In the Drink

My Martini brings wine to Arlington's thirsty masses.

My first taste of North Texas was a nibble of Arlington. I was staying in a tract home in a neighborhood with far too many tricycles and souped-up Hyundais. I'm not sure if this was the cause, but I soon developed a potent thirst for wine.

In Arlington, I soon discovered, a wine thirst is a challenge that requires crisis management. Wine and beer are contraband in grocery stores. Retail wine shops are verboten. Imagine my horror when I learned we would have to shuttle to Fort Worth in rush-hour traffic just to score a frosty bottle of sauvignon blanc.

Had I landed in Riyadh by mistake? I had come to Arlington from San Francisco, where I worked at a wine industry trade association, a piece of buttoned-down officialdom where wine was dispensed during business hours. If you didn't have wine with lunch, people gave you the kind of stares you might get if you shuttled through Highland Park with a Ralph Nader bumper sticker on your Suburban. Politicians by the bushel--Dianne Feinstein, Steny Hoyer, Ernest Hollings, Pete Wilson, Bob Dole, Wyche Fowler--would parade through our offices and give us little talks on how wine was crucial to culture and the economy, created a positive mental attitude, cleared arteries, cured cancer and added function to non-erectile penises. (This was well before Bob Dole's Viagra commercials.) They would say their words, toast us, sip some wine and accept (presumably) our humble offers to add flushness to their coffers--even at 10 a.m.

This wine promiscuousness rattled through my head as I slalomed to Fort Worth in desperation, so much so that I forced a motorist into a curb, causing him to blow a tire and proving that wine restrictions cost society billions in property damage, lost time and mental attitude degradation. It may be arrogant to say this, but Arlington is a little backward.

My Martini Wine & Bistro owner Kenzo Tran feels roughly the same way, and he is among a small group of culinary activists determined to change that. A couple of years ago he launched an Asian restaurant called Blowfish (now called Piranha Killer Sushi) a few strip-mall doors down from My Martini.

Tran gives wine some respect. The far wall is a postmodern recessed wine rack. The wine list is short and tight but studded with a global grab bag from Washington, South Africa, France, Spain, New Zealand, Australia, Italy, California and even Texas. The servers know the list, too. When asked about a Dunnewood Signature Cabernet, our server replied "spicy with a velvety texture, if I remember my tasting notes correctly." Priceless.

As its name would suggest, My Martini also is stocked with an array of high-performance martini fuel blends: the classic, saketinis and various perversions from vodkas infused with pineapple, watermelon, lemongrass and honeycomb.

But the greatest claim for this slice of sophistication is its strange cuisine, which is often not wonderful. Tran calls it "multi-ethnic urban eclectic," a mouthful that can mean anything from foie gras kung pao to salsa hot dogs smoked in diesel bus exhaust.

But at My Martini it means chilled tomato bisque served in a martini glass. Made with puréed tomatoes, cream, Thai chilies and basil, the soup arrives with tempura shrimp hooked over the glass rim. But judging from its coarse, gritty coating, this was some pedestrian breading treatment rather than tempura. The fluid was peach in tone, resembling the consummate "chick drink," maybe one made from watermelon-infused vodka. It wept inconsolably for a little umbrella. Flavors were mundane--neither brisk nor rich--and resembled the Campbell Soup kids school of bisque.

Other installments flirt with the provocative and are ripe with thought and creativity, if a little short on execution. Mixed bruschetta with baby greens arrived with five pieces of bread fanned out from the center of the plate like daisy petals. Each is spread with a different condiment, which sets up an alluring tango of harmonies and counterpoints: roasted peppers, caramelized onions, salmon tartare with cream and dill, pâté and a coarsely chopped tapenade consisting exclusively of olives. But each topping rested on bread that was dry and tough with an off burnt-plastic flavor signaling that the grill wasn't properly cleaned.

Tomatoes and mozzarella are almost a cliché on menus. Yet My Martini's vine-ripe tomatoes with buffalo mozzarella contained a humorous twist. Thick tomato slices were stacked in the center of the plate with slices of mozzarella in between. Basil leaves peeked out from the stack here and there like slivers of errant crabgrass. In totality, it looked like a circular club sandwich--an eclectic touch if there ever was one. It rested in a prodigious olive oil slick streaked with large pockets of balsamic.

Wild forest mushroom galette with baby greens opened with sublime flirtations, but it faltered quickly. Sumptuously earthy fungi and crisp greens were sprawled across the plate, pungency poking through here and there. But the mushrooms were served on pastry that was soggy, becoming a swampy mush before the mushrooms could be collected.

The décor isn't that way, though. It's crisp. Tran says his initial quest was to create an industrial look with lots of concrete and metal. But the look got too rough even for his heavy-duty vision. So he added velvet draperies between the bar, tin tables, votive candles and a wavy false ceiling rippling overhead. Jazz is jammed into a tiny corner.

But the multi-ethnic section of the concept gets arthritic at times. Grilled shrimp in saffron-roasted tomato risotto was tragic, one of those rare dishes you hope you never have to face without a digestive prophylactic. The rice was cold, hard and pasty and consisted of pedestrian grains shaped into a sphere. A thick coat of lacquer would have made it deployable as a Christmas tree ornament. Singe lines creased the shrimp shells, but cautious bites revealed they were barely cooked--sushi without the sense of safety.

Prince Edward mussels with tomato-shiitake butter didn't suffer from any preparation missteps. They arrived positioned in perfect symmetry, their partially opened shells reaching upward like a synchronized nest of pelican chicks. Peer into the shells, though, and you'll have a hard time finding any meat, at least without reading glasses.

Yet the menu does reach points of eclectic clarity. Clay pot tilapia was a simple dish with a fillet floured and seared and deposited in a broth of fish stock, soy and curry with Japanese eggplant and bok choy. The supple, clean fillet held up amazingly well, retaining its crispness and savory punch, even after bathing.

Five-spice duck looks harrowing. A black bean slurry rests on one end of the plate. A dark berm of red rice pilaf capped with black tangles of fried leeks sits in the middle. Oval slices of duck breast are propped on the other side of this berm. The flesh unleashed a flood of vivid flavors: spice and intense savory bursts framed with an acid bite and a hint of sweetness from cinnamon and clove. It was juicy and tender. Yet that bean pit was a little bland. A stern garlic punch with some duck drippings would have finished it off nicely.

But out of the flats and swamps rose the tower of chocolate: chocolate mousse balls impregnating a steeple of delicate chocolate wafers. It was surprisingly delicious, deftly steering clear of cloying.

My Martini has its ambitions and creative flourishes. Yet its head is still floating, searching for a tether to keep it anchored. Still, it's a laudable drift in the wine-parched prairies of Arlington.

859 N.E. Green Oaks Blvd., Arlington, 817-461-4424. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, noon-11 p.m. Saturday and noon-10 p.m. Sunday. $$

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