The thing you don't want to do in a restaurant called We Oui is default to crass mode by playing double entendre with the name, especially in a Dallas brasserie with a menu that's an American-French mutt. No. That would be like serving pork n' beans at a wine tasting and then laughing at the consequences during the swirl n' sniff ritual. You just don't do those things in polite company. Or do you?
That Phil Romano is a brilliant visionary goes without question. He's tossed together some of the more lasting and legendary dining concepts such as Cozymel's, Macaroni Grill, and Eatzi's.
But what's the vision with We Oui? Romano propaganda describes it as a "concept...based on heavy French accents, serving affordable, Americanized French favorites..." The menu goes a little further: "When you meet someone who speaks English with a French accent, that's sensual and interesting...At We Oui, we'll captivate you by serving American with a sexy French accent."
This is what We Oui is straining to be: sexy. The exertion is evident: Its forehead is red; its veins are fat and pulsing with purple, the strain is so intense. We Oui lacks subtlety, stimulating little brushes of sensuality, or sly romance. After a few minutes here you feel like Paula Jones must have felt when she walked into Bill Clinton's Little Rock hotel room to watch him drop his pants and quip "kiss it." This is the sort of interesting sensuality pumping through We Oui.
Take a look at the decor. The space is dominated by a long, wavering bar where the rich and the fake link for lust. The look is cold, stark, and loud with lots of red and the visual static of "voluptuous signature lips" tattooed everywhere. Walls are plastered with repeating female faces washed in intense primary-color splashes. We Oui propaganda characterizes this touch as reminiscent of Andy Warhol. But it looks more like a blur of garish Patrick Nagel knock-offs. Above the bread station where loaves of baguettes rise (the bread is exceptional, by the way), there's a painting of the backside of a character dubbed "The Bun Man," who's wearing a "Oui" black leather jacket. Maybe Bun Man breaks wind with a sophisticated Gallic twang.
In the restrooms, French-language tapes loop with novel pick-up lines, ditties like "Do you have protection?" Yum. I can see that one working like a charm. Before you spit that one out, I suggest the protection afforded by an athletic cup.
We Oui is to the art of romance what packing live carp into a barrel of water and harvesting them with a sawed-off shotgun is to sport fishing. Roll the name a few times on the tongue. Is it "wee wee" (English) or Oui Oui (French)? Why, it's both. And of course the not too subtle wordplay inherent here is a French "yes yes" winking at an English "wee wee." I guess this is the ultimate male fantasy, that every woman will say yes yes to his wee wee at We Oui.
If you think this is nothing but raw sarcasm, consider the future We Oui maneuver Romano plans to implement. At last call, just before the restaurant closes and the rich trundle off with the fake, We Oui will distribute condoms with the following package copy: "From We Oui, For Your We Oui. We support the effort to eliminate the spreading of sexually transmitted diseases. We value you as a customer." Oh, and these sheaths of strenuous social consciousness are flavored with "kiss of mint."
Touching. But I'd rather have Romano's consciousness focused more on my palate than my pecker, because all of this double-entendre phallicism seems to have taken a toll on the food. Not that it's universally dismal. It's well priced and ample. Oysters are fresh, clean, and supple, while the crisp pommes frites are greaseless and phenomenally tasty.
The onion soup is delicious too. Not as intensely caramelized as other versions, the soup is capped with two melted-cheese throw rugs. The depths are laced with supple onion strips mopped in rich sweet flavor edged with a tangy bite.
Americanization is hard to pluck from the escargot, a plate of tawny-yellow shells planted in a viscous puddle of beurre blanc with chopped shallots and herbs. The plate is delivered with tongs and small two-pronged forks. Once pierced and pulled from the shells, the little knots of slug meat were cleanly moist and chewy, if a little bland.
The pté, planks of coarse graininess, was delicious as well, in all of its heartiness, surrounded by scatterings of cornichon slices, greens, chopped red onion, and a pudding-like slick of Dijon mustard.
