Little enough

Tramontana is the kind of new restaurant I love to find. The owner used to work at The Mansion, and though you have to be crazy to open a restaurant in the first place, he is wise enough (and experienced enough) to start small, with a limited menu, and to be content with doing a few things well, mastering those before expanding his ambition. So Tramontana has been growing, little detail by little detail--one week there are flowers on the table, the next week, candles--and it's becoming a very pleasant, comfortable place for a quiet dinner.

The tiny little place is on a side street in Preston Center, across the street from Larry North's new extravagant fitness center. Turn your back on the neon and you'll find the easy-to-miss Tramontana.

The location was formerly one of Dallas' first coffee bars, long before the coffee culture bloomed, and a long bar still dominates the room, though Tramontana doesn't have a liquor license yet. (They're happy for you to bring your own, and, if you forget, there's a Centennial liquor store a block away.) Opposite the bar, a Toulouse Lautrec-style mural covers the wall. In between are a dozen or so tables.

That's it.
The menu is equally to the point--it lists two soups (one du jour), four salads, four appetizers, and seven entrees. (Good news for vegetarians, three of those are meatless.) There's usually a special.

The food had improved considerably between our visits. Though the menu hadn't changed, more attention was paid to the details that make the difference. The rolls we were served the first time had been so stale they crumbled into dust when buttered. On our second visit, they were crisp, hot, and yeasty. We emptied the basket. Angel hair pasta on the first visit was overcooked, a common problem with thin pasta, but the second time we tried it, it was perfectly al dente and deliciously bathed in olive oil, with olives, artichokes, and tomatoes tangled in the strands.

The bruschetta was our favorite appetizer--rounds of toasted bread rubbed with garlic and piled with a cool relish of finely diced tomatoes and onions mixed with corn kernels, a rousing mouthful that woke up our taste buds.

The waitress told us that the excellent, snowy, mild goat cheese was from Israel. We ate the herb-marinated cheese as an appetizer along with the mesclun salad.

Salmon cakes were too much what you'd expect. I was intrigued at the possibility of a life and an appetizer beyond crab cakes, but these flat rounds of leftover fish were straight from a '50s home-economics class, "What to Serve on Friday." Sharply lemony mayonnaise did nothing to lift them out of the ordinary.

We tried the Caesar salad both visits. During the first dinner, it was exciting, garlicky, and pungent. The second time we tried it, it was pallid--a shadow of its former self. The romaine was crisp and sweet and it was a fine, refreshing salad if you didn't call it a Caesar.

Entrees were more consistent. Ravioli was stuffed with a light mixture of spinach and mushroom, then enriched with a sauce of thickened cream, tinged pink with sun-dried tomatoes. A tenderloin steak had a little more chew than usual, but I'd pick flavor over tenderness any day; this meat, showing a perfectly roasted color spectrum from brown to ruby, was rich and delicious and was set off by a spoonful of reduced cabernet and rosemary-scented potatoes. Roast chicken was bathed in basil (and a deal for $8.50). Grilled salmon was nice with polenta.

All the food has a comforting, home-style feel to it--nothing fancy, but a little beyond what most of us are up to whipping together at the end of the day.

Tramontana is not a gourmet destination, not a celebrity hangout, just a nice usable restaurant, a place to go when you don't want to dirty your own pots and pans, when your demands are simple but specific: good food at a fair price in a congenial atmosphere.

--Mary Brown Malouf

Tramontana, 8220 Westminster, 368-4188. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.- 2:30 p.m. For dinner Monday-Thursday 5:30 pm.-9:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.

French Onion Soup $4.50
Bruschetta $4.25
Angel Hair Pasta $10.25
Filet Mignon with Cabernet Sauce $13.95
Roasted Chicken with Basil-Wine Sauce $8.50


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