Every neighborhood needs a good, friendly French spot — not necessarily a fancy jacket-and-tie palace of cuisine, but a bistro where wine flows freely amid the sound of friends getting lunch-drunk. Bouchon 1314, a new restaurant with walls of wine and painted murals in the style of a century-old Paris café, attempts to fill that role in Oak Cliff. Alas, it’s marred by a confused concept and unreliable execution.
The first warning sign as you enter is a steady, loud soundtrack of what I like to call “old lady jazz,” the kind of muzak that makes airport bathrooms so welcoming. Once that stridently happy sax hits your ears, problems mount so quickly, it’s hard to know where to begin. Maybe it's the awesomely bored waitstaff, the kind who, if you pay your bill as the restaurant is closing, will take your water away to hasten your exit. Or maybe it's the menu, an odd mashup of French bistro, global upscale and, as required by Dallas ordinance, burgers.
The printed menu, significantly different from the menu posted online, has a list of the French “greatest hits”: escargot, duck confit, onion soup, rack of lamb, tarte tatin. Duck confit ($14.50) is a success, and although the promised sweet potato mash side turned out to be regular potatoes, their texture was such a fine balance of creamy and chunky that I didn’t complain.
On the other hand, escargot ($11.50) was overcooked on both of my visits, though once only slightly. An octopus dish ($12.50) featured an understated salad garnished with cherry tomatoes; unfortunately, it also featured octopus cooked so long it had rubberized. A “mini fondue” of brie ($14.50) turned out not only to have bland, mediocre brie, but to not even be a fondue at all. Instead, it’s a lightly roasted wheel sitting on an ordinary salad.
Elsewhere, the menu veers away from classical French cooking or tries to update the classics. A duck breast special ($28.95) arrived with a sauce containing astonishing, biting amounts of ginger. In case that’s not odd enough, the plate had a clashing relish of tropical fruit. There’s a filet mignon ($35), good and for the most part cooked to order, but aggressively salted. Pommes frites ($6) are well-seasoned shoestrings that, when I tried them, were a little soggy.
Some mains go better. The “Provencal” rack of lamb ($36) looks striking: it arrives dusted in pistachio crumble, like moss has overtaken your chops. Even though my medium-rare order came out only slightly pink, the flavor was good and the moss look was entertaining.
The wholly un-French dishes had a good track record. Perfectly tender sea scallops sit on a bed of quinoa ($33). Exactly one dish features house-made fresh pasta ($26.50), which is odd, and it arrived with a whole salmon fillet in the middle of the bowl, which is odder still. But, as with the scallops, we can’t complain about the result: the noodles were good and clearly fresh, and the portion of seafood was generous.
At dessert, we were served an extraordinary chocolate mousse ($7.50) with a flavorless biscotti so dry it dissolved into a powder and sucked the moisture out of our mouths. Was it from Kroger? Maybe, given what happened when our waitress apologized that the restaurant was out of vanilla ice cream.
My friend asked, “Oh, where do you get your ice cream?” The reply: “It’s Häagen-Dazs.”
How does a restaurant run out of vanilla Häagen-Dazs on a quiet weeknight? I have friends who never run out of vanilla Blue Bell at their homes. More importantly, what is going on with this menu’s identity crisis? Ginger-drenched meat, fake fondue and flavorless biscotti sit oddly beside duck confit and filet mignon. Another odd pairing: carefully hand-made pasta with generic supermarket desserts. This feels more like confusion than innovation.
Speaking of confusion, when Bouchon opened, it doubled as a retail wine shop, with all bottles available to go. But the restaurant is only open at dinnertime, so, as staff lamented to us, nobody ever realized the bottle shop feature was there. As a result, Bouchon is ending the experiment and applying for a liquor license.
Wine service is another head-scratcher. On one visit, our bottle of white arrived at red wine temperature. The wine list is over ten pages long, but surprisingly short on French standards like Burgundian pinot or the ultimate bistro table wine, cru Beaujolais. Instead, it revolves around owner Jean-Michel Sakouhi’s friendship with the winemakers at Orin Swift Cellars, which has its own page and a half.
Sakouhi is a real Frenchman, a native of Dijon, and has decades of experience in the Dallas restaurant scene, starting with his days as a young waiter at The Mansion. In fact, he says he’s opened 16 restaurants in 31 years, and one of his previous concepts was called Cowboy Burger Taco Bar. Maybe that tells you something.
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It’s not easy to write all this. I wanted to love Bouchon 1314, because a French neighborhood spot is something we can always use, and a wine bar this artfully decorated is worth rooting for. But the bottle shop concept proved half-baked, the menu is perplexing and your meal is set to the kind of music Satan plays in Hell’s elevators.
Worst of all, Bouchon is bad value. Meals are expensive: you can pay $60 without including drinks, tax or tip. That’s the same price range as Boulevardier, St. Martin’s and Gemma, and Bouchon 1314’s inconsistent cuisine simply cannot survive those comparisons. There are enough good things here — the décor, the seafood, the lamb — that Bouchon should have been a contender. It is not.
Bouchon 1314, 1314 W. Davis St., 214-941-3000, bouchon1314.com. Open 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m. Sunday.