"The superfluous, a very necessary thing." -- Voltaire.
Scott Ginsburg rejected an earnest request to bring a photographer. No pictures capturing the momentous opening of his multimillion-dollar restaurant, Voltaire. Then again, this isn't really an opening. It's a dry run, a complimentary private viewing, a guinea-pig tasting, as Ginsburg calls it, though instead of plump rodents, he's serving tuna, duck breast, and young cock.
At first blush, everything seems smooth, polished, far too tightly orchestrated to justify the fear of cameras. A fleet of sleek, alluring hostesses guides guests through the entrance, a bright portal lit by a chandelier by famed lighting designer Ingo Maurer. It's a kind of freeze-frame explosion of busted dinnerware, shimmering with cosmic luminosity, like a hurled remnant from a culinary big bang.
"May God defend me from my friends. I can defend myself from my enemies." -- Voltaire
The bar is sleek, topped with polished marble. In one secluded seating nook, a recessed eye glows in the ceiling, shifting color.
But while the room is whitewashed and bright, black seems an overriding statement at Voltaire. The hostesses are draped in it. The cocktail servers are wrapped in it. Ginsburg, the onetime radio mogul, wears it, as does Paul Draper, Voltaire's designer. Heather Wellman, Ginsburg's fiancée, wears a black leather jacket, a short, black suede skirt, and black spike-heeled boots. Ginsburg says the moment he proposed to her was nearly perfect. They were at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., on the terrace. In the heat of the question-popping moment, the presidential chopper rose in the distance, an omen whose meaning is hard to calculate.
Ginsburg flashes broad smiles, sincerely greets, and earnestly shakes hands, as though he's among close friends. His posture -- at least on this night -- contradicts the talk that his personality is acerbic, mercurial, graceless.
He mingles near the bar, the base of which is actually a chalkboard scrawled with smudged Voltaire quotes. I can make out only one -- something about disagreeing over what's said, but defending to the death one's right to say it -- because of the dirty looks tossed my way as I peer between the kneecaps of barstool sitters.
"We were putting up this liquor just three hours ago," says the bartender, pointing to the rows of premium spirits on the back bar. He pours me some 1981 Chateau Haut Brion -- at 25 bucks a glass, Voltaire's house wine. The cellar also has a 1942 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tache with a warning on the label that export to Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States is forbidden -- no doubt a Nazi edict.
"In England it is considered good to kill the admiral from time to time, to encourage the others." -- Voltaire
A massive glass case floats over one dining-room nook, cradling Ginsburg's Dale Chihuly glass sculpture collection. Four mollusk-like sculptures explode in red, yellow, and purple, big glass mouths swallowing the sea. Smaller sculptures surround these focal points like a newly hatched brood. Mirrors on both sides of the seating area angle upward, forming an endless arch of sea mouths.
Like all movements leading up to a deflowering, preparations for this opening were rushed and chaotic. Ginsburg's Chihulys were hastily hauled and assembled just hours before. Voltaire's quasi-general manager, Kent Ingram, says Ginsburg borrowed his pickup to shuttle them from Ginsburg's house, loaning him his new sports car in trade. "He has one of those Audi TT bubble things," Ingram says. "I was scared to death I'd scratch it."
Voltaire was a disaster minutes before opening, he adds. Trash was everywhere. A dimmer panel in the lighting system blew out. The computer system wasn't firing on all cylinders. "A woman complained there was dust on the banquette," he says. "If she only knew..."
Ginsburg is all smiles -- nervous ones, it seems. He points to the 30-foot black granite waterwall just outside the window. "I call it the Hoover Dam," he says, "because it took seven months to get it to work." The first successful trial run came 15 minutes before opening.
Two large paintings hang from the clean white walls. One is a photo-realistic still life of three Voltaire volumes topped by a white flower. The other is a rendering of a bronze statue in Paris. I ask Ginsburg who painted them. "I don't know," he says. "The artists didn't sign the front. They signed the back. It's the new trend. I mean, what's that?"
Executive Chef George Papadopoulos' guinea-pig menu is elaborate: a pair of seafood appetizers, fowl salads, plus a selection of fish, beef, or coquelet (young cock) entrées. But meal delivery creeps at glacial speed.
"The kitchen is getting pounded," says our server. "George is not happy." Papadopoulos wears a tall toque and an earnest grimace. He's directing chaos among the flurried confetti of handwritten checks. Computer printouts of dinner orders aren't reaching the kitchen. "How's it going?" seems like a stupid question. "It's terrible. It's awful," he says. Then he recognizes me. "No, I mean it's great."
Our entrées arrive cold, with coagulated sauces. Yet the flavors and textures still manage to break through. Tuna is tender and lushly silky. Beef tenderloin, capped with a shimmering sheet of foie gras, melts in the mouth, even if the meat is cold. But the guinea-pig glitches leave no time for dessert.
Leaving, I detour through the main dining room. Four chandeliers resembling box kites hang from the high ceiling. There's also a large fireplace flanked by tall rectangular storage slots, neatly stacked with logs. I overhear Ingram tell a slightly looped woman that it's all for effect. The fireplace is gas. "You'll get roaches in those logs," she blurts.
A long black Bentley Turbo idles near the entrance, a thing that, cost-wise, is to cars what Voltaire is to restaurants. I chat with the driver. "It easily does 150," he says in a mild British accent. But how deft is it? "Well, it's so heavy, it just sort of sticks to the road."
Will Voltaire stick? I pose the question to a longtime Dallas restaurateur. "The numbers just don't work," he says. Maybe Ginsburg doesn't care, I offer. "Sooner or later, Dallas makes you care. No matter how much money you have, the smell of rotting scallops still stinks."
Voltaire might wish he'd said that.
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