Mall food al fresco
"What are you going to say about this place?" asked my dining companion as we were finishing my second meal at the Terrace.
Gee, I dunno. Coming up with a thesis is the hardest part of writing these reviews. For those of you who remember Comp. 101, your thesis is supposed to be a summing-up, a setting-out of what you intend to prove; in a review's case the evidence is your dining experience. This week, I had plenty of evidence, but nothing to prove. It's pretty easy to mentally deconstruct the food into its components (quality or not) and its preparation (well-executed or not). It's not too tough to appraise the service, check out the other guests, decor, atmosphere, and attitude. But sometimes it's difficult to pinpoint what it all adds up to: why the owners believe this particular restaurant will succeed when eight out of 10 fail. Dallas is a competitive market--I have to ruminate, think as I chew, and consider what the restaurant is actually aiming at, what makes it think it's so special.
I had a really hard time with The Terrace, a new restaurant in Travis Walk, in an upstairs location which no one would bet on, a place where many restaurants have failed before. The menu is a misspelled mishmash of dishes, like a Letterman's list of top 10 trendy foods, all the mall food courts condensed onto one menu: California rolls, onion rings, grilled chicken, pizza, calamari, pasta, hamburgers, grilled vegetables, chicken fingers and (drum roll) Caesar salad. There's live jazz most evenings, but there's a TV over the bar, which is right next to the semi-stage and there's a "young adults" menu (so I assume that means no high chairs). It's not a good philosophy to try to please too many, but this is a place where your young adult can eat pizza and watch "The State" with the sound turned off while you dig the jazz and eat a stir-fry.
Lit by tiki lamps all around the railing, the terrace juts out over Travis Street. It is large, it has a great view of the valet parking ballet across the street at Sipango, with just a glimpse of the sidewalk crowds at On the Border. It's up on the second floor of Travis Walk, so you don't have to pay as much attention to the ozone count as you do at other Dallas restaurant patios. So if, like most Dallasites, you are an al fresco freak, you will love the Terrace; you need read no more, because I've noticed that a good patio effectively cancels out a critical palate.
The live music started about nine o'clock both nights we visited; since we were sitting outside, we engaged in a brief debate about whether it was live music or not. The two big attractions also effectively cancel each other out: if you sit outside, the music might as well be Memorex. The restaurant inside was filled with appreciative listeners. I'm not the music critic, so I won't offer an opinion as to its quality. Ask Robert Wilonsky. I'll just say it's nice to combine dining with live entertainment--it hasn't been done much in Dallas successfully.
Well, actually, it still hasn't. As I said, the food could use some work.
An overly eclectic selection of appetizers inspires strange combinations--on our first visit we ordered both California rolls and "bruschetta." (Try to match a wine with that.) The generous serving of sushi--there were half a dozen little pieces along with the garnish of pickled ginger--had a basic, hard-to-ignore problem, even beyond its total tastelessness--the rice wasn't cooked. There was still a chalky center to each grain. The bruschetta was really a kind of soft pizza bread, not proper foccacia, covered in melted mozzarella, pesto, and tomato slices. We drank wine from the brief and ordinary list.
Then we ordered entrees--stuffed pasta rolls and the Canadian crab cakes, the latter rather reluctantly, because we've really had our fill of crab cakes, at least until our next visit to Virginia, but our waiter assured us they were "Chef Roy's specialty", truly "fabulous." Twenty minutes later, we still had no food, and when our waiter finally dashed by the table, it was just to ask hurriedly, "Let me see--crab cakes and pasta, right?" An ominous question. As my companion put it, "What if we had said no?" (My mother told me, never assume, but it seemed to me that our waiter had forgotten to turn in our order--what else could explain the delay and the odd question?)
Our waiter had a different explanation when he brought the crab cakes. "They're very fresh. They take so long because they're so fresh," he assured us. Why didn't he warn us when we ordered that it took 45 minutes to achieve this particular freshness? Or, heck, why didn't he take the stupid way out and just admit someone goofed? But no, he was in complete denial. "Be careful, this plate is very warm," he warned, now compensating with over-zealousness, as he set down the plate of pasta, slightly tough little strips of noodle jelly-rolled around a vegetable filling, with a savory roasted tomato sauce and some mushrooms. The crabcakes were fine--thick, meaty, topped with a sweet mango salsa. We did not have time for dessert.
Another night, the service was better, but the food was still uneven. Teriyaki chicken, a dish I thought had died a natural death with the demise of Trader Vic's, turned out to be three boneless breasts of chicken (obviously from a rare bird), coated with a slimy, cornstarch-thickened soy-based sweet sauce. It was the kind of food you're usually served at a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet. The New York strip was overcooked; so was the grilled swordfish in citrus butter. But the side dishes were good: excellent onion rings, barely breaded, just a thin coating of crispness around a tender sweet slice; shockingly delicious fried rice with the fish, given a jolt with tiny slivers of fresh ginger. I would have been happy with just a big bowl of that rice. And the roasted red-skin potatoes were soft as mashed potatoes inside their crunchy skins.
The "Salad Mediterannio" was a take on the traditional Greek, with olives, tomatoes, goat cheese, and cucumbers mixed in a tangy, citrusy dressing. Desserts, though, were another downturn. A two-inch-thick brownie, with a peculiarly crumbly texture as though it had once been frozen, had no flavor except a general sweetness. It was topped with three tiny raspberries and a spoonful of sauce so scant it looked like an accident. The Key lime pie had an odd, bitter aftertaste.
So, to get back to that thesis--here's what's great about The Terrace: the terrace and the live music. Here's what's not-so-great: the food and the service. At least, it's gotta be better than this to survive in the don't-eat-dog restaurant world of Dallas.
The Terrace Bar and Grill, 4514 Travis, Suite 201, 522-3998. Open Sunday-Wednesday 11 a.m to 12 midnight, Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
California Roll $5.95
Stuffed Pasta Roll (with vegetable) $9.95
Canadian Crab Cakes $10.
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