Back in the early '90s, Buick began a multimillion-dollar ad campaign to lure younger motorists into its fold of stodgy sedans. The bait was the newly revamped Skylark. One television ad featured California artist Ed Lister, who composed an abstract painting before the camera, inspired by the car's odd sloping lines and folds. Not that these design contours were compelling. In fact, the thing looked like the ugly child of an old Citroen and a Hoover canister vacuum -- the painting its afterbirth.
Young drivers, of course, saw through this listless stab at edgy, idiosyncratic styling by General Motors, the world's most boring car company. They bought more Hondas. But this represented the first of Buick's attempts to appeal to baby boomers, a generation that has shunned American cars since their 1972 Dusters kept catching fire at stoplights.
Buick hasn't given up its attempts to capture the hearts and minds of boomers, echo-boomers, X-ers, Y-ers, and whatever other generation is left after the alphabet and the sound effects run out and the current crop of Buick motorists ride the brakes into extinction. For 2000, Buick has drafted a new LeSabre to convert younger drivers into land yachtsmen. Gone is the straight, '70s-era dashboard and instrument panel, the kind that warned you the car was overheating after the hood ornament disappeared in a gust of steam. It has been replaced with a curved dash and cockpit-style instrument cluster. Flush door handles, body-color trim, and curvaceous lines have supplanted chrome exterior trim.
This is a more stylish, understated American cruiser -- one with contemporary styling touches wrapped around a sofa with a drive train. Still a Buick, mind you, but one that tries to wear a little edgy automotive charisma, though most boomers would probably rather be caught live on Wal-Mart's security cameras pilfering Doris Day tapes than be caught driving a Buick. The problem with this sort of over-focus-grouped kind of development is that the product gets muddled in its quest for risk-free, universal appeal. Whom is it for, and why should we make the effort to care?
The same question popped into my head at Maguire's Regional Cuisine. Like a Buick, Maguire's is steady, ample, handsome, and comfortable. It has contemporary styling touches like sloping curves and spirals, amber lighting, rich woods, and a bright open kitchen topped with a mural that looks like Shirley MacLaine's reinterpretation of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling.
The menu is straight-ahead, middle-of-the-interstate fare. One exception is "traditional escargot" ($7), snails served in herbed garlic butter. They're delicious: tender with good texture, though rich earthiness is largely absent. The butter sauce surges with garlic, though, making it good for dipping bread.
The rest of the menu contains such things as chicken sandwiches, Cajun penne pasta, lamb osso buco, hamburgers, linguini, grilled pork chops, Caesar salad, and meat loaf. So what's the picture here?
"What inspired me to work on this concept was a recognition of a gap in the market," says Mark Maguire, who partnered with his brother Chris and Executive Chef Cherif Brahmi to create the restaurant. "What I found in most chef-driven places is that the presentations are beautiful and the food's great, but it's expensive. What I wanted is a place that was chef-driven, serving creative food that appealed to adventurous, sophisticated dining habits, but still allowed for people with more traditional tastes."
Maguire insists he isn't trying to create a restaurant that is something for everyone. Instead, his focus is an affordable restaurant with attractive ambiance that can be visited a couple of times a week without fatiguing customers with rich, busy sauces and lots of components on the plate. He wants a place that offers simple brawn along with fancy footwork.
"Why can't I go into a place with that kind of atmosphere with that level of service and that level of food and get a burger? Because, let's face it: Everybody wants a burger every now and then."
But why wouldn't somebody who wants something like that just go to Houston's? Is it because Maguire's is perhaps more compellingly adventurous? Maybe, but it's hard to tell. The chef's pagoda ($17), a chef's-choice appetizer mixer served on a tri-level tray, included Thai mahogany chicken wings, tenderloin kabobs, and ahi tuna rolls. Slathered in a maple-ginger-peanut-lime varnish sparked with chili, the chicken wings were chewy and moist, though a little shy on punch. Tenderloin kabobs with hefty bite-size chunks of juicy beef were equally satisfying and moistened with an equally under-invigorating, middle-of-the-road sauce. But ahi tuna rolls had that striking air of faux adventurousness, the veneer of culinary styling without the commitment. The neat little slices were obviously pre-prepped and refrigerated. The nuri (seaweed wrapper) was tough and shriveling. The rice was hard. An accompanying dipping sauce blended from soy and lemon juice had the sharp, metallic bite of reconstituted citrus.
