Jean-Michel Sakouhi leans against one of the murals in his new restaurant. He's wiry, with a relaxed demeanor that's rippled by seemingly nervous laughs that leak past his thick French accent. Though he appears even-tempered, he has an independent streak. Maybe that's why chef Dean Fearing dubbed him the Parisian cowboy when Sakouhi was at The Mansion.
Sakouhi just opened Le Paris Bistrot, his second Dallas restaurant. Tramontana was his first, but that slipped through his fingers during the messy tribulation of divorce. He insisted on using the traditional French spelling of bistro for his new McKinney Avenue spot not only because he felt it added an air of authenticity, but also because he wanted Dallas to know how the word is supposed to be spelled. (The final T is silent.)
Above him, grafted onto the mural, are the heads of four of the world's most renowned chefs. The names are scrawled in shimmering gold, so it's hard to read them, especially in the restaurant's votive-fortified evening light. There's Gerard Boyer, owner of the three-Michelin-star restaurant Les Crayères in Champagne; Roger Verge, owner of the one-Michelin-star Le Moulin de Mougins on the French Riviera; Alaine Ducasse, who earned six Michelin stars for his restaurants in Monaco and Paris; and master chef Paul Bocuse, whose three-Michelin-star restaurant called Paul Bocuse near Lyon is considered among the greatest restaurants in the world.
Sakouhi talks about the menu. He says the dusky potent sauce sludging the duck confit ($7.50) is a raspberry-wine reduction with natural bird juices. It's a good rendition, with a dollop of fluffy, smooth sweet-potato mash staked with a fried sweet potato waffled and garnished with raw spinach leaves. The sweet potato flushes an unusual flavor, one that should be sampled first, before the rich duck and the concentrated sauce. Its lightly sweet earthiness is delicate, and it kind of nudges you toward the duck. A leg and thigh, the duck is sheathed in a paper-thin crust swaddling moist meat, which seemed to get parched toward the bone. My companion disagreed. She found it pleasantly chewy, reveling in its lack of profuse fat.
Pommes frites? Sakouhi laughs at the question, almost dismissively. He refuses to consider them. The things were invented in Belgium, he says, so they're not even French (Larousse Gastronomique, the definitive French culinary encyclopedia, doesn't have a listing for them). "I really don't know why they call them French fries," he adds. "Here, it's like you have to have French fries in order to be a bistro. I don't think so. That's the game here -- it's a fad, a cliché."
I'd never met Sakouhi. My only contact with him was maybe three or four short telephone conversations, the last one at least six weeks prior to this visit. But after just five minutes of superficial menu chat, he stops and looks me in the eye. "You're Mark, aren't you? I can tell by the questions, and of course, your voice."
Perhaps it's that level of perceptiveness that allows Sakouhi to create a French bistro that's both authentic and something Dallas will swallow. Maybe. He's right down the street from Alberto Lombardi's Bizu, a bistro that perhaps panders a bit too much to Dallas' thirst for flash. Bizu is strikingly attractive and a fiercely fertile incubator for see-and-be-seen prancing. But the menu, a sort of French thing spangled with Italian and American scraps, too often falters. And Bizu risks abandonment by Dallas' fickle saunterers.
That's not so much the case at Sakouhi's restaurant. Le Paris appears to be designed to cultivate regulars with its brief, changing menu and its roster of somewhat reasonably priced wines drawn from major French regions as well as the Loire and the south of France, though I'd say he should consider more of the latter. The differences between Sakouhi's bistro and Michel Baudouin's Encore in Fort Worth are striking, within the context. Baudouin's bistro, plugged into a Fort Worth strip mall, is crisp and brashly pedestrian, plying what Baudouin calls "French comfort food." His menu is less elaborate than Sakouhi's, with broths and sauces made from natural juices and herbs. He serves pommes frites. Damn good ones, maybe the best in the metroplex.
Le Paris is more elegant, more sophisticated. The sauces are effortful slurries of veal stock reduced and rippled with intensity. Plus, there are some provocative twists on tradition here. Cassoulet of escargot ($7.50) is a fusion of sorts, combining herb-dusted snails with a collection of cannellini beans -- firm, meaty nubs that are underdone, but not in a distracting way. It's served in a veal stock reduction with shallots and garlic -- a sauce that was perhaps too loud. The snails had a peculiar, though not unpleasant, earthiness, with strong, musty overtones. But the potency of the sauce fought this intriguing nuance -- a kink, though a small one.
