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No questions

If you don't believe Faith Popcorn is always right, take a drive down Lovers Lane. This was once Dallas' own fashion row--anchored by fabulous Lou Lattimore at one end and exclusive Marie Leavell at the other, with the razor's edge Gazebo in between. In the '70s this was destination shopping, where the ladies dropped bundles of money on the big-name designers. These were stores you were scared to enter without a gold Visa. The window displays at Marie Leavell were so outrageous they were an attraction themselves. That was when who you wore was almost as important as who you were, and where you went was just as important, because what's the point of dressing up if you're not going out? The scene was to be seen.

Not this decade. According to trend guru Popcorn, we're all cocooning now--staying home, watching the birds and the babies, wearing generic khaki, driving utility vehicles. That's why Wild Birds Unlimited, the Taj Mahal of sunflower seed, now dominates the corner where Dallas chicks used to find their fine feathers.

It follows that the biggest food story of the year has been about dining in, not out. After all, Eatzi's is nothing more than a glorified grocery store. The dress code there is cutting-edge khaki, the latest in backpacks. It's cool to be seen there, but everyone you see knows you're nesting.

Even in Dallas, where not much is allowed to get old, there remain a few untouched pockets from the past. Arthur's, once a trend setter, has become an institution, a landmark, as far as Dallas goes. It has been around for 45 years. There aren't many Dallasites who can remember that far back, because most of us have moved here since. Its location was hot when Upper Greenville was still swinging, when everyone was butterflying, not cocooning. Now it's just another difficult exit off the hell that is I-75. The gold-tiled building itself is a relic, predating postmodernism, one of the first mirrored monuments in a skyline whose hallmark is self-reflection. The awning at Arthur's snakes out from the double front doors and down two flights of shallow steps all the way to the curb; the logo "A" is emblazoned in the aggregate sidewalk (the suburban medium itself a signature of its era). This is not a place where the valet will be impressed by your minivan. (There was actually a limo idling out front when we left--and this isn't even prom season.)

But this is living history, because Arthur's still pulls a crowd by doing what it has always done, and with a flourish. We were greeted warmly and ushered into the overstuffed dining room, its windows heavily swagged and draped, its walls lined with curtained alcoves, the whole place barely lit by flickering oil lights and a crystal chandelier the size of a hot tub. Big, cushioned chairs were pulled out for us, napkins fluttered into our laps, and the red rose was removed from the center of the table so sight lines could follow conversation.

Naturally, we ordered a cocktail. In fact, a martini. And the carafe of gin arrived at our table cradled in a nest of crushed ice, so thoroughly chilled that the oily spirit was almost thickened. The accompanying frosted, stemmed glass was filled only with two fat olives awaiting anointment. This is a properly reverent presentation for the most elemental and potent of cocktails. And the traditional, expensive-looking surroundings and the big steaks to follow are exactly what you'd expect of a place that gives so much respect to the king of cocktails.

Arthur's menu itself is simple. The waiter's standard query--"Any questions?"--is a formality here. There are no questions. You've heard of all these preparations and you're even familiar with all these ingredients--everyone's a gourmet: steak tartare; lobster bisque; veal piccata; chicken Florentine; roast duck; sole meuniere. Steak is what the place used to be known for, and the menu lists filet mignon, T-bone, rib eye, and sirloin--even an upscale surf 'n' turf plate of lobster and filet.

Corny, yes. This cuisine is what was known as "continental" food, a style of cooking now reviled by every newly knowledgeable foodie. Like iceberg lettuce and ketchup, "continental" food has been shelved by connoisseurs who demand not just taste, but authenticity and provenance for their palates. ("Which continent?" they sneer.)

Our dining companions had enjoyed Arthur's in its heyday, and they still loved it, from martinis to bisque to beef. You might take into consideration that they had just flown in from Cleveland, but actually, after days and nights of gimmicky, glitzy food--of plates that require road maps to find the ingredients and whose menu descriptions are as complicated as a paragraph of Proust's--it is relaxing to be able to order something called simply "tournedos Arthur" and leave it at that. Continental food is actually noncontinental. It's professional hotel cuisine, food without a country; dishes like "tournedos Arthur" (beef topped with crab meat and Bearnaise sauce) were once as reliably predictable as a McDonald's meal and could be ordered in any dining room in any big city almost anywhere in the world.

