In standard restaurant service, the amuse bouche arrives after meal decisions have been made and a server's whisked away the menus. Perhaps there's even an open wine bottle on the table before its graced with "a gift from the chef," a curl of freshly smoked salmon sitting on a stark white saucer or diced scallop ceviche cradled in the bowl of a won ton soup spoon.
All of which makes the amuse bouche timing at Horne & Dekker, the stylish comfort-food joint on North Henderson, a bit unnerving. On both my visits to the restaurant, plaid-shirted servers came bounding out of the kitchen, demitasse cups sloshing, long before we'd finished scanning the menus. On neither occasion did the amuse seem in danger of wilting if it wasn't served swiftly: There was a horseradish-inflected gazpacho that was just a vodka splash away from a Bloody Mary, and a murky chicken broth better suited for cooking than savoring. Both would have held.
But what couldn't wait was the restaurant's eagerness to amuse, in the non-culinary sense. I suspect it's no accident that Horne & Dekker sounds like a vagabond vaudeville troupe: The restaurant badly wants its patrons to believe it was dreamed up by someone with a water-squirting flower on his lapel.
There are self-consciously comic touches everywhere: On the website, where the FAQ entry "What is your red wine selection like?" is met with a smirking "Great"; in the bathrooms, where the owners have been Photoshopped into a Singing in the Rain placard; and on the menu, where most every dish gets a jokey title—duck confit is sold as "duck, duck, Irish goose," which I assumed had something to do with liver until a server set me straight. "There's no goose," she explained.
I was initially surprised to encounter what seemed to be a children's birthday party at Horne & Dekker. I didn't ask, so I suppose it's possible the man at the head of the table who was having a spectacularly bad time—"Please don't draw on me," he beseeched his fellow celebrants—was really the guest of honor. In retrospect, though, the restaurant makes great sense as a kids' party site: The food's sugary, the mood's silly and everyone's dessert comes with a birthday candle.
Fortunately, Horne & Dekker seems to recognize that its cutesiest elements aren't compatible with the dinner experience an adult shelling out $50 expects. The jelly glasses that the restaurant originally used for wine have vanished, replaced by serviceable glasses with stems. An impressive clam appetizer is now listed on the menu as "clams," instead of "cockles and blondes."
And as a measure of how committed Misters Horne and Dekker are to tweaking their brand new restaurant, each diner is now presented with a comment card affixed to a clipboard at meal's end. The card's arranged in classic Mad Lib format—"it tasted (adjective)" and "the host was very (adjective)."
Shawn Horne, the former general manager at Dish, and Flynn Dekker, previously a marketing manager for Fogo de Chao, surely have too much business acumen between them to let their latest enterprise founder. It's hard to believe the fellows won't figure out that in order to fill more than three or four tables on a weeknight, they might have to mark down their $7 pints of beer and make their wine list more readable. Or consider hiring an executive chef.
In a strange arrangement that Horne described to The Dallas Morning News earlier this summer, there's no chef in the Horne & Dekker kitchen. Instead, there's a kitchen manager charged with implementing Horne's vision. Horne boasted he saves $30,000 by forgoing an executive chef, but the money-saving technique might also be responsible for the general dullness of the restaurant's food.
It's a short hop from comfort to lackluster, since both genres rely on light seasoning, soft textures and familiarity. What puts Horne & Dekker in the latter camp is the kitchen's tendency to overcook and over-sweeten: Even the biscuits are accompanied by waxy honey butter.
Perhaps the most emblematic dish I sampled was a "barbecue pork." My server endorsed it heartily. I had no complaints about the skin-on mashed potatoes, saturated with a fistful of butter, but the two pounded hunks of pork were disastrous. The pork was badly overcooked, and—much like a rib-eye steak I tried—didn't seem to be especially good meat to begin with: I was instantly reminded of grad-school dinners of George Foreman Grill-ed supermarket pork doused with bottled barbecue sauce.
Horne & Dekker's molasses-laced sauce was painfully sweet. Yet even if the sauce had been better, it couldn't have magically transformed a piece of grilled pork into barbecue. Horne & Dekker plays it loose with culinary terms, and I prefer menus that are precise.
I experienced the same irritation when a server delivered my "'Poor Man's Lobster' tacos," listed on the menu as a monkfish dish. The kitchen had substituted tilapia, the Wonder Bread of the sea, making the wraps the poorest man's lobster tacos. (All this lobster business has since been struck from the menu.) The tortillas were warm and the pickled jalapeños were perky, but the otherwise bland tacos were still pretty ho-hum.
Far better were the steamed clams, served in a lovely broth with splinters of sausage. The dish had the rich snap of flavor that was missing from the thick-crusted duck pizza I sampled and appetizers like the pasty spinach-artichoke dip, a misguided nostalgia trip.
The kitchen entirely lost track of flavors in its salads, sending out a since-eliminated tomato, cucumber and onion mix that tasted of nothing but onions and a watermelon salad featuring green tomatoes so muted I mistook them for cucumbers.
I much preferred the vegetables served as à la carte sides, including a serving of punchy shelled peas interspersed with carrot shavings and nicely bitter braised greens. A handmade spaetzel, appropriately squishy, would have been even better without so many sautéed sweet onions. At least I could eat around the sweetness: Mashed sweet potatoes with a coverlet of mini-marshmallows made my teeth hurt.
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Horne & Dekker even managed to gratuitously sweeten its desserts, sprinkling brown sugar on a serving of vanilla ice cream and plopping a scoop of the same ice cream in the center of a plate of buckeyes.
Both of my servers were strong advocates for the restaurant's "Grape & Grub" program, which includes four chef-chosen courses for $38, or $58 with wine pairings. The price is reasonable, and if two diners at the same table order it, they each get different dishes. But the kitchen plucks its selections from the standard menu, so most diners would probably be better off choosing their own meals. Someday, my server told me, the kitchen will venture off-menu when Grape-ing and Grubbing.
Much of the restaurant's early press centered on its tabletop cans, which sport fake, old-timey Horne & Dekker tomato labels. The servers use them to balance pizzas. But food writers get to use those disguised chickpeas as a simile. Like those cans, the restaurant's now more about appearances than the food within. For Horne & Dekker to work, it needs a priority shift.
Horne & Dekker 2323 N. Henderson Ave., Suite 102, 214-821-9333, www.horneanddekker.com. Open 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday and 5-10 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$