I've pointed out before that while nam pla and kim chee have become household words, the mother of all cuisines, French, is increasingly hard to find in Dallas. So I bring to your attention this week a French restaurant you might have forgotten or overlooked: Watel's.
To be entirely accurate, it's French-ish, or perhaps French-esque. That is, it fights the French stereotype with touches of polenta and pasta, with check marks indicating dishes with no cream or butter.
Still, on most nights you'll be able to choose from sweetbreads, brains, rabbit, and cassoulet--this be French food, all right.
It's a pleasingly odd little place, originally opened by Damien Watel, who is now the landlord, at the lowest end of McKinney, past where you thought McKinney ended. The tiny dining room is augmented by a covered patio of the kind a Saturday-only Tim Allen wannabe might have added to his ranch house: slightly crooked, with glass walls, sliding doors, and a patio that fronts right onto the trolley line. A pleasant place to sit on a cool spring evening, lit by candles, quaint, cozy, but--as you can't help but remember when the trolleys rumble by--decidedly urban.
We ducked in late, without a reservation, which I never do, and were greeted warmly by a waiter who must love his job.
Our server brought wine and bread. Afterward, a square of grilled polenta blanketed with creamy Dallas mozzarella, just melted, and fresh tomatoes, made a satisfying starter. The salad-minded among us enjoyed a lovely, cool toss of greens given substance by a warm goat-cheese-smeared croustade.
It's pleasant to be reminded that most food does not--in fact, should not--be refrigerator-cold or bubbling hot to taste good. Most flavors actually reach their peak somewhere in the temperate zone, but restaurants seem to think they convince us of their food's freshness by the extremity of temperature.
Rounds of rare lamb were thickly coated with coarsely cracked pepper--I would think freshly cracked, since the pungence went straight up your nose--with crusty little brown half-circles of potato providing a sweet and salty foil, with a spoonful of intense cognac sauce to moisten.
Cassoulet is a dish that, like the mysterious Italian dessert tiramisu, is never served the same way twice. It always involves beans, and did at Watel's; here, it was enriched with shreds of duck meat and lamb chunks, a warm, satisfying and very homey stew.
A dish of well-cooked duck and wilted bell peppers over angel hair pasta showed another mark of the good cook--how well he uses his leftovers. Cooking is by nature a thrifty art, and the best cooks take pride in using up stuff. They don't waste anything; it's not only a matter of wasting money, but flavor. Carrot peelings and beef bones go into the stock pot, chicken wings and necks into the forcemeat. If there's leftover duck, it will be reincarnated, not remotely like its former self, but mixed with sauteed onions, vegetables, and seasonings into a sauce that seems like the original purpose of the duck, anyway.
We ate slowly, we sipped wine, we conversed. We stayed later than we meant to and enjoyed every minute. Service was amazingly pleasant--attentive but not smothering, helpful but not condescending--from greeting to going, and we didn't leave until they were upending the chairs.
Although we didn't test the premise, the menu even claims the kitchen will alter recipes to suit the guests. This is the kind of customer-pleasing, personal restaurant that is even rarer than French food.
--Mary Brown Malouf
Watel's, 1923 McKinney Ave., 720-0323. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. For dinner Sunday-Thursday 6 p.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday brunch 11:30-2:30.
Warm Polenta with Tomato and Dallas Mozzarella $5.75
Green Leaf Lettuce with Goat Cheese Toasts $5.50
Peppered Lamb with Cognac Sauce $18
Angelhair with Duck Meat and Bell Peppers $14
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