Oriental chicken salad ($9) with threads of carrot and beet snarled with chow mien noodles was studded with dry, bland chicken over a bed of limp greens splashed with a bland dressing.
Perhaps the reason for these lapses, minor though they may be, is a muddled concept. Despite Maguire's insistence that he isn't trying to be something for everyone, he doesn't seem sure what he wants to be. What does "regional cuisine" mean, anyway? "That's kind of tricky. We struggled with what to tag this thing with," Maguire says. "I was just going to call it Maguire's Restaurant. But we floated that out there in market surveys and 90 percent of the people came back saying 'Irish Bar.'"
Maguire says he wanted to feature a range of styles: Mediterranean, Southwestern, Italian, Cajun, home-style. "Regional cuisine is very confusing to everybody," he adds. "But the bottom line is, I couldn't think of a better way to say what we are doing, and at least it gets people asking."
Prompting questions seems like an odd justification for muddled focus. My question would be, If you can't accommodate forays like fresh sushi with a decent dipping sauce, or don't have the wherewithal to create an Oriental salad with potency and liveliness worthy of the name, then why do it? No one will care if your double barrels don't scatter culinary shot from everywhere -- as long as you do the basics well, which Maguire's mostly does, in a middle-of-the-road, 2-ton Buick sense.
Catfish po' boy ($8) is a wide tongue of golden fish slipped between a roll with fresh lettuce and two slices of the brightest, juiciest tomato slices I've seen plugged in a sandwich in a long time. Sheathed in a crisp coating, the fish is moist and firmly flaky without a hint of grittiness or grease. Plus, Creole rémoulade was punched with enough heat to move the meal off dead center. The straw-hued snag of shoestring fries was equally fresh and greaseless, though an application of craftily blended house seasoning on these strings would have notched up the whole plate.
Steak au poivre ($24) was not as silky and rich as cuts you find at other places around town, maybe even next door at III Forks. In fact, it was a bit tough and chewy, though lean. But it was cooked to a perfect medium-rare pink with a fearless peppercorn crust: ample, fierce, and brittle. And while a clump of shoestring onion rings leaked a bit too much grease, a plop of simple mashed potatoes was flawless.
Maple-ginger-glazed salmon ($17) is so lightly moist and inoffensively flavored that it completely skirted the racy richness and hearty density that make this fish so compelling. Not that this version wasn't satisfying -- the glaze was tasty in a risk-free way without being cumbersome. A side of basmati rice was interspersed with brilliantly fresh carrot, snow peas, shitake mushroom, and broccoli florets, though this mix would benefit profoundly from an adventurous seasoning.
Deep-dish apple crisp ($6) was soggy without distinctive flavor and texture.
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Maguire's service is efficient and attentive. Dishes arrive at the table piping hot and moist. When a napkin was dropped at our table, it was picked up and replaced before we realized a lap had suddenly become unprotected. Servers know the menu. It's all very mindfully orchestrated and nurturing.
Not that this was easy to assemble. Maguire says that three weeks before opening, he had just two servers from a pool of 18 applicants with no more candidates sauntering through the door. He was caught flat-footed in Dallas' tight labor market. So he placed ads in the Dallas Observer and The Dallas Morning News announcing $500 signing bonuses for any server who hangs on for at least 30 days.
"And I got zero response," he says. "So I went out and spent $225 on a 20 foot banner, hung it on my building, and I saw 40-plus people that day." It's a strange way to build a first-class server team, but it's working.
Unfortunately, Maguire's food isn't as inventive as his hiring techniques. There's no independent character, no clear distinction, no charisma. It's just straightforward, well crafted vanilla that ventures outside the box a little, but always with that vanilla in tow. There's nothing much wrong with Maguire's Regional Cuisine, it just leaves you with a big 'So what?' Not unlike Dad's Buick.