It sounds easy, but operating a successful neighborhood restaurant is tough: ingratiating yourself with a cadre of regulars, serving decent food, enticing nomads from foreign neighborhoods and protecting the comfort zone you've created (never invite assassination attempts by pulling a menu staple after it's become an icon).
To understand the challenge, look at City Café, the famed Park Cities restaurant founded by Mardi Schma. For 16 years Schma constructed an almost bulletproof neighborhood restaurant with ample wine and food that was well-crafted but safe enough that it wouldn't frighten the ascots off the natives. But in time a problem crept up like facial wrinkles: Elements of the core clientele succumbed to tangles with the grim reaper. So City Café kicked up the chic and splashed on the cosmo to draw more nomads. It didn't seem to work, because new owner Paula Bruton says she's returning to a few of the warhorses to which City Café was once bolted: meat loaf and pot pie (and perhaps an impregnable fortress around the warm cabbage salad with apple-smoked bacon).
But food is only part of the neighborhood mystique. The other, the one almost always forgotten, is the neighbor part. That means the immovable presence of the proprietor, greetin' and palm pinching endlessly from soup to dessert. Susie Priore has that part down cold. She proved it with Suze. She's etched it in Texas limestone at Iris, which rests in a space that has been home to dreadful or dreadfully performing restaurants for at least a decade.
"My inspiration was my dog," Priore says of her pooch of the same name. How's that for neighborliness?
But this is no Alpo depot. In the kitchen is Russell Hodges--chef, teacher (Aims Academy) and one-time restaurant owner (Americana)--among the most solid and likable spatula pilots in Dallas. Hodges dodges sparkle and whiz-bang innovation for basics. Maybe too much. Though he marquees himself with the "Russell's seared foie gras," when the plate arrives, it's clear he's hiding. He handles the liver personally, pulverizing the panko bread crumbs in a coffee grinder, salting and peppering the organ before dredging it through the crumbs mixed with a little flour, "clapping it" to shake off the excess. What this ritual does is wrap a whisper-crisp negligee around the rich, buttery organ. He deposits it in a pool of port and cassis throttled with zinfandel, liberally posted with reconstituted dried cherries and blueberries. To this he adds brioche and an avalanche of greens. This means you have to navigate through jungle topography just to find Hodges' lobes. The berries and sauce are fine (the berry tang is a priceless mouth arouser), as is the brioche, although I could have done without it. But why hide a fabulously prepared centerpiece under a heap of salad mulch? Put it in unmistakable prominence with a splat of wine dribbles, a few berries, maybe a sprig or a leaf to frame it and be done with it.
Yet on other plates, Hodges makes busyness work. Look at his take on the shrimp cocktail: two shrimp as thick as sumo wrestler thumbs, bread points, salmon carpaccio and a cleaved hard-boiled egg. The shrimp are shoved off into one corner of the rectangular plate. The other corner holds the bread. The half opposite these corners is paved with sheets of salmon pounded into fleshy gauze. The flavors are delicate and clean, almost sweet--one of the layers that slips through when salmon isn't brutalized in a buzz saw of smoke and intense curing.
Just off center is the decoy that tricks you into thinking it's a garnish. This is the egg: one half deviled with a twisted tower of pestered yolk goo peaking in a few grains of caviar; the other a normal egg in abnormal form with a yolk that is too uniformly yellow and too smooth not to be the work of computer animators. That's because it wasn't normal. The yellow, which drooled like a dessert sauce when the egg was tampered with, was lemon aioli. In the mouth it exploded with all sorts of eye- and mouth-watering tang and texture. The idea, Hodges says, is to have diners smear the core of the deviled egg onto the salmon and dip the shrimp into the other egg--intentions as clear as frothed egg white. Yet this ignorance is bliss. This is one hell of an appetizer, even if you don't know how to operate it.
Hodges' work at Iris is a result of Priore's neighborliness. She and her ex-husband once ran a car repair shop in the neighborhood. She met Hodges (who also helped her launch Suze) years ago through his BMW. In fact, Priore met many of her customers through their vehicles. She builds on these introductions table by table, diner by diner. "I'm sort of a chatty person," she admits.
And it's not like she doesn't have anything interesting to talk about. After Priore sold Suze to chef Gilbert Garza, she hiked to California to get her master's degree in English and then join the Peace Corps. She was all set to head with the Corps to Morocco to teach English when the World Trade Center towers came tumbling down, an event that soured her on the idea of being a blond American woman in a Muslim country. So she returned to Dallas with the intention of opening a restaurant to pay off her school loans--an idea as wacky as a hard-boiled egg with an instruction manual.
For help she turned to Hodges and former Riviera general manager Hector Garcia (who has since split from Iris, an event Priore won't comment on as lawyers are involved). She also sold, cashed and maxed all the personal assets (including a horse) and credit she could lay her hands on. Priore has enough conversation material for 12 neighborhood restaurants.
Iris is tight and crisp with a pair of secluded dining areas, one wall paneled in Big Spring limestone, slatted ceilings, etched glass panels and lots of artwork depicting all manner of Irises, including watercolors of the flower, a photo of the Iris Theater in Terrell, a painting of her dog Iris and depictions of the Greek goddess of the rainbow.
Angels stumble here, though. Saffron angel hair pasta with vine-ripened tomatoes was overcooked into a rat's nest of sticky filaments.
But virtually everything else glittered. Lemon risotto with jumbo shrimp was creamy with a citrus potency that was almost rude, which risotto should be sometimes. Rack of lamb, four chops arranged in a semicircle with a dab of double-mint apricot chutney and meaty medjool dates, was juicy, though the grain in two of them was mealy instead of smooth and silky. Cannellini beans made an appearance here, too, an unexpectedly hearty implement that performed some interesting interplay with the dates.
Those beans also were busy in the pan-seared sea bass. This is an unusual dish, one Hodges crafts as a bourride, a Mediterranean fish soup often served in hollowed-out bread. This mild, nutty and juicy fish rests on a piece of garlic toast with red and gold plum tomato confetti in a bath of white wine, Pernod and shrimp stock. A shard of braised fennel flanks the bread, war-tugging with the Pernod. Cannellini beans dot the fluid. This is a profoundly tasty dish. Weirdly, though, it's even better after a day in the refrigerator followed by two minutes in the microwave, a process that made us wince after we spied the steaming mottled fish winking from a slice of soggy bread. But courage prevailed, and we took a forkful--and gad if it wasn't delicious. The bread and fish absorbed all of the wine and Pernod and shrimp juice and merged them into an accident of glorious harmony. This sequel was better than the original. Maybe someone will open a neighborhood haunt composed of nothing but dishes that come alive as day-old, nuked leftovers.
What could be more neighborly than that?
5405 W. Lovers Lane, 214-352-2727. Open 5:30 p.m-10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$$
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