I see blond people.
I am sitting in a leathery banquette at the new Marquee Grill & Bar in Highland Park Village, flanked on one side by what looks like a 20-year reunion of Kappa Kappa Gamma, and beset on the other by an attractive blond with matching baby. In fact, I'm feeling a little bit blond myself—in an Anita Ekberg/La Dolce Vita kind of way—basking in the cinematic glow of a dining room that's blinged up with nods to '50s Italian deco: beveled mirrors, bubble-glass chandeliers and lots of black and white and lattice design. I'm also bathing in the reflected aura of one of Dallas' few celebrity chefs, Tre Wilcox, recently of Loft 610, and former contestant on Bravo's Top Chef.
I have seen every episode of Top Chef, some of them multiple times. I am not a reality show junkie but rather was hired as the writer of two Top Chef cookbooks, so I was responsible for parsing each episode for bon mots and exciting moments—from Dale T's locker-smacking tantrums to Fabio and Stefan's Euro bromance—that could be repackaged in text form for fans.
Here's what I learned by watching Wilcox during his tenure on Season 3 and more recently on Top Chef All-Stars: In terms of popularity and likability, it doesn't always matter if you win or lose, but how you play the game, and Tre played it calm and cool. Despite the grueling competition, he was always civil and professional, turning out impressive-looking dishes and gaining the respect of the judges. With that magic cocktail of cooking talent and affability, no wonder Dallas has a communal crush on him.
When asked about his approach to the menu, Wilcox is candid. "There are some dishes you put out there for the foodies, things that really show off your technique and get the wow," he says. "And some dishes you just shoot straight down the fairway. You need to serve something for the Bubbas too, and we want to please everyone." Referring to one of the Marquee's owners, he genially explains, "Brian Twomey is a Bubba. And if he likes something on the menu, I know it's gonna work."
When the place first opened, Wilcox says, he played it a little safe, serving popular dishes (tuna tartare, Kobe beef carpaccio) that are also easy to execute, with the dishes serving as culinary training wheels until the kitchen found its groove. Now they are ramping up the menu, creating more ambitious starters that showcase Wilcox's skills, from molecular experimentation picked up from friends on Top Chef to Thai touches he brought over from Abacus, where he was once chef de cuisine.
The two-story Marquee Grill, which encompasses what was part of the historic movie theater next door and part of the Escada shop on the other side, feels appropriately both fashionable and theatrical. I almost felt the need to spritz on a little Chanel perfume before entering, but the phalanx of greeters didn't look at me askance for my shortage of designer tags. Instead they enthusiastically offered to show me around the restaurant, including the glamorous dining room downstairs facing a wide-open kitchen, a more casual deco-style bar with outdoor patio upstairs (the place to sip your Pimm's Cup, right above the theater's eponymous marquee) and a somewhat more generic second dining room upstairs.
The restaurant makes a big deal of its bar and master mixologist, beverage director Jason Kosmas, but surprisingly no cocktails were offered to us at the table. Instead a nice wine list aims to please, going heavy on California and France. It included some choice bottles like Opus 1 for diners in a really festive mood, but also enough offerings below $50 to keep diners on a budget from feeling like scroungers.
Starters are a mix of the sublime and the tried-and-true. Duck three ways shows off the kitchen's virtuosity with a combination of perfectly cooked foie gras, sliced seared duck breast and a little crepe filled with succulent duck confit, plated with a huckleberry maple syrup. Somewhat less successful was a lamb-filled ravioli with ramp pesto. The spiced, shredded lamb filling was immaculate and the ramp pesto added a fresh, springy touch, but the pasta wrappers were clearly too thick and gummy. (Later, however, when talking with Wilcox, he told me that a diner had made them aware of the pasta problem and they had already fixed it.)
Perhaps the ultimate Bubba dish is the Marquee's signature shrimp and grits. True to Dallas and the South, and yet entirely sophisticated and flavorful, the grits are spiked with chipotle chiles and Jack cheese and topped with grilled jumbo shrimp. On Top Chef All-Stars, Wilcox was sent home for what the judges thought was an insufficiently creamy risotto, so it's with a bit of pugnaciousness that risotto is prominently featured on the menu. The spring risotto with fresh peas, ramps and mushrooms is still al dente, so you can taste each grain of carnaroli rice, but finished with cream and butter and spiced with black pepper for a memorable and fresh lunch dish. The pulled pork sandwich was sweet and tangy, but came with dull provolone cheese. It called for something like pickled vegetables or a slaw as a contrast.
The steak-frites plate includes a lusciously rare flat-iron steak served with a Shiner Bock reduction and tangy salsa, accompanied by spiced french fries. It's almost a legal requirement for a major Dallas restaurant to feature steaks, and all of the beef here, from the rib-eye with foie gras butter to the flat-iron cut, are sourced from Beeman Ranch near San Antonio. For the homey braised chicken thighs served with an upscale version of dirty rice, Wilcox mined his mother's old recipe, polishing it up with a caramelized exterior and napping the plate with delectable sherry-butter. Kudos to him for featuring the lowly chicken thigh as one of his signature dishes.
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The grilled Bay of Fundy salmon with truffled potatoes sounded great—the world's most sustainable salmon, potatoes spiked with white truffle butter and shavings of black truffle imported from Italy. Unfortunately, the salmon was bland, and I couldn't detect the slightest taste of truffle in the gluey potatoes. Even a dish aimed at "the middle of the fairway" needs a more sure-handed presentation. Also less than impressive were the first-course salads, such as a limp Asian field greens salad, overwhelmed by a "lemongrass" dressing in which I couldn't taste the lemongrass.
Desserts play it a bit safe, such as the requisite molten chocolate cake with house-made dulce de leche ice cream, but just because a dish has become a cliché, doesn't mean it isn't outstanding. (It is). I usually edge away from banana desserts, but I'll make an exception for the Marquee's banana trifle, a petite stack of ladyfingers, mascarpone cream and chocolate siding with a little disc of caramelized banana on top.
The whole place is abuzz with energy day and late into the night. Men in suits stand at attention seemingly everywhere, ready to help with a drink order. Servers are friendly, knowledgeable and well trained. Drop a napkin and several people might race for the chance to pick it up. On one visit, a slightly botched salad order was comped for us: not necessary, but certainly endearing.
Whether you're blond or blue-haired, when the golden Highland Park sun is streaming through the front windows and Wilcox stops by your table to schmooze, you truly feel like you are in the epicenter of high-end Dallas. It doesn't matter much if you consider yourself a Bubba, a foodie or both, you've found a place to stop, eat and be seen by lots of people in elegant surroundings—almost like being in a movie. It's Tre Wilcox's starring role; for the price of a meal, you get a glamorous walk-on part.