Among the few things that are striking about The Old Warsaw, that stalwart fine-dining venue founded in 1949 by Polish diplomat Stanley Slawik, is the Café Pierre ($9.50). It's hard to get a grip on the exact formula and the preparation from a distance; it's blended on a cart in an aisle in the middle of the dining room. But what isn't hard to catch is the long ligament of blue flame searing the dusky dining room as burning brandy is repeatedly poured from glass to glass--one held high above the other--stretching the fluid flow to dazzling lengths. The blue conflagration continues as the glass is set down with roiling flickers fanning and flailing from the mouth of the glass. Then the waiter picks up a coffee pot and pours coffee into the brandy glass from on high. As the brown liquid streaks from the spout, making that long mocha ligament, it's hard to believe the waiter doesn't regularly scald his arm or splash a diner into a fit of yelps. After this daring performance, the glasses are topped with a little whipped cream and served.
The other striking thing about the Old Warsaw is the huge saltwater tank in the entrance portal near the host stand. It's filled with a small bevy of sharks, the kind that would be stuffed and hung on the dining-room wall as trophies if they were trout. They circle the aquarium, flaring their rows of gills, flashing their teeth. On the coral-covered bottom is a moray eel, a fierce guacamole-green beastly fish strip that's always in the same position with the same expression, except when it opens its mouth wide and holds it there, showing off its teeth and perhaps waiting for a scrap off The Old Warsaw menu.
The Old Warsaw is credited with setting the standard for fine dining in Dallas. It was among the first Dallas restaurants to offer sophisticated French-inspired creations and to urge diners to accompany them with wine instead of booze. The menu has been simultaneously described as a bulwark of tradition and a captive of a time warp that deliberately skirts experimentation and culinary fads. In service of that description, you'll find undaunted entries such as shrimp cocktail, Caesar salad, steak tartare, escargot, sweetbreads, and Chateaubriand. Only menus placed in the hands of men have prices, a quaint throwback thoroughly devoid of charm. At the conclusion of the meal, the women are presented with long-stemmed roses.
But bulwarks and time warps, holding fast to tradition in the face of relentless culinary upheaval, are valid only if they cleave to a healthy measure of polish and integrity. Instead, The Old Warsaw is an imposing figure that leans heavily on accolades long ago earned and bronzed into perpetuity by virtue of its staying power. It's frayed, stale, and tedious, which, at the prices it charges, makes it more of a bull-warp than anything else.
For example, after patrons are seated, warm, moist rolls are delivered to the table. But they're consistently dispersed without butter to spread. And by the time someone comes around so that you can point this out, the rolls are cold. Not that this makes much difference. The butter, a thin square pad topped with a delicate rose bloom rendered in butter, is slightly rancid, to the point where it's more palatable to eat the rolls cold and dry than dripping with this lubricant.
And the menu has a few distortions and miscues. Salmon tartare with capers, onion, lemon, chives, Cognac, and caviar ($14) was billed as a tableside preparation. Instead, it was delivered as a smooth blob parked on a lettuce leaf--more like a sandwich spread than a coarsely chopped tartare. And much as we tried, we could find no evidence of caviar in the blend. The flavor wasn't bad, though far from interesting or compelling.
Caesar salad ($12) slipped equally. The dressing was rich with a good surge of lemon, but that's all that was commendable in this slushy platter of foliage. The salad had obviously been assembled and left to age in a cooler. The croutons were not only soggy, but had disintegrated into a gritty gruel. Plus, the edges on many of the leaves were browning, a condition detectable even in the dining room's dim lighting.
Indifference reared its ugly head during virtually every phase of The Old Warsaw dining experience. Little dishes of lemon and raspberry sorbet, served as a palate refresher between courses, had also been prepared well in advance and left to the mercy of the elements. Mint leaves placed in the dishes as a garnish were brittle and frozen to the sides of the dish. Freezer-burned golf balls of sorbet were stiff and hard and flecked with sharp shards of ice, as if the little dish had been thawed and refrozen before serving.
