Let 'em eat loin

Don't let your meat loaf
Eating healthy is hazardous to your well-being.
I can prove it. In the fall issue of American Outlook, writer Dennis Avery explains the inherent risks of poisoning your body with too much health consciousness.

According to data compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who regularly eat organic or natural foods are eight times as likely as the rest of the population to be stricken by a deadly new strain of E.coli bacteria dubbed 0157:H7. After striking its victims, 0157:H7 leaves in its wake permanent liver and kidney damage, certainly not a thing one would consider healthy.

Organic and natural foodstuff junkies are also more likely to be assaulted by a nasty new strain of salmonella bacteria, once America's primary food-borne death risk before E.coli entered the ring.

Organic and natural foods are more dangerous for several reasons. First, eschewing nasty chemicals, organic growers use manure as a major source of crop fertilizer. Animal manure is the party drug of choice for bacteria. Second, organic farmers are reluctant to use anti-microbial preservatives, chemical washes, or pasteurization processes to rid their products of microorganisms.

"One organic grower summed up the community's attitudes this way: 'Pasteurization has only been around a hundred years or so; what do you think people did before that?' The answer is simple. They died young," writes Avery.

Perhaps Dallasites know this instinctively--that eating healthy and organic can be dangerous, if not to body then certainly to spirit. After all, this year witnessed the death rattle of Larry North's NorthSouth and Eureka!, both of which plied healthy dining. (Though these two restaurants were more low-fat than organic, the underlying health hype seems similar.)

What was the dining mantra of 1998? Indulgence, says outgoing Dallas Restaurant Association chief Dawn Jantsch. "Dining out in Dallas is very much an entertainment concept. You really don't just go out to eat to eat. You go out to go out." But eat we did.

A sea cruise
If there ever was a town where vegetarianism could get you arrested and sentenced to hard time in a meat locker, Dallas is it. This was the year of thick steaks brutally broiled. High check averages. Fat cigars. Toxic martinis. Pricey wines. Shameless gluttony and pointless lingering.

Dallas was hit simultaneously this year with several hovels of meat madness: the elegant Pappas Brothers Steak House, Dale Wamstad's cartoonish III Forks, Gene Street's and Stephen Hartnett's strenuously hip Cool River Cafe in Los Colinas, the smartly casual Sullivan's, and the subdued Capital Grille. All plumb the heights of rich dinner checks with steer flanks and loins.

Rumors abound that Dallas investor Scott Ginsburg, who acquired Harper's Restaurant on Keller Springs Road and the Dallas North Tollway last March, is threatening to open an upscale steak and chop house, though progress on its gutted, skeletal remains seems to have been locked in suspended animation for several months. Restaurateur Salim Asrawi (Cabaret Royale Restaurant & Bar) opened Texas de Brazil, his Brazilian-style continuous service grill house on Belt Line Road in Addison this fall, offering a variety of chewy beef, pork, and chicken carved and served from long, vicious skewers.

Even the stylishly graceful Al Biernat, former manager of The Palm, joined in the beefy blood lust, launching Biernat's in the Oak Lawn space that once glittered as Joey's, shuttered this past spring.

"Dining on steak, martinis, and cigars is not so much a special occasion anymore," Jantsch deadpans. Damn right. These items have become virtual staples.

The question is, When will Dallas choke on this stampede of beef?
"Capitalism is first, you don't have enough. Then you have too much. Then you have the right amount," says Dallas restaurant consultant Matthew Mabel. "We're right in between don't have enough and have too much."

Which is perhaps what happened to the home meal replacement trend--or high quality and gourmet take-out dining--this year. It wasn't too long ago that everyone was yodeling about the near boundless opportunities in this sector. But 1998 saw Boston Market and Kenny Rogers Roasters, two national take-home chains, file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. "Home meal replacement, which was the hot thing, is something the industry has had to back away from as a concept," Mabel says. "It's really fading." From this plastic-plated, chicken and mashed potato turmoil emerged Bon Vivant Market in Plano and La Madeleine Cuisine on Preston.

