Pleasure chained

There's one thing that you can almost always count on in the restaurant business: A fairly decent, reasonably priced dining concept will inevitably evolve into a chain and go public, or its chef will become a licensed character and star in a Saturday-morning superhero cooking cartoon.

This sort of evolutionary process is precisely what David Holben, Michael Caolo, and Franco Bertolasi--the trio behind the Riviera, Toscana, and Mediterraneo--are engaged in as they prepare to clone two of their restaurants. And if the imagination, energy, and luster this trio seem to slather effortlessly on their venues isn't diluted and made banal by the process--something that is perhaps too much to hope for--the result could be one of the most interesting restaurant companies in the country.

In August, the three restaurateurs launched the FoodStar Restaurant Group, a company that aims to open as many as 40 restaurants nationwide over the next few years patterned after Mediterraneo and Toscana. The expansion will be broken down into four phases of 10 restaurants each with a focus on cities in the South and West. With Bertolasi as chairman, Caolo as president and chief executive officer, and Holben as executive chef, the group has the backing of two multimillion-dollar venture capital funds and has ambitious plans to take the company public in the near future.

Restaurants are planned for Phoenix, New Orleans, and Birmingham, Alabama, over the next year, and the company is in the process of acquiring an additional North Dallas location.

The first restaurant birthing for the new company took place in November as Mediterraneo at the Quadrangle. If this new venue is a clear indication of what is to come, any city that gets a restaurant from this company should count its lucky FoodStars. In a general sense, this Quadrangle incarnation isn't that much different from its Plano sibling: It has some of the same design touches and has inherited some 70 percent of the menu. But while the Mediterraneo up north is little more than a crisp, loud, chic shack, this new installation feels warmer, cozier, and more sophisticated.

Much of this is the result of simple design elements such as lower ceilings and generous use of carpeting and fabric wall coverings, which cut down on noise. Materials such as Murano glass chandeliers, glass mosaic tiles, and terrazzo floors, plus wave forms that weave through the bar and in the walls, create a clean, understated Mediterranean feel. On one wall covered in blue fabric, sconces filled with water and holding fresh flowers are mounted with focused spotlights beaming down from above, giving the illusion the light is emanating from the bottom of the vase.

The food, a fusion of Southern French and Northern Italian, is equally engaging--even charismatic, if food can be described as such. David Woodward, chef de cuisine at the Plano location, is chef de cuisine at the Quadrangle. He says they borrowed some of the more popular items from Plano whole and transformed other selections by modifying sauces and presentation. "I wouldn't say it was a style change. It was more of an item change," he says, describing the subtle differences. "What we didn't want was too much of a comparison between the two menus. We wanted each restaurant to be individual." He describes the menu as "comfort food," a term I usually associate with raw, forceful appetite suppression wrapped in teddy-bear fur. But what Woodward seems to mean is familiar foods and flavorings twisted and tweaked just enough to generate interest. "We are not looking to be cutting-edge," he adds emphatically.

You can see this thinking in one of Mediterraneo's most popular creations, the horseradish-crabmeat-crusted halibut. The goal with this was to marry a familiar pairing--horseradish flavor from the cocktail sauce that often accompanies crab or shrimp--with the delicate seafood flavor of halibut. At first glance this might seem like culinary sadism, and Woodward admits there was a tremendous amount of trial and error before this dish was ready for prime time. But the results are subtle and creamy, with piercing horseradish flavors that keep it from getting offensively soft and cute. A champagne-leek sauce features fish stock and champagne vinegar in heavy cream with sauteed leeks.

One of the more successful new items here is an appetizer, the savory grilled shrimp and Maine lobster-toasted quinoa (a rice-like grain that was a staple of the Incas). The shrimp, veneered with a rub of chile, ancho, and serrano peppers in oil, was moist, tender, and succulent with a firm, but not overbearing, kick of seasonings. The lobster-toasted quinoa, diced tomatoes, and mangoes, along with arugula in a balsamic vinaigrette, slapped an engaging framework around the assembly.

