Hell's paving stones

As an example of "fine dining in an upscale, yet comfortable and inviting atmosphere," as the press release describes it, The Winds Bistro is a noble stab. Its chief instigators--Tom Whittaker, former manager of the original Rusty Pelican in Orange County, California, and chef Bruce Stein, formerly of The Cock & Bull in Lakewood--seem desperately sincere in their desire to create a potent New American venue stripped of distracting pretensions. But even such noble efforts can stumble into a Martha Stewart gone Kmart syndrome, where attempts at the highbrow are just another blue-light special, albeit in a faux sapphire hue.

Wedged in a North Dallas strip mall that was most recently the short-lived Mediterranean Bistro, this tiny white-tablecloth spot positions itself as a diner of understated, innovative elegance. Yet the decor is anchored in loud teal. The color infects the blinds, the polyester napkins, and the vinyl seat cushions. It's all grounded on a black and white checkered vinyl floor, which must be the "inviting and comfortable" part.

The Winds' sonic ambiance also leans heavily on the discount side. Aging top 40 hits screech into the room from a tinny boom box radio, and every pop hook is followed by endlessly shrill commercial rants and jingles. (Why did the panty-liner ad have to hit just as the waiter was pulling the cork out of the zinfandel bottle?)

But for all the cheesy upscale lunges, the service is graciously earnest, if slightly nervous. Plus, the servers know a bit about the food and, more surprisingly, the wine. The tiny list is a tight roster plugged with unexpected selections including an Alsatian Riesling, a richly berried Hendry zinfandel for 31 bucks, and a '79 Chateau Petrus at $600. (The Winds will introduce monthly wine dinners later this month and will dabble with beer dinners.)

But it all strikes as so much fruitless window dressing in a place with the soul of a sub shoveler, and though the menu looks on paper like a creature dressed in simple elegance, on the plate it hits like another designer knock-off.

An appetizer of sauteed smoked quail tortelloni was gummy with an off taste, suggesting freezer burn. Veal teriyaki--medallions marinated in teriyaki sauce, garlic, and red wine and sauced in a reduction hit with pineapple, ginger, and orange juice--was as dry and tough as twine.

Pepper shrimp proved an interesting, if dubiously successful appetizer. The batter-less, shell-on sea beasts are deep-fried and coated with white, black, and cayenne pepper. Wading in a lemon-butter sauce, the shrimp have a softened, yet crunchy edible exoskeleton, adding compelling textural interplay. But the preponderance of pepper clobbered whatever subtle sweetness was there.

The classic Caesar, however, was another matter. Prepared tableside with all the right ingredients (and no wussy anchovy restraint), the dressing was alive with flavor and texture--though it could have used a bit more lemon.

Things dipped again with the roasted duck in ginger-orange sauce. The meat was gray and cooked into flavorlessness notwithstanding the sauce.

But a deep-fried calamari steak coated in ground cashews and corn flakes was moist, resilient, and tender, though its side of vegetables included face-scrunchingly-bitter broccoli.

In a sense, The Winds has sketched all the right moves. It just executes them with a blurred vision and a certain deafness. Yet with the right gust blowing through, The Winds could easily be the crisp, cozy destination bistro imagined at its conception.

Nestled next to one of those do-it-yourself car-wash ports on Maple Avenue, El Gallo de Oro looks like an interior design project executed by a group of burnouts from high school auto shop class. The whitewashed building has a peeling tar roof, bars on the windows, and a white iron gate on the front patio that's barely hanging on by its hinges. A torrent of paper--receipts, checks, invoices--is scattered senselessly on the front table near the cash register like haphazard strings of dining-review metaphors.

And if--like Roller Girl in Boogie Nights--you enjoy life's most important experiences with wheels strapped to your feet, you'll appreciate the layout, because the floor sags into the center of the dining room, making prompt seating a breeze.

Just don't slide too vigorously into the booths. The vinyl seat cushions, well striped with duct tape, crack, peel and flake like severely chapped lips. In fact, duct tape is a highly functional decorative focal point in this restaurant. One booth would no doubt collapse into a pile if the long strips of silver tape stretched across the gray herringbone fabric booth backs--which could very well have been another color at one time--were yanked.

Walls of buckled gray paneling with sloppily glued seams hold colorful shrink-wrapped Guatemalan souvenirs, presumably for sale. Rooster trophies are lined up in a row atop the opposite wall separating the kitchen from the dining room. A crude landscape mural covers the wall.

More rooster trophies crowd a dark corner at the rear of the restaurant, a space that, judging by all the liquor bottles clustered in a small alcove, was once a wet bar. A junked juke box and busted tables and chairs stacked high with packages of buns and rolls of paper towels add decorative interest.

The trophies presumably represent something noteworthy. For El Gallo de Oro means "golden rooster," and the menu, a loose three-ring assembly of pages with crudely cropped, pasted, and copied color photos of entrees, has a photograph of a rooster on the cover.

The menu is voluminous. It even contains photos of tropical drinks with labels stuck to the glasses. And the drinks look large enough to transform these ratty digs into a Martha Stewart cottage in just one dose.

The menu is also mildewed and smells like Wayne, a guy from my fifth-grade class who we guessed bathed once every February 29. (In a fit of compassionate group self-esteem-building, we elected him vice president of the student council, hoping his newly won standing might cause him to shower for his acceptance speech. We learned at a young age that little is changed by politics.)

In fact, the whole place has its own peculiar aroma--like aged damp cardboard. But the fright quotient dissipated with the arrival of the requisite chip basket and its accompanying bowls of perky salsa and smooth, potent queso. We ordered a pair of Guatemalan beers to wash the stuff down. But they were weak, watery brews incapable of conjuring even a smug Martha Stewart.

A crisp shrimp tostada held firm, sweet shrimp and diced tomato with a sharp, clean lime tang. I really wanted the octopus appetizer, because it was one of the few dishes with a decent menu mug shot. But they were all out of it. There were no catfish tostadas either.

Not to worry, though, because the grilled meats are mostly stellar. The "Monterry [sic] Style Beef cooked Monterry Style" was tender, juicy, and savory, despite the redundant moniker. Parrillada, an assortment of grilled meats including chicken, beef, and pork, was almost as compelling, except for the pork, which smelled a little like a dung heap. Tamal Guatemal teco, a Guatemalan tamale with banana leaves swaddling moist corn meal and achiote-seasoned chicken, was aromatic and tasty, though the chicken was a little dry. The simple Guatemalan chicken and rice served in a pot was succulent, chewy, and surprisingly sparked with flavor.

Unlike many Mexican restaurants, the musky achiote rice accompanying most dishes here was moist and articulate. Beans were better than most as well.

Opened in 1983 in a formerly gutted house surrounded by brush, El Gallo de Oro is the handiwork of Maria and Celestino Guzman. Ms. Guzman was a Guatemalan peasant who came to Texas some 30 years ago as an undocumented immigrant. Through the sheer brute force of tireless hard work and an appreciation for the possibilities in the states, she and her husband have become successful business people operating several ventures.

Which for all its disheveled ambiance gives this hole a hell of a lot of character and spirit. But you only realize this after digging in and sampling the food.

The Winds Bistro and Spirits.
12101 Greenville Ave., Suite 103, (972) 238-9988.Open Tuesday-Saturday11 a.m.-10 p.m.$$-$$$

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