But these were the best things sampled at We Oui. The rest was as forgettable as those pick-up lines in the restroom. Or worse. The house wines (white, red, rosé), even if they are only $3.50 a glass, are deplorable drinks--harder to toss back than a condom kissed with mint. These wines show no fruit, and taste little better than ascorbic acid dissolved in chilled water. It is here that the We Oui moniker actually has some lasting relevance. Even the "other wines by the glass" on the list don't hold up. The Merlot is flat, and the Vouvray has sulphur breath. If you want to drink wine here, pluck the bottles. The Jacques de Vital pinot noir ($20) was fresh and clean with lots of balanced fruit.
Though not spawned from the same wastewater as the house wines, the entrées still flailed in mediocrity. Steak au poivre was a flat-flavored, mealy strip of flesh dressed in a tire-black crust with a barely perceptible pepper tread. Salmon, branded with hatch grill marks, was equally bland and thoroughly parched besides. Plus, it didn't flake. Duck a l'orange, parked on a bed of spinach with thin almond slices, sat in a sauce that was watery instead of rich. The duck flesh itself was chewy and rubbery with a rank, gamy flavor that made it seem like gnawing on a wet dog.
Perhaps the best entrée sampled was the linguini in red sauce. The pasta was firm, and the sauce was light and smooth in texture, yet full-flavored.
But our most profound We Oui spectacle occurred at lunch. It was an afternoon when Romano himself strolled into the restaurant with a small klatch of guests and took seats at the table next to us.
We ordered frog legs and the club crepe (chicken, ham, and cheese). Both plates were generous heapings of food. Frog legs, battered and fried golden red, were well-seasoned, greaseless, and tender, with full, fleshy thighs. Along one side was a pile of those delicious pommes frites. On another was a mound of greens flecked with diced tomato and haricots verts spread over the top. A ramekin of stiff, forgettable hollandaise for dipping teetered on the plate's edge.
The crepe sandwich, a huge folded sheet swaddling pedestrian scraps of chicken and ham and stingily scattered bits of brie, had the consistency of a deflated whoopee cushion (Bun Man?). Next to the big rubbery crepe was a salad topped with more haricots verts.
But the true dynamism of these entrées didn't emerge until I swapped my frog legs for the club crepe of my lunch companion. It was she who discovered the true depth of the dish. Just after she set the plate down at her place and picked up one of those golden legs to gnaw, the leaves began to move, the ones upon which the haricots verts rested. And just like that it was out. She screamed.
Right there, on the plate's edge, was a bug the size of a Bentley, a car that, incidentally, Romano drives. It was fluttering its translucent wings, only it couldn't take flight on account of the oily vinaigrette wreaking havoc with its aerodynamics. It limped around the plate, its wings spread, like some sort of aborted Leonardo da Vinci experiment.
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Having been a prep cook for a number of years and having washed numerous heads of lettuce and countless bunches of greens, I can attest to the large number of critters that find their way into restaurant produce. Yet amazingly, I have never come across a food-borne insect in a Dallas restaurant. In fact, I've never detected one in a restaurant anywhere, though that doesn't mean I haven't eaten a few. My companion swears she has discovered dead fruit flies in her food on several occasions over the years. But neither of us has ever seen or heard of a living, thriving vermin crawling out from under a side dish to frolic with the radicchio, and certainly not one of such epic proportions.
In all fairness, once the bug showed his face, the response of the We Oui staff was swift, decisive, and gracious. Drawn by my companion's scream, the busboy immediately took the plate and presented it to the manager and Executive Chef Nick Badovinus, a Mansion alumnus who looks like a surfer from Venice Beach. Badovinus promptly stopped by our table, apologized, and comped the whole lunch, which is to be expected. Yet Badovinus handled it with style and flair and, well...what is he doing at a place with lips on the walls and flavored condoms as nightcaps?
Now my entomological acuity has certainly faded since college, but after consulting a few textbooks, I believe I have pinned down this We Oui side salad mascot. It is blaberus craniifer, or a giant South American cockroach. These shy nocturnal creatures breed well in captivity, love warmth, and move about under rotting plant matter, which should in no way be construed as a slam against We Oui salads. When aroused, these bugs emit a hissing sound, except, one presumes, when they are covered in salad dressing.
Yet the blaberus craniifer presents a substantially relevant opportunity for We Oui. Because now at last call, in conjunction with those We Oui condoms flavored with a kiss of mint, Romano can take his social responsibility to a new level and distribute little motels.