Parking is hard, so this tells you something. Every slot contains a car--Mercedes, BMW, Lexus and so on. A manager in a crisp suit strolls out onto the patio to direct. No valet on weekdays. But it's OK to park in the dim strip mall across 7th Street, he says. Then he spies loiterers coagulating there in little baggy-trouser clots and thinks better of it. Follow me, he says. He struts into the parking lot, waving his open palm, slitting the air with his index. "Right here," he says, jabbing toward the faded taillight fastened to a red minivan near the restaurant's Dumpster. This is where the employees park, he says. The car will be OK, he says.
The pacing on the floor is intent, so this tells you something else. Lanny's Alta Cocina Mexicana is a simple bungalow--right out of the Art Lloyd Craft Wright Movement is what I'd say if I knew a damn about interior design. Floors groan under the tender pressure of haute cuisine commerce.
Lanny's Alta Cocina Mexicana
Foie gras $16
Cornish hen $24
Arctic char $28
Carne asada $38
Servers seem casual and unhurried, but this is mere staging. Observe: As they transition from the dining room floor to the portal that channels them to the restaurant heart and the bowels, they accelerate. Upon re-entry to the dining space, they slacken. It's as if there is a gate there, an invisible drapery that contorts time and space like July heat ripples air. Only this gate flips priorities and comportment from relaxed congeniality to vicious urgency.
Wine is served in tumblers, or more specifically, Riedel crystal from the "O" series. Riedel O's are simply bowls with their stems lopped off. The shape widens and slenderizes, depending on the wine sloshed within. It's trendy, upscale, casual wine service. It stinks.
Most tumblers, whether harboring Scotch or gimlets or water, have patterns or textured glass to camouflage fingerprints and palm smears. Dew serves this function in tall glasses brimmed with ice water. But far more than liquor or icy water, wine is a fluid visual. The post-swirl tears, the gradations in color, the presence or absence of clouds, all contribute to its sensual impact. Smears and prints do not.
Yes, the tumbler has been a long-standing casual staple on tables in Spain and Italy, but these never pretended to be anything other than a delivery device. Simple tumblers don't swell and showcase a wine's visuals the way a bowl does. Bowls were designed for this. Crystal bowls are upscale. Amputating the stem doesn't make them a breed of trendy casual; it just makes them clumsy proletariat pretenders.
Lanny's food pretends too. The most brazen impostor is ceviche: thoughtfully composed, meticulously trimmed and tersely stripped of vigor in an attempt...at what? Saying the word "ceviche" is generally sufficient to make the mouth water. It's a tango of acids the mouth memorizes--citrus and tomato--coupled with the stinging fury of peppers, onion and garlic. When you think of ceviche you think of juices: searing juices, enlivening juices. This is juiceless and citrus-free. Seared ahi tuna slices--deep rose ellipses framed by slender beige-gray loops--lay single-file across a long flat plate. Avocado and a honeydew gelée nest atop. Toasted coconut shavings huddle near the edges like metal filings nuzzling up to a magnet. Chef Lanny Lancarte II says this: "I've taken really loose interpretations of ceviche." So loose he's resorted to metaphors, offering that the honeydew gelée stands in for citrus. A stretch, that is. Thinking is there, but the dish never transcends the thoughts. It's listless. There's no dancing on the tongue, no sting on the lip, no saucy sensuality. It's just a cool clap of flesh, with a wipe of breakfast sweet and a low-level sweet-tooth buzz.
Foie gras shows thinking too. The liver is pan-seared and slipped inside of an ancho chile that has been rehydrated with water and sugar to blunt the bite and shot with a little fig-shallot marmalade. Provocative but unfulfilling: lobe portions are skimpy, the meat is hard instead of creamy, flavors don't mesh.
Lancarte is the great-grandson of Joe T. Garcia, who pioneered the Tex-Mex genre and launched the Fort Worth restaurant of the same name. "The restaurant industry has been in my blood since I've been alive," he says, and he's been briskly oxygenating it for years. On one of his numerous culinary expeditions to Mexico, he met chef Rick Bayless, the noted Mexican cookery explorer who founded Frontera Grill and Topolobampo restaurants in Chicago. After wrapping up studies at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Lancarte buffed his touch under Bayless' tutelage.
Lancarte calls his temple alta cocina Mexicana, or high Mexican cuisine. But it really isn't that. When pressed, Lancarte modifies it a bit, calling it "Mediterranean cuisine with Mexican ingredients." But it really isn't that either. It's a sheaf of global flavors with a few Mexican strokes and sometimes none at all. Sometimes the scramble for a Mexicana strain seems forced, as with the foie gras. Yet at Lanny's you must take care not to get mired in classifications and influences and techniques, because in the mouth, this food ultimately makes you forget all of this.
The canvas is blank. Lanny's is a restaurant of neutral pigments and sharply angled, deeply grained ceiling beams. Music is low. Piano plunks barely breach the dining din. Lighting is generous--ample enough to read finger smears on Riedel O's. Glass partitioning the dining room from the patio has frosted bands: a coziness wrapper that betrays intimacy with its intermittent transparency. The spot was once a restaurant called the Green Lantern. Before that, a teahouse. In between, it was the headquarters for the Fort Worth Weekly, Lancarte says. Entrées are varied but not voluminous: beef, lamb, bird and fish--all the expected buttoned-down proteins. But they're dressed unexpectedly--dark-suited lawyers with mariachi instruments in place of briefcases. Artic char, the best-selling fish, is wrapped in pulverized pumpkin seeds. Artic char flesh (sometimes in Iceland it's smoked over sheep dung) is pink rose like salmon, but the richness is curtailed and the flavor is a bit sweeter. It rests in a tomato-jalapeño beurre blanc, yet there is no spice heat. The sweetness is left to revel in its subtlety. We've tasted many Arctic char treatments: whole, grilled, danced upon by various sauces. All have been good. This char is stunning.
Trout is too. Seared and served with warm cucumbers and dampened with a butter-almond sauce, the searing leaves a slightly brittle exterior, while its depths are moist and flaky, and the whole thing is spectacularly seasoned. It's impossible to refrain from stabbing it again and again.
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Yet if you let your attention slip from the flavor profiles, the Mexican postures can pester. Traditionally, carne asada is a resilient meat (skirt or flank steak) sopped in a lime-based marinade punched with garlic, onion and pepper that both tenderizes and flavors the meat before grilling. It's then sliced into thin strips across the grain. Lanny's carne asada is a prime fillet seared in a cast-iron skillet to generate an aggressive crust that sponges a tarry Rioja reduction. Warm cucumbers rest nearby. The meat is as close to butter as a steer can get: rich, tender, low melting point between the inner cheek walls.
Game hen is split and spills a fluffy chorizo-pebbled couscous. The pepper noise is serious. It's as good as the trout.
Achiote-roasted lamb chops are lurid. Rubbed and marinated in achiote, garlic, oregano, citrus and fresh herbs, the chops are seared and finished off in the oven. They rest in a dirty black pomegranate reduction. The glistening orbs of meat slobber richness through silk. A flap of bok choy rests nearby. Bok choy?
We all organize our heads around names and pigeonholes. It makes the world easier to navigate and expression less harrowing. At Lanny's it kind of collapses in on itself. This restaurant isn't so much high Mexican as it is high eating--even transcendent if you don't count the occasional turbulence. If this restaurant were honest to the marrow, it would be called alta cocina Lancarte, and this tells you something else entirely. 3405 W. 7th St., Fort Worth, 817-850-9996. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday. Open for dinner 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $$$$