Corporate clutter
There's a weird parallel to the red meat eruption: sushi. Dallas was swimming in raw fish in 1998. Chaya Sushi at Preston and Royal. Rock & Roll Sushi on Northwest Highway and Preston. Tokyo One in Addison. Sushi Nights in Deep Ellum (launched by former Deep Sushi partner Scott Melton). Sushi Rock in Plano. Tekno Sushi on McKinney. The Blue Fish on Greenville. Cafe Sushi on Cedar Springs. Pangaea in Fort Worth.  

Perhaps sushi has simply entered the mainstream after years of expanding dining sophistication in Dallas, reaching critical mass this year. Or perhaps it's the yin and yang of it all: slabs of charred cholesterol versus delicate strips of healthy raw protein draped on rice. (Still, I'm aware of some doctors who refuse to go near the stuff for fear of contracting a cousin to one of those savage organic farming manure bugs.)

Or maybe it's part of the pan-Asian fusion gobbledygook bubbling in Dallas. This is the heady brew that birthed the successful noodle house Liberty late last year, and brought us the fascinating Tei Tei Robata bar this year (my vote for the year's most provocatively entertaining new restaurant). Tei Tei is actually a complete Dallas dining yin-yang command center with exotic sashimi (raw fish) coupled with Kobe beef steaks from the rare wagyu cattle--pampered beer-fed beasts that are receive regular full-body sake messages.

Real estate crunch
One of the most profound trends to hit the Dallas dining scene over the past year is the proliferation of corporate hegemony. What began as a footstep last year with the opening of Palomino became a stampede by Atlanta-based RARE Hospitality International Inc. (The Capital Grille), Wichita, Kansas-based Lone Star Steak and Saloon (owner of the new Sullivan's as well as Del Frisco's and Sipango), Phoenix-based P.F. Chang's China Bistro Inc. (with units in North Dallas and NorthPark Center), Houston-based Pappas Restaurants Inc. (Pappas Bros. Steakhouse), Calabasas Hills, California-based Cheesecake Factory Inc., and Dallas-based Brinker International along with Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (Maggiano's Little Italy).

But the corporate chain gang dynamic is not the sole purview of external forces. It's also bubbling from within. The year was extremely busy for Black-eyed Pea founder Gene Street. Back in January, with partners John Cracken and John Harkey, he acquired the 94-unit El Chico Mexican chain. Then with Fox & Hound English Pub & Grille founder Stephen Harnett they formed Consolidated Restaurant Cos. Inc. and scooped up the 40-unit Spaghetti Warehouse chain for roughly $60 million. The company also owns the 16-unit Good Eats family restaurant, and the aforementioned Cool River, which it plans to expand in Austin sometime next year.

Yet Dallas eating this year was not only marked by corporate invasions. There were also some notable retreats. San Francisco-based Real Restaurants, after purchasing Fog City Diner on McKinney from a group of Dallas investors to whom it had licensed the concept in 1994, sold the building to Truluck's Steak and Stone Crab. Also pulling out of Dallas was Toscorp, the New York-based owner of the Coco Pazzo chain, which shuttered its Coco Pazzo Cafe (now Texas de Brazil) in Addison and Coco Pazzo on McKinney, soon to be a brasserie dubbed Bizu by famed restaurateur Alberto Lombardi.

And then there was the ultimate corporate move this year: the purchase of Stephan Pyles' and Michael Cox's Star Canyon and AquaKnox by Carlson Restaurants Worldwide last March for an unspecified chunk of cash. Through the Carlson division Star Concepts, Pyles and Cox are replicating Star Canyon and their new taqueria concept called Taqueria Canonita in the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas (Carlson also recently opened the "tropical-retro-bossa-nova" Samba Room Cuban Bar & Latin Cafe in Travis Walk). The taqueria was supposed to hit Dallas first, but Cox couldn't nail the right space in time to launch before the end of 1998.

According to Mabel, such dilemmas are becoming common among local restaurateurs. As corporate big boys who put their heft behind stylish upscale venues invade Dallas, local independent operators are getting squeezed out of space. "One of the hardest things to do right now is to find a site you are excited about," he laments. "There is virtually no restaurant space available between Northwest Highway and downtown."

In tandem with this dynamic is the flocking of restaurants to communities where people actually live, instead of areas generally considered entertainment destinations. Places sprouting up north along the tollway (P.F. Chang's China Bistro, III Forks and Sullivan's) and other outlying areas illustrate the point.