 

Arthur's hasn't fallen for any of the modern food phobias, either. Dangerous food, that is, food that has become the stuff of litigation mythology, still is popular here, and is served in showy, expense-account style. At Arthur's, Caesar salad for two is made table-side by your waiter, from a setup straight from the Food Channel, with each ingredient--anchovy, garlic, and oil--in its own little premeasured cup on the cart; this is an almost unheard-of ritual in this era of the eunuch Caesar. And half a dozen naked blue points came raw and glistening dangerously on a bed of ice. Lobster bisque was smooth as satin on the tongue, deep-colored, with strong, unabashed flavor. Crab meat Lorenzo, drenched in thick, hot cream, was richer than most desserts. As we finished each course, plates were whisked away; sourdough rolls were dropped delicately by tongs on our butter plates whenever they were empty, and new, nicely chilled butter pats, topped with a swirl of soft spread, appeared on the table.

There's veal and quail--and of course, boneless chicken--on Arthur's menu, but there are no vegetarian entrees, and mostly we were tempted by the grill, a list of prime cuts very reasonably priced by today's standards. Specials sounded a little more up to date than the preparations on the printed menu: A special of grilled Gulf snapper was not only bathed in a sauce with the oh-so-modish touch of oriental ginger, it was also the only dish we were served where the presentation was up to the aesthetic standards of a New American chef-artiste, the kind of cook who paints his plates with swirls of sauce and powders them with showers of powdered sugar or pepper. This fillet was topped with chunks of lobster meat, imaginatively lined up between the boiled red head and tail shells, so it looked like a whole bug was perched on top of the fish.

Food is fashion now, but it wasn't always, and it still isn't at Arthur's. So two round, soft little fillets, just balls of rare meat, topped with a thick dome of crab meat, were finished only with a fragrant Bearnaise and a dark Madeira sauce (because tenderloin needs all the help it can get). Not a garnish in sight. The only color on the plate came on the side--a bit of turned carrot and turned zucchini and a sharp-cornered cube of cheesy potato, not quite identifiable until you'd actually eaten a bite.

Playing by the book, we ordered the lamb chops with mint sauce, but then our waiter told us there was a rack of lamb with garlic sauce "off the menu," if we preferred. Is this a decision? And we were brought a bouquet of lamb chops, the rich, fat-rimmed meat hanging like fruit from the scraped white bones. Tender, of course, and fragrant, with the whole lumps of sweet garlic offsetting the baby musk of the meat. A big oval of sirloin steak, prescription-cooked to medium rare, was crisply brown-crusted outside and fibrous red within. It was served perfectly and proudly plain on the plate, without so much as a parsley frill to soften the slab of meat.

Dessert seems inevitable after a meal like this, and something small and bright like fresh berries is too puny a pop after the big bang. It's not that you want something heavy, necessarily, or even rich, but you do want equal impact. The dessert should be in proportion to the rest of your meal. So, of course, there are souffles here. Souffles, Sacher torte, cream caramel, and cappuccino pie, but no tiramisu. But souffles seemed just the thing. Slightly showy, demanding the extra sauce-pouring ritual from the waiter, trailing a little past fashion with it, souffle is a "vintage" dessert, in the same sense a pair of original platforms are "vintage" shoes. Too bad the desserts we tried were anticlimactic, anyway. Both souffles and ice cream seemed to have been compromised by hurry-up-and-wait timing. Grand Marnier and raspberry souffles were tough, as though they had been made too far ahead of time and were left waiting for us under the lights a few minutes too long. And the homemade ice cream was too grainy, as though it had been churned too fast.

As we left, we stepped into Arthur's bar, across the entry from the dining room. This is a place where singles still mingle, the dance floor is full on a Saturday night, and the air is filled with smoke--cigarettes have not yet lost Arthur's to their fat, smelly cousins. Arthur's still seems swanky. And the scene these days is short on swank. Gold bracelets still slither beneath the cuff at a man's wrist, and big hair still seems to mean something here.

 

The crowd in the dining room was more mixed. There were plenty of aging daters, but there also were some blue hairs and even some babies at the early hour when we ate--true to trend, so we could return to our cocoons at a fashionably early hour. Faith Popcorn would be pleased.

Arthur's, 8350 N. Central Expressway in Campbell Center, 361-8833. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday-Thursday, 6 p.m.-10:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 6 p.m.-11 p.m. Bar open till 2 a.m.

Arthur's:
Crab Meat Lorenzo $7.90
Lobster Bisque $4.25
Caesar Salad $5
Double Lamb Chops $19.90
Medallions of Beef Arthur $20.90
Sirloin Steak $19.90
Souffle $6
Arthur's Homemade Ice Cream $3.90


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