Manuel's Creative Cuisine is a Worthy Find, If You Can Find It
It's a nice enough image. A sizable square of mahi mahi boasts perfect 90-degree hashes: the mark of a careful quarter turn on a searing hot grill. The visual perfection carries through to the very center of the fish, where my fork encounters firm and fresh flesh, cooked a moment past translucence, warm but still lush. It's perched on a bed of toothy quinoa, with wilted spinach leaves in the fold and a cream sauce lightly accented with a quiet backdrop of lime.
The fish is the work of Manuel's Creative Cuisine, an Oak Lawn newcomer hatched in Los Cabos and recently exported to Dallas. Manuel Arrendondo, the chef and owner, had friends from Dallas who visited his original and convinced him to bring his cooking to the States. (The original Manuel's continues to operate in Mexico.) Those friends pointed out a space in the Centrum Building on Oak Lawn Avenue, and Arrendondo brought his wife, Virny, and an entire restaurant concept, including some waitstaff, up from way south of the border.
Too bad he couldn't bring his customers.
I visited the restaurant a few times in recent weeks, and always arrived to find a nearly empty dining room. On a Thursday night at 8 and a Saturday at 7, no more than 10 customers graced the white linen-topped tables — the emptiness amplified by a cavernous dining room with high ceilings, generously spaced tables and a large swath of completely unused space in front of the kitchen. If you loudly called out hello, the restaurant walls might answer in a withering, parroted response.
"We've been in a little bit of a lull," says Mitch Traub, the real estate broker who oversees the restaurant space in the Centrum and leased the space to Arrendondo. The large, stair-stepped building on the corner of Cedar Springs Road and Oak Lawn Avenue feels pulled between neighborhoods — not part of Uptown or Oak Lawn or nearby Highland Park. While valet workers out front shuffle a few cars around, foot traffic is nearly non-existent. Winston's Supper Club draws four-inch heels and recently buffed luxury cars on the weekend, but not till late.
It wasn't always like this. The Centrum used to be a central fixture in the Dallas dining scene, after Stephan Pyles opened Star Canyon there in 1994. The restaurant was quickly ordained by celebrities, as appearances of California glitterati at the peak of their careers, and even the Rolling Stones, fueled a book filled with reservations two months out.
But 1994 was a long time ago, and Star Canyon has been dead for eight years now. The Centrum Building never drew moths to the light with such intensity again. The Silver Fox Steakhouse came and went. Mark Brezinski's Bengal Coast opened and closed. Steel, a sushi den tucked into the back corner of the building, has been popular for the past 10 years, but standalone sushi and sake can't compete with the luminous beacons of Uptown's more popular restaurants. A sign on the building says more prime restaurant space is available, but even the most brazen restaurateur would swallow hard before signing a lease if they saw Manuel's empty dining space. Right now the Centrum is a snooze.
Arrendondo is trying to change that with his whimsical approach to what he calls international fusion cooking. He's also having a sign commissioned. As of now the only way prospective diners would even know the unmarked restaurant existed would be if they stumbled on its bright red door out of dumb luck (it's tucked around a corner, and doesn't face the street), or read a handful of blog posts that announced the restaurant's opening. Otherwise the space has generated zero press, and you can drive right past on Cedar Springs and never notice the restaurant.
Which is too bad, because many of the items crossing the pass are worth Dallas' attention. Bread service arrives in a red martini glass like a prop from Cirque de Soleil: a mix of soft and boring breads (which should be ditched) accented by long thin bread sticks that look like the limbs of a Tim Burton character. The strands of starch are crunchy, salty and perfectly addictive, but protrude from the glass at all angles, making for a haphazard presentation.
The vertical element is echoed in the plating of other dishes: a beef yakatori with skewers of meat standing at attention in a large hunk of pineapple, or chicken skewers upended in half of a coconut shell and draped with sauces and foams. The foams could work, but they're finicky. Soft and supple when plated, the airy emulsions quickly wither and collapse, invoking a pile of spent bubbles in the bottom of bath tub.
Sometimes the flavors of the foams seem off, too, or at least out of place. Crispy fried pot stickers stuffed with a puree of salmon get sexed up with an appealing, almost orange saffron cream. The flavors work, but not with a salty soy sauce and balsamic foam that blankets the plate. If the kitchen leaned more heavily on the sweetness of vinegar, the dish might come together. They could just as easily dismiss the foam altogether.
Other finishing touches are worth the effort. Salsas paired with many dishes must test the patience of the prep cooks, and yet those cooks endure. Tomatoes, jicama, mango and other fruits are diced impossibly small, lending refinement to the condiments. The micro dice — almost a brunoise — distributes flavors nicely and show an attention to detail that's echoed in a perfectly cooked pork tenderloin and some passable pastas and a lovely pozole, too.
A shrimp terrine doesn't work at all, though. Packed with port wine aspic, it harkens your mother's Jell-O mold in a dish that feels trapped in the '50's. Whimsical, almost confusing plate styling and high price points leave this empty restaurant feeling a little rudderless.
Arrendondo could fix that. By simplifying some of his preparations his attention to detail might come into focus and serve as a spotlight, calling to diners in nearby neighborhoods that are saturated with restaurants. A sign out front, a better layout and an open patio could help draw some diners in, too, but he'd better hurry. Stephan Pyles' new restaurant, loosely based on the Star Canyon concept, is set to open in Uptown later this year. If Dallas diners are anything, they're drawn to the glitter, and whatever luster might have been associated with the newness of Manuel's Creative Cuisine — which wasn't much to begin with — is already wearing off.
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