Another Plano standard that is even more dazzling at the Quadrangle is the beef carpaccio with shaved parmesan. The silken, nearly translucent slices of sirloin were cool, rich, and delicate. But the addition of fried capers proved a brilliant stroke of contrasting interplay, dotting the subtle rose-raw meat with potently flavored balls of black ash.  

Roasted tenderloin of beef Provencal, another addition, was a tender, well-aged piece of beef with rich, moist flavors that dazzled with their meaty assertiveness. But again it was one of the old standbys, a pork chop rubbed with coriander and black pepper, that really encapsulated the collective imagination of the place. Aside from flooding this chunk of meat with alluring flavors, the coriander-pepper rub, which is applied to the meat and left to work on it for 12 to 24 hours, cures it, drawing out moisture while it adds density. The result is a silken piece of meat void of chewy, mealy grain. A cherry-maple glaze and sage sauce propels it with a rich tanginess and herbal breath.

The only stumbling on this menu, if you can call it stumbling, was the desserts. Fresh baked apple crisp was underlayed with spongy apple slices and was void of crispness and rich flavor. Chocolate almond cake with praline cream was almost overwhelming in its chocolaty richness, though the crunchy crust and dense cake were engaging.

After sampling a few of these items in Plano, I find it odd they didn't strike with the same force they do in this space. Mediterraneo's Quadrangle digs, which once housed J. Pepe's, sparkle and add a substantive shimmer to everything from the food to the ambiance to the service. If Bertolasi, Holben, Caolo, and company can maintain this dining pitch at their forthcoming installations, skip the appetizers and go for the initial public offering.

If a plate of food can be said to possess charisma, then the menu at Les Saisons has a dazzle deficit; a sort of culinary burst of Bob Dole oratory as opposed to a Bill Clinton "comeback kid" speech. Not that the food at Les Saisons is sub-par--not by any stretch. It's just a little baggy-eyed, inarticulate, and seemingly more concerned with arcane process than engaging sex appeal.

It's also a little overly conscious of its own tradition, which in a place like Dallas is about as misplaced as New Orleans getting overly concerned with professional football. Not that tradition doesn't run deep at Les Saisons. Opened 22 years ago in Turtle Creek Village, its survival is almost as startling as a similarly aged marriage that hasn't been set upon by Dallas divorce lawyers. Operated then by Universal restaurants, who also owned Arthur's and Old Warsaw, Les Saisons was purchased by import-export businessman John Feizy before it was taken over a decade ago by current owners Ray and Kellie Fatemian. Since its inception, very little has changed.

"Les Saisons is a stalwart," offers Kellie Fatemian. "It's not a trendy-type spot at all. It stays constant, and we feel that is our strong point." I don't know about you, but constancy emanating from a '70s timewarp is the kind of strong point I'd like to squash with the chunky heel of a platform shoe. Nothing good ever came from the '70s except the national realizations that John Travolta needed a sabbatical from acting and Jimmy Carter needed a career change.

Nonetheless, the Fatemians' strive for consistency has been unwavering, even when faced with the disruption of a relocation earlier this year after the lease on their Turtle Creek Village space wasn't renewed. They packed up their country-French trappings and menu and transplanted it into the Centrum building in the space formerly occupied by Bellini's. Here you'll find sheer white lace curtains on three all-glass walls, dark wood paneling, framed handmade linens, and glass sconces emitting light in piercing bordello-like shades of magenta. Two huge, colorful wall murals depicting French country scenes are cordoned with lacy curtains and faux wood pillars creating a pseudo picture-window effect. The entry floor is covered in black and white linoleum tiles in a checkered pattern, lending a '50s diner touch to this stab at force-fitting authentic French country elegance in a modern Dallas high-rise. Facing the front door, backed up against a dark wood-paneled interior vestibule, is a 200-year-old French heating stove, a functional mint-green porcelain sculpture resembling an elaborate wedding cake.