Le Paris is a tool of temptation, a utensil of seduction, one without any distracting, pretentious trappings. Plus, it has -- How do you say this without sounding like a schmuck? -- soul. It's planted in a historic building, circa 1923, that was for many years an antiques shop. It's elevated above street level on a flattened zit in the landscape -- the Dallas version of a view from a hill. Wall murals, crafted by New Mexico artist Sherry Beadle, depict Parisian café street scenes. Arched white-paned windows -- church portholes -- wash the place in reflected light from the neighboring Hard Rock Café's outer shell. Le Paris is a cluster of little dining spaces -- a miniature maze of hard-surfaced rooms that never degenerate into shrill echo chambers.
This same simple elegance appeared in the wild mushroom risotto in tomato-saffron broth ($10.95). The near perfect risotto was smooth, creamy, and hearty and, just like the cassoulet beans, slightly undercooked, adding that bistro edge that kept the dish from being too precious. Cremino, portobello, cultivated white, and chanterelle mushrooms were spared from boggishness with the rich pungency and tang of the broth.
But two things need some improvement before this bistro, barely a month old, can be considered exemplary. First, the waitstaff needs to be more thoroughly briefed by chef Emmanuel Pose (former sous chef at Beau Nash in the Crescent Court Hotel and sous chef at the Mercury) on the food so they can speak confidently of the menu. It's short, so this should be no insurmountable challenge.
Second, some of the prices seem a bit high for what you get, especially since Sakouhi makes a point that one of his prime objectives is to create a simple yet richly flavored menu at prices that prod guests to visit more than once a week.
The grilled hanger steak, for example, was priced at $17.95. Not ludicrous, but all you get is a plate with a handful of meat slices drubbed in a potent merlot-veal reduction and topped with matchstick potatoes over haricots verts (green beans) and pieces of tomato. Hanger steak, often grilled and carved in bistros, is a portion of the diaphragm muscle attached to the back that "hangs" down below the ribs. It's a soft, grainy, elliptical-shaped piece of meat roughly 7 inches long. Sakouhi says it's a hideously ugly, purplish thing in the raw, which is not surprising, considering its pedigree.
Still, the meat, stingily portioned though it was, proved juicy and affluently flavored. But after three or four bites, the plate was empty, and I found myself hankering for seconds; $17.95 simply has to go further than this in a bistro.
The same twisted price-to-value ratio struck with the arrival of the roasted salmon with red onion confit and Champagne. At $14.50, the piece of fish was barely bigger than a silver dollar, something that could easily be dispensed with in four bites. Yet I suppose it could be argued that the fish -- with its crispy outer crust; flaky, firm, buttery texture; and opulent flavor -- quickly rose to this price point. Plus, the sauce skillfully complemented the rich salmon with a refined surge of raciness, a touch that didn't overwhelm the meat.
Other things didn't harass the pocketbook. Mussels marinière ($7.95) -- a generous flock of winged shells with tomato and onion in a Pernod (an ivory-tinged, licorice-flavored liqueur similar to absinthe) and wine sauce -- had chewy, tender tongues of meat that burst with rich sweetness through the firmly brisk, intoxicant-riddled sauce.
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Sautéed shrimp ($15.95) with baby vegetables and fried caper-lemon butter struck the same way. Perfectly cooked bits of carrot, squash, and zucchini mingled among fried capers in the lively, smooth sauce. This bracing flash of saucy flavor slipped right into balance, never grinding underfoot the sweet, firm succulence of the shrimp.
"We're trying to adapt ourselves to an understanding of what Dallas people eat and what they don't," Sakouhi says. The French still gorge on rich food, at least when compared with Americans, who focus on fats, salt, and such, he says. "If we do really French food here, I don't think they would eat it. The French people don't look at how much of this or that is in the food. They just sit down and eat."
Right through after-dinner cheeses ($6.95), coffee, and dessert. Perhaps a bistro after-dinner standard, crème brûlée skips up to new heights here. A warm, crusty bronze lid that never slips into bitterness hides a custard that's cool, firm, creamy, and rich in flavor.
On the cover of the Le Paris' menu is an odd picture bludgeoned into fuzziness by a bad computer scan. It depicts a huge crane hoisting the Eiffel Tower, concrete footpads and all. "We're thinking like we're importing Paris to here, like we're installing the Eiffel Tower in Dallas," he says.