Joey's 15 minutes

Joey Vallone and his self-named Dallas restaurant have been the darling of the society columns ever since the restaurant, Joey's, was but a gleam in young Joey's eye.

We've read all about the Signing of the Lease, the Pre-Opening Party (with accompanying Wet Concrete and Martini Incidents), the Convenience Store Feud, and its sequel, Making Up with 7-Eleven. That PR machine is really working overtime. Well, everyone knows you can paint yourself into a corner, and Joey has used buckets of printer's ink.

I confess I must have missed a moment of the media's Joey-fest because I did not realize that the restaurant with the Oak Lawn address (which used to be the Wine Press') actually presents its rear to that street, opening instead onto a parking lot next to the infamous convenience store which, of course, you've read about. So I made a distinctly unfabulous entrance to Joey's, having parked next door, walked up to the apparent front of the building, then hiked up an alley and crashed through some bushes. (I don't think the valet saw me scrambling over the shrubbery to those signature door pulls--thank God. You hate to make a bad impression on a valet.)

To preserve a piece of my own dignity, I have to point out that I was not the only one making the alley entrance, but I do feel this is the first thing you need to know about Joey's. It's the kind of place you want to make a good impression--otherwise, they might never serve you lunch.

When I asked friends who had visited Joey's what it was like, they started waving their hands around a lot. Now I see what they meant. You enter to a bar of polished, mahogany-colored wood, cozy, and almost men's-clubby, but beyond that, in the dining room, all hell breaks loose. The colonnades that divide the restaurant into nave and aisles are covered with pique-assiette, a wild mosaic of broken tiles and plates. The carpet is a pattern only Bridget Riley could appreciate. (Don't look down as you cross the room, or you'll succumb to vertigo.) Above the columns, the vaulted ceiling is covered with a grotesque mural of party animals by an illustrator inspired to paint the Sistine cartoon. Even the copper hoods on the pizza ovens are burnished in a scalloped design. The whole place is crawling with pattern--it seems to move all by itself. It's bearable in the daytime or when no one is there, but at night, when the light flickers and the restaurant is full of people, the effect inspires you to duck and cover. Sometimes designers seem to forget that there are going to be real live people in the spaces they dream up.

And lots of them. Joey's is packed; from the minute it opens to the minute it closes, those tables, too close together for comfort, are full of Dallas' most beautiful, important, and surgically enhanced people. The result is crisis management, and every minute we spent at Joey's felt like an emergency. A number of head waiter-types in civilian clothes rushed around wringing napkins in their hands. Waiters clustered in twos and threes for intense conversations with lots of gesturing. There was plenty of purposeful striding in starched khakis from one end of the dining room to another. Sometimes one of the overseers or expediters cleared a dirty plate; usually they didn't. The whole impression was one of tension and anxiety--something is happening here, and we don't know exactly how to handle it. (No one prepared us for customers! What next?) And the sense of emergency is so palpable you find yourself paying as much attention to the service dramas as your plate.

Well, the kitchen couldn't be having a good time, either. We asked our waiter who the chef was, and he answered, "Oh, I forget his last name--the first one quit last week." That's the same waiter who answered our only menu question by exclaiming, "I don't know what "golden" salmon is! That's the only thing I don't know about this menu--ask me something else!"

Joey himself, all 23 years of him, is a captain all at sea. He seems completely perplexed, and stands in the middle of the room, arms folded, chewing on his thumb. Is he wondering whether he should have waited a little longer, racked up a few more years in the family's Houston restaurants before setting out on his own? After a couple of meals at Joey's, I think I can answer that question. The scene is breathless, the guests are fabulous, the surroundings are, as I said, drop-dead. Still, service and food remain the foundation of any restaurant, and at Joey's, the foundation is mostly just good intentions.

For instance, remember those guys at Il Sorrento who walk around with bread boxes around their necks offering you hot rolls? They have guys just like that at Joey's, only they're offering you heads of roast garlic as a preprandial snack. Almost a great idea. But the garlic was cold--and who wants to spread cold garlic on anything, even Empire bread, unless Dracula's actually knocking? Secondly, our friendly garlic man neglected to mention that the stuff was $6 an order, so without even knowing it, we racked up a $12 charge for garlic.  

Well, we didn't know that till the bill came, so we were pleased with the appetizers. They were almost tasty enough to distract us from the decor. "Fazzoletto," described as a pasta "handkerchief," was like a lovely, large delicate ravioli folded around a light mixture of sharp, shredded greens and gentle ricotta. "Zuppa toscano," a minimalist, vegetal soup floating with white beans, pasta, and a chiffonade of greens, was so barely seasoned that all of us agreed it would have been a perfect restorative if we were sick. (Unfortunately, none of us was, and even after a downpour of salt and pepper, the broth remained bland.)

