Red, red whine
There's a banner outside of Red Onion Bistro in Denton making note of its "adventurous wine and beer list." This is like pulling up to a men's boutique and seeing an unfurled banner that says "adventurous leisure suits." If you have to call out your daring sensibilities, you ain't got 'em.
And Red Onion doesn't. The dining room is accoutered with fake foliage and a statue of a woman tilting a pitcher that tinkles water into a pool on the floor. The walls are covered with whitewashed paneling that in certain places is sponged red to add accent. And the wine list is just a notch above pedestrian, with a couple of Snoqualmie wines from Washington state, a German Riesling, and a Bordeaux providing the thrust. Plus, the red wines were served warm.
But that doesn't mean the Red Onion should be skipped, because hidden among these pedestrian trappings is a respectable menu with some laudable twists tied with ordinary threads. Save for the coating, which tended to slip off, the inelegant scattering of beer-battered onion chips ($4.95) was sweet and tasty. Specks of tomato infested the chunks, which surround a dish of smooth sour cream speckled with chives for dipping.
Beer-cheese soup ($2.95/cup, $4.95 bottomless cup) is another brew foray, this time merged with white and yellow cheddar cheeses. The result is smooth and creamy with elegantly subtle flavors.
Though drenched in a sauce that was lighter than a classic velouté, the savory herbed chicken in sherry-mushroom velouté ($9.95) was deft and well balanced with small medallions of tender breast meat.
By far the most successful entrée sampled was the cinnamon-brined pork chop with apple brandy chutney ($12.95). This huge chop was juicy, tender, and pink with an alluring, aromatic spiciness that was more savory than sweet.
Each Red Onion entrée comes with a choice of rice or oven-roasted potatoes and two vegetable sides from a roster of four. Of the three sides sampled, the sweet, crisp snow peas and tender, elegant French beans were best. Braised red cabbage was good too, except that it was slightly overcooked and over-vinegared. Oven-roasted potatoes were delicious.
And the rice? That seems to depend on the dish. It was awful next to the breaded trout ($14.95) in brown butter sauce, a deficiency centered on the sauce, which tasted a little rancid. It congealed the rice, turning it into little wads of stale, grainy grease. The fish itself was fine, if a little dry. But the sauce made the breaded crust soft and mushy instead of crisp and otherwise sunk the flavor.
But Red Onion finishes off on high notes. The ganache-drop crème brûlée ($5.95), a traditional, straightforward brûlée with a ganache ball (chocolate and whipping cream) plunked in the bottom, did everything right. The thick, singed sugar lid was warm, concealing a cool, smooth custard: simple elegance.
Which betrays the roots of this bistro. Formerly a meat shack called Smoke Stack Barbecue, Red Onion encapsulates an attempt by owners Dominic (a former chef from Classic Café in Roanoke) and Stephanie Shipp to carve a fine-dining niche in the North Texas outpost of Denton. And despite the cheesy banner, they might be onto something... adventurous.
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