"There's a lot of competition for real estate in bedroom communities," Mabel says. "At the same time, the McKinney [Avenue] area seems to be refocusing on neighborhood services where it was once an area where people would drive to from all over town."

But the McKinney Avenue doldrums may have bottomed out. Sure, Clive & Stuart's Island Seafood closed over the summer and the space still isn't spoken for. But three new restaurants are set to open on the strip next year: Lombardi's brasserie in the Coco Pazzo space, a French bakery concept in the old Allen Street Bar and Grill space, and a wine bar called Cork, set to open next to P.D. Johnson's Deli. And they'll open just in time to enjoy the municipal party that will be the McKinney Avenue resurfacing project set to begin in the spring.  

But a city can't remain vibrant on corporate action alone, reminds Mabel. The restaurant industry depends on independent operators because that's where ideas are spawned. Demises have been numerous this year: Mark's on Henderson; La Tasca Espanola; Americus on Preston; Tarazza; Champagne; The Brick Room; Ristorante Savino (now Alfredo's Restaurant); and Yegua Creek Brewing Co. But there have been some energetic openings as well: Big Fish Little Fish, the casual seafood spot launched by Natchez owner Dan Vincent and chef/restaurateur Kenny Bowers; De Tapas and Ketama, two new Spanish tapas bars spun-off from departing Cafe Madrid alumni; Antonio Ristorante, a casual offshoot of the uptown Italian restaurant La Trattoria Lombardi, launched by Luciano Cola and chef Antonio Avona; and the reopening of the Chaparral Club at the Adam's Mark Hotel.

Then there are the pair of high-temperature live music slots attached to semi-upscale diners: Dragonfly with its odd species of eclectic New American fare; and The Palace/Moonshine Cafe with its bright "New Creole" cuisine.

Opened by the M Crowd restaurant group, The Mercury, a polished see-and-be-seen gallery with a New American menu, is currently among the most feverish draws in Dallas. Along with Mainstream founder Kelly Haden, the group also opened two more Mainstream Fish Houses in addtion to the original at Preston Forest, on Oak Lawn Avenue and in Sundance Square in Fort Worth. The Oak Lawn version went belly-up after just a couple of months and will reopen next year with a new M Crowd concept.

Perhaps the most notable restaurant opening this year was Bistro A, the Snider Plaza spot with a Mediterranean menu incorporating Middle Eastern and North African spices. Developed by bad boy vagabond chef Avner Samuel, his wife, Celeste, and restaurant consultant Matthew Feldman, Bistro A opened to immediate and sustained crowds and acclaim. Yet there are inklings all the fuss might be bloating the operators' heads. I've recently received numerous reports of shabby service, sub-par food, and an unwillingness to satisfactorily reconcile with unhappy customers. It would be sad indeed if this fine restaurant sunk in a drunken stupor of arrogance.

While we're on the subject, I've faced hoots of derision after my mostly positive review of III Forks. Virtually everyone I have had contact with concerning the place vows never to return. Horror stories abound: haphazard food quality; rude, unprofessional service; and an absolute unwillingness to take care of miffed customers (there's a reason a policeman is posted by the door). Since the place opened, Dale Wamstad's "proprietors," chef Matthew Antonovich and manager Jonna Fitzgerald, have departed.

But among the most consistent whines coming my way concern wine, specifically prices, a dynamic that has become even more striking this year with the proliferation of richly expansive lists. Why is it that Dallas wine list prices are commonly jacked up three, even four times? Sure, Texas restaurants must pay a monthly 14 percent state tax on alcoholic beverage sales. But as one reader points out, it's uncommon to find markups exceeding 2.5 times on wine lists in California, a state with significantly higher overall operational costs than Texas.

"The public is just too aware of what wine costs," says Anita Motard, director of on-premise sales at Glazer's Distributors, a wine and liquor wholesaler. "If the wines were marked up a little bit less, I think they would sell additional glasses and additional bottles." (An argument, perhaps, for sipping wine at the newly revamped Marty's Winebar where prices are so sane, it's crazy.)

It's something to keep in mind, for this atmosphere of exciting indulgence won't last forever. A time will come when the high check averages sink, the cigar tips cool, the cork pops grow silent, and the steers are used to feed burger chains, instead of Martini-slurping stogie puffers.

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