of the honey complemented the cheese. When we all finally came up for air, the table agreed that I had out-appetizered all of them.
The Bibb lettuce that followed the appetizers arrived with sliced pears, avocado, those spicy pepitas and salmon bacon with sweet citrus vinaigrette. What's salmon bacon? When asked, three out of three diners said, "It's tasty. That's what salmon bacon is." It's also smoked and cured, salty salmon. We were hoping for strips, but what showed up was more like salmon Bac-os Bits. Still tasty, just left us wanting more.
Next on our dinner binge list: entrees. A grilled rack of veal (which was tender enough to justify the evil behind it) with roasted shrimp and overcooked black pepper risotto. The grilled New York strip in Cabernet demi-glace came with sides of mushrooms and whipped fingerling potatoes that were so rich they were reminiscent of ice cream. Forgettable for me, but maybe "so totally tasty" to those weirdo people you know who like eating meals with no meat in them, was the spring pappardelle pasta with giant spring veggies and goat cheese. And finally, the melt-in-your-mouth pan-seared halibut in champagne-dill pan sauce with a side of blood orange couscous. (I thought this couscous was really yummy—the mixture of salt and sweet was a really nice balance for me—but my steak-and-potato friends described the salty followed by sweet combo as "reminding them of vomit." One friend actually gagged a little. I was perfectly fine with this because it meant that I would be able to eat the remainder of my vomitcous all by myself.) The big winners were the halibut (referred to as "The Halliburton" after a few glasses of wine) and the veal.
For dessert, the butterscotch pudding was so good it was able to drown out both Coldplay's "Yellow" and the lady next to me who was asking her waiter to box up her veal bones for her tiny rat dog. The chocolate straw that it's served with doesn't actually work as a straw, though—it's just for decoration. If you try to suck the pudding through it, you'll just hurt your brain. But do eat it. It's delectable.
A few days later, I came back. But this time, I tried out lunch. The Monday I went was their soft opening, so they were offering complimentary lunch.
Us: "Is the wine free too?"
Us: (high-five, low-five, three-way chest bump)
On this day, the service was great, and the food was great too. As far as speed, it's definitely not the fastest turnaround (lunch took us two hours, and dinner a few nights before clocked in at three and a half hours), but it's a nice place to catch up with an old friend on a fake sick day. We started our lunch with the lemon-herb crab and shrimp cakes. When they showed up, the guy at the table next to us clearly had appetizer envy. And rightly so. Unlike most crab cakes, these were (happily) much more crab and shrimp than they were cake. They were flaky and a little crispy—but not greasy at all. When the waiter showed up two seconds later to ask how our appetizer tasted, the only proof that we'd actually ordered an appetizer at all was the naked plate in the middle of our table.
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The entrée highlights at lunch were the buttery bay scallop and rock shrimp with spaccatelli pasta—giant al dente half-tubes of macaroni that were really fun to eat—and the pan-seared salmon with a fresh, palate-cleansing radish-cucumber relish.
We finished off our meal by trying every dessert on the lunch menu (jealous?), and the table agreed that the mascarpone and cream cheese cheesecake—that was simultaneously creamier and lighter than any cheesecake we'd ever tasted—just barely out-touched the black currant sorbet (which, if sorbet-brain-frozen memory serves was seasoned with a touch of thyme) for first place in the 200M Individual Medley of Desserts.
The trying-too-hard-to-be-swanky atmosphere and mediocre service at Dali turned me off, but the food was so freakin' tasty that I'd go back. If I were you, I'd sit outside to avoid the blaring '90s Top 40 playing inside, drink your wine by the bottle and order your courses by the truckload. I'd also wear a tube top and jorts just to thumb my nose at the Wine Snob Popped-Collarfest in this place if I were you, but that's totally optional.
1722 Routh St. at One Arts Plaza, 469-385-9360. Open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and 5:30-10:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday (small plates and drinks until midnight). Sunday brunch served 11 a.m.-2 p.m. $$-$$$