Fortunately, the dynamic improved with the entrées, but not by much. Braised salmon in beurre blanc and sweet basil ($21) was moist and flaky with a mild richness, though the portion was petite. The sauce was creamy and a little bland and seemed more like a thin béchamel than a beurre blanc. It was flecked with green that tasted closer to parsley than sweet basil.
Braised pheasant in game sauce was delicious. The flesh was moist with mild, smooth flavors over which the sauce mingled seamlessly. Yet the plate was replete with striking flaws. The meat and sauce were cool instead of hot, and the rice and steamed vegetables--with split, woody baby carrots--were cold.
The service, too, does its part to tarnish The Old Warsaw's standard. Between 15 and 20 minutes passed before menus were delivered to our table and roughly the same span of time was frittered away after our menus were set aside and a waiter dropped by to take our order. Empty wine glasses sat for extended periods before anyone noticed.
One can only hope this isn't how this now-worn wonder operated back in 1949. Slawik founded The Old Warsaw in an effort to revive the elegance and romance of his native country's capital before it was decimated in World War II.
It has had several owners and locations over the years since the first location opened on Cedar Springs Road between Reagan and Throckmorton. The New York Times even named the Old Warsaw the second-best restaurant in America in 1951 In 1970, Slawik sold his classic restaurant to Universal Restaurants, the group owned by restaurateur Phil Vaccaro that once held Les Saisons, Arthur's, and the defunct Mario's and Seascape Inn in its clutches until he sold the group in 1985. In 1984, current owner Al Heidari scooped up The Old Warsaw from Universal. Earlier this year, he nipped and tucked the restaurant's aging opulence with wood-plank panels on the ceiling, new floral wall fabrics, and soft leather banquettes to do duty with the black chairs, red carpet, and crystal chandeliers.
A pianist and strolling violinists play all of the soft contemporary favorites you can stand, and there's a special wine room, or at least a dining area with wine racks on the walls. The wine list is not as broad as you would expect in a restaurant of this caliber, and the by-the-glass selection is an utter disgrace with only three selections: Merlot and Cabernet (both Kendall Jackson), and Chardonnay (Lyeth).
So pairing wines with this menu is difficult without ordering bottles, though it's not as though there's much nuance to split hairs over. Cocktail de homard sauce Antoine ($15), chunks of lobster and avocado drenched in a sauce resembling Thousand Island dressing, was assembled in a split lobster tail. The meat was fine, though there wasn't much of it. But the whole dish was muddled, with the sauce providing cloud cover instead of enhancement--nothing seemed in the service of the centerpiece. Corn-shrimp chowder ($6) was fine too, though in the depths of the rust-colored soup (which tasted of smoked ham hocks) there was precious little shrimp (two tiny examples) and very little corn (maybe a dozen kernels).
The filet in the Tournedos Rossini ($30) was silky and registered a perfect medium-rare hue. But the tiny, thin square of "fresh" goose liver lacked richness and tasted pedestrian, like a cheap pâté. This layering was perched on a flat, fuzzy crouton sogged in a demi-glace that was smooth and adequate but uninspired.
Sautéed sea bass ($28), a special, was perhaps the best, most well-thought-out entrée sampled. It had a delicately thin exterior crust, and the flesh was sweet, rich, and moist. Though purported to be covered with shrimp and scallops, we found only crustacean meat (of some sort). The only drawback to this dish was its preponderance of butter, which left a greasy film on the palate.
Desserts were marginal, barely. Raspberry soufflé ($7) was overbaked, singed around the edges, and dry and hard in spots, though the raspberry sauce was bright and brisk and filled with fresh fruit flavors. Cherries jubilee for two ($18) was a forgettable adventure with black cherries most likely disgorged from a can, flamed in brandy (though somewhere far from our table), and dumped onto a little dollop of ice cream.
The Old Warsaw is near comatose, hooked up to a respirator of its past laurels. That it survives in a city surrounded with worthy upscale dining experiences that, though they may not all be dazzling, have at least some measure of vitality, has to be due to habit more than anything else. That is a shame, because its stable, classic Continental fare fills a welcome and needed niche in a market rampant with jousting creative flurries. But the execution just isn't there.
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