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Pyramid platitudes

Pyramid Grill has everything but exoticism.
Tracy Powell

After tasting Pyramid Grill's steak tartare, a huge mound of milky pink pulp shaped like a loaf of rye bread, I began to wonder: Why does so much of the tartare served in Dallas, no matter what its species, taste like something plumbed from a bedeviled little Underwood can? So I consulted my primary culinary reference work, Rude Food. Published in the early '80s, Rude Food is a compendium of culinary photo essays with various foods juxtaposed with naked models (though at least one is wearing a clump of frisée, and another brandishes a garter made of fresh little candies in little pleated paper cups).

"The association between food and sex has been firmly established since that old business with Adam, Eve, and the apple," say the authors in the introduction to this slender volume. Yet if Adam and Eve did with apples what one of the Rude Food models does with oysters, those parts were edited out of my version of the Bible. Rude Food contains the predictable hot dog and cream-tipped banana phallus clichés (though there is an interesting twist on the pickle, with an upended cornichon floating next to a pair of green olives in a martini). But it also has some compelling, creative visual forays. There's a bondage scene involving strands of spaghetti, and a "still life" incorporating soft white sole fillets gently curved to resemble lips surrounded by curls of parsley. There's even a little photo essay explaining why the navel is superior to glass brandy snifters. "It provides a constant even warmth which brings out the bouquet of the cognac," says the caption under a photo of a brandy-dribbled bellybutton.

But the most relevant rude shot in this book, at least in terms of this review, is a spread titled "Civilised Raw Meat" (the book was first published in Great Britain) that explains the origins of steak tartare. According to the book, this little delicacy originated with Genghis Khan's Tartar horsemen, who kept their meat under their saddles and rode on it until it became tender enough to eat without cooking (purists contend that real tartare should be made with horsemeat). The right panel of the spread has a buffed beauty about to park her hams on a raw steak. "Fortunately, the butcher has replaced the bum," reads the caption. The left panel shows a gentleman with washboard abs holding in his cupped hands a large spinach leaf that in turn supports a large, blood-red mound of ground steak with an indentation on top, in which sits a raw egg.

True tartare is nothing but raw, unadulterated lust sprinkled with a little salt and pepper and ringed with little piles of drained capers with chopped shallots and parsley. So why is this so hard to find? Why do chefs seek to pester it beyond recognition with condiments?

The steak tartare mound ($14) at the newly transformed Pyramid Grill (formerly The Pyramid Room) is placed on a carpet of leaves with a split cornichon on top. The pulverized beef is studded with onion, garlic, capers, and specks of cornichon mixed with Dijon mustard, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, port, brandy, and raw egg. Next to it is a tomato-skin shaving curled into the shape of a rosebud. In the center of the bud is a small green salad. It's a touching arrangement.

The tartare is creamy but uninteresting. The flavor is dominated by the condiments. Its color isn't boldly red, and the rich meat flavors are fogged over. It's accompanied by a basket of cold toast points.

This tartare is a distillation of the whole problem with Pyramid Grill: Though competent, it isn't boldly imaginative or compelling--characteristics almost any restaurant in this price range has to have if it hopes to survive in the roiling stew of Dallas' dynamic dining scene.

Since the Fairmont shut down the Brasserie some 18 months ago, it set out to make the Pyramid Room more casual with modest cosmetic changes, the addition of breakfast and lunch, and a transformation of the menu. The timidity of the overhaul is starkest on the breakfast menu, a boilerplate array of omelets, eggs benedict, waffles, pancakes, and two egg variants. There's virtually nothing else--no creative forays, no bold moves, not even a slab of smoked salmon.

Still, the food is consistent and very good, even the stuff plucked from the buffet table ($14). Scrambled eggs are supple and firm (even at the conclusion of breakfast service), not runny or hard and dry as they more often than not are in hotel buffets. Strips of bacon and links of sausage are fresh and succulent. Even the hash browns worked well: moist, crisp, separate, tender--not dry, sticky, pasty, and hard.