We liked the big "shrimp pino," coated with black and white sesame seeds and fried, served with a sweet-tart red pepper sauce--a pairing as pleasing as deep-fried with ketchup. "Avocado pancake," two flat patties of creamy green avocado, were lightly browned on one side (I don't understand how) and sandwiched a layer of true lumps of crab; the accompanying tomato salsa, all punches pulled, wasn't quite the contrast needed--I kept wishing for a squeeze of lemon, lime, jalapeo juice...

I remember making something like the shrimp and crab "cheesecake" when I was in the catering business: Philly cheese mixed with seafood; in those days, frozen crab. In this pie, only tiny flavorless shrimp were discernible among the gooey curds of sticky cheese. If you're one of those who are prejudiced against richness, forget this dish, but it has that fat, mouth-filling quality that used to be the epitome of luxurious food.

Entrees were disappointing. You have to make allowances for a new chef stepping into an emergency situation, but after all, most of these recipes are from Vallone family restaurants. You'd hardly expect something like tomato sauce, for instance, to present a challenge to the kitchen, but this tomato sauce was incredibly off-base. (Surely someone had mistaken sugar for salt--or maybe sugar shock is the reason behind the hyperactive decor.) I have never tasted anything so sweet on top of lasagna in my life.

The "lacquer" chicken was unfortunately accurately named; basically a roast chicken, a dish in every cook's repertoire, it was inedibly dry and tough. All the extras on the plate--goat cheese and garlic mashed potatoes, sherry sauce, mushrooms--couldn't help.

And then, even after all the discussion, we were served the wrong salmon after all. We asked for the "golden" (not a fish type, just its color when cooked) salmon, but received instead the salmon topped with crawfish and crab. Its brandy sauce, decoratively squiggled around the fish, had been hardened by the hot plate. After dinner, we were brought the correct fish dish--overcooked salmon crusted with angel hair pasta and plopped in a soft bed of polenta. Too little texture, too late. I have heard from several sources that the osso buco is great.

My one overriding taste-memory of Joey's food is sweetness--the cannelloni's sauce was too sweet, though nothing could be as sugary as the lasagna. Even salads were sweet--the "autumn salad" dressing was syrupy. And one we tried at lunch, "Joey's Nutty Salad," should have been served as dessert: wads of caramelized onion topped the plate of greens, and gobs of candied nuts lurked among the leaves, which were dressed in an astonishingly sweet honey vinaigrette.

The chicken and sun-dried tomato pizza from the menu of lunch specials had a sweet undertone too, behind the light bread crust and white chicken chunks. My friend ordered from the regular menu--same food, same prices, dinner or lunch--a dish called "Red Snapper La Griglia," after another Vallone restaurant in Houston. After an incredible wait, it arrived: a small grilled fillet, overcooked, resting against a kind of rice ball hushpuppy, with spears of asparagus sticking out in rays from the top and a semicircle of sliced grapes in dark "grape essence" below. It's the kind of arty presentation that only works when it's pristinely done--stray splats of grape essence on the plate's rim destroy the effect, and interesting though the contrast was between fish and (sweet) sauce, it wasn't enough to compensate for inaccurate cooking.

After dinner, we endured the obligatory dessert presentation, laid out on a tray, the congealed slices looking like they'd been held between someone's knees too long, the whole thing garnished with leaves and a scattering of bruised strawberries bleeding into rumpled linen napkins. (At lunch this look had been cleaned up a little.) The sweets are made elsewhere and all the portions are huge--that's the trend.  

One of us ordered the enormous slice of peanut butter banana pie, and while it's your fault if you order anything like that, still, this was nothing more than peanut butter mashed up with bananas; taking a bite was like snitching a spoonful straight from the jar. Cheesecake was gelatinous, and the chocolate extravaganza, a hollow column of chocolate candy containing a fudge cake and a commendable mousse, suffered only from the grossness of its proportions: too much, too rich, too sweet.

Joey's isn't really a restaurant right now, although it might become one. It's a media event, and it's a very successful one--you'll definitely feel like you've been where it's happening after a visit to Joey's, and no one else I've talked to has cared that it was too noisy, too crowded, or that the food wasn't terrific and the service was slow. They've agreed it was "fun" and "wild," and if that's enough to satisfy its customers, then Joey's has everything it needs in its painted corner.

Joey's, 4217 Oak Lawn, 526-0074. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. For dinner Monday-Thursday 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5:30 p.m.-midnight, Sunday 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.

Fazzoletto $6.95
Shrimp and crab "cheesecake" $7.95
Shrimp "Pino" $8.95
Avocado pancake $6.95
Joey's Nutty Salad $6.95
Crispy lacquer chicken
Capellini crusted golden salmon $16.95
Red Snapper La Griglia
Canneloni Casalinga


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