Wedding cake is one thing you won't find on Les Saisons' menu. What you will find is an assortment of appetizers, soups, fish, fowl, and meat with French monikers. And while most dishes work on a fundamental level, they don't engage. The lobster bisque with Riesling, a tomato-cream-based soup with German Riesling, was smooth and rich. But the lobster meat proved soft and mushy--a bit overcooked. Better was the seafood chowder, generous chunks of fish meat and scallops in a white wine, cream-tomato base with carrots, celery, tomato, and rice. While this medium-bodied soup had a slight tanginess, it had little else in the way of assertiveness.  

The entrees, too, for the most part, were adequately flavorful. Yet if the food on these plates could speak, it would no doubt talk incessantly of how bored it is. The poached salmon served with beurre blanc (French sauce made from wine, vinegar, and shallot reduction with butter) and lobster sauce was tender and moist, and it flaked well on the fork. But it had a slightly fishy taste and seemed overwhelmed with salt. Moist and chewy slices of braised duck were respectably complemented by a restrained orange sauce offering just the right amount of sweetness and tang. But the taste of the duck itself was slightly off, with a pronounced liver flavor and a distinct lack of rich nuttiness or provocative gaminess.

A floured, pan-sauteed trout filet was slightly crisp on the outside, while tender and lacy on the inside with clean, soft flavors. But a crowning of large artichoke and mushroom chunks with diced tomatoes awkwardly smothered the delicate meat with intense textures and sourness. Perhaps dicing these toppings would have let them mesh more successfully with the flesh. Steamed bright purple cabbage and intensely fresh spinach coupled with a scoop of rice seasoned with chicken stock and finely diced red peppers and parsley proved superbly prepared sides to this teetering centerpiece.

The steak Diane, a piece of tenderloin topped with large mushroom slices in a Bordelais sauce, was adequately flavorful, and the sauce was surprisingly light and savory. But the meat was unevenly done--medium rare in some places, well-done in others--and it was tough in spots.

The wine list is another component that could use some sparkle. Composed almost exclusively of California and French selections, the list is thin and uninteresting. Red Burgundy is poorly represented (as is California pinot noir), and the white wine listing is packed with far too many unimaginatively selected chardonnays from the likes of Kendall Jackson, Beringer, and Jordan. But Ray says the list is due a makeover.

Perhaps the most disappointing offering, especially for a traditional French restaurant, was the strawberry souffle. It was thoroughly unappealing, with runny innards, a lack of fruit richness, and an overwhelming eggy flavor. Better is Les Saisons' version of tiramisu: a light, visually appealing preparation that was creamy, moist, and not intensely sweet with dribbles of bright, golden yellow mango sauce crisscrossed over the plate and a dusting of nuts on the frosting.

While Les Saisons offers genuinely sincere, professional service that is as attentive as it is gracious, the overall effect still seems a bit tired. The decor works hard to create its French country ambiance, and the menu could stand some imaginative tweaking, perhaps with fresher ingredients. Plus, the prices are a bit steep for what you get. But a little charisma on the plate would go a long way toward remedying that.

Mediterraneo at the Quadrangle, 2800 Routh Street; (214) 979-0002. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Open for dinner Monday-Wednesday, 6 p.m-10:30 p.m.; Thursday-Sunday, 6 p.m.-11:30 p.m.

Les Saisons, The Centrum, 3102 Oak Lawn, Suite 110, at Cedar Springs; (214) 528-1102, Open for lunch Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Open for dinner Monday-Saturday, 5:30 p.m.-10:00 p.m. Open for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

Mediterraneo at the Quadrangle:
Savory grilled gulf shrimp $9.50
Beef carpaccio $9.50
Horseradish-crabmeat-crusted halibut $20.50
Roasted tenderloin of beef Provencal $28
Fresh baked apple crisp $6

Les Saisons:
Lobster cream with Riesling wine $5.50
Poached fresh salmon $16.50
Strawberry souffle $7.00

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