Ordering off the menu yielded the same sort of solid but uninspiring results. Three-egg omelets ($12.50), with a choice of three ingredients from a list that included ham, bacon, sausage, tomato, and three different cheeses, would put a hardened Denny's patron to sleep. So I tried to put together the most interesting combination from the list--snow crab, green onion, and herbs. Shreds of sweet crabmeat were woven throughout the moist egg fold with herb flavors that came through with clarity, especially the rosemary.

Tediously standard eggs benedict ($12.50) was good too, with a crisp but moist toasted muffin platform holding a thick slice of succulent Canadian bacon. One egg was perfectly cooked, while the other was a little hard. Plus, the hollandaise was slightly pasty, but these were the only drawbacks.

And this is pretty much how it goes at the Pyramid Grill. It's a routine, straight-ahead cruise down the middle of the road with little veers here and there to avoid road kill.

Transformation of the Pyramid Room into the Pyramid Grill was primarily a menu shuffle. Cosmetic changes were less than minor, with doors added to cut the restaurant area off from the bar and new signage consisting of a Plexiglas shingle lettered with the word "Grill" dangling below the word "Pyramid."

How specifically has the menu changed? Whereas before you'd stumble onto a willy-nilly compendium of French and Asian influences taking shape as tempura shrimp with daikon relish, or pan-seared Atlantic salmon with coconut rice and ginger butter, now you'll find straight grilled tuna steaks, surf n' turf, steak, and prime rib. "The accent is more now on beef and on items that are grilled," says Fairmont Hotel General Manager Cyril Isnard. "It has much less of a European accent now." Although "accent" seems an out-of-place descriptor, Isnard adds that the Pyramid Grill's emphasis is now on simple preparations with larger vegetable portions.

Not that there aren't butter-knife stabs at intrigue here and there. A chicken-breast special ($24), which our server described as chicken cordon bleu without the cheese, was slices of breast meat rolled around strips of prosciutto and mushroom with pico de gallo. But it wasn't as interesting as it sounded. The chicken was dry, and it needed some kind of medium to meld the ingredients (there's a reason for that cheese). A wine sauce puddled at the bottom of the plate didn't have the wherewithal or the position to do much good. Large, indelicate planks of grilled zucchini and squash accompanied the dish, as well as a side of fluffy, well-seasoned couscous.

Lobster bisque ($7), on and off the Pyramid menu for sometime now, was exquisite: rich, smooth, and packed with potent little lumps of sweet, chewy lobster flesh.

Mixed grill (lamb chops, sliced duck breast, and shrimp, $35) was a simple mingling of hoof, wing, and marine bug. Lamb chops, with rib tips interlocked near a small heap of greens, had thin oval slices of duck breast fanning from their meaty rumps. The slices were velvety and rich, teasing a meltdown on the tongue. Lamb flesh was sweetly rich with a firm, silky texture smoothly foiled by a splash of wine sauce from a side boat that bathed the meat in barely perceptible pungency. But those shrimp gummed up the trio. Not that they were mushy or dry or otherwise a congregation of curled malcontents. No, these shrimp were plump, succulent, and appropriately firm. But they were also tasteless save for a shrill grill flavor, which made eating them a little like chewing on a piece of juicy griddle slag.

A big piece of slag is what the chocolate hazelnut truffle resembled, only it was smoothly elegant. This dark, rich chunk of chocolate, speckled with bits of shattered hazelnut, hovered in a puddle of raspberry sauce next to a generous clump of blueberries and raspberries, a good piece of balanced craft.

Which is, on a rudimentary level, what the Pyramid Grill represents. Execution is, for the most part, exceptional. Service is exemplary. The staff is cheerful, attentive, and efficient. Empty glasses are noted and filled, or at least asked after. Wine goblets with a few dribbles are not instantly removed, but left while the server asks whether you'd like to slurp the last sip. Pyramid Grill has everything except pizzazz, charisma, and a reason to visit--other than a competent menu stocked with items you can find at virtually any run-of-the-mill Dallas steakhouse.

To generate sparkle, I suggest management start at the bottom--and reshuffle the tartare recipe by replacing the butcher with a saddle and chapped bum. That's a true Texas tartare.

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The Pyramid Restaurant and Bar

1717 N. Akard St.
Dallas, TX 75201

214-720-5249

www.fairmont.com/dallas


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