Review: James Rowland's Bistro Nous
James Rowland is a turnaround artist. He has taken rusted junkers, loosened stuck bolts, tightened loose nuts and finessed it all with a little salt and pepper. He's turned greasy, grimy watering holes into coifed and tucked spots with manicured menus.
Rowland breathes life into culinary afterthoughts, or more accurately, corrects culinary no-thoughts. He did it with the defunct Greenville Avenue Bar & Grill, slipping in spinach pecorino and grilled Asian salmon where wings and chicken-fried whatnots once ruled. He did it with Addison's Cape Buffalo Bar and Grill, meshing the menu to its sports bar with valet mien by adding Tabasco-herbed shrimp and miso-roasted salmon. He did it by marshaling the rank and intellectual resources he earned in the kitchens (Beau Nash) of the Crescent Court Hotel.
Now he's doing it with James Rowland's Bistro Nous. Rowland says he originally wanted his far North Dallas strip-mall bistro to possess an exclusively French menu. But Dallas was long ago soured to all things French (except for maybe the kiss and the tickler) and may never again rekindle the fling, even if visions of freedom fries fade into the annals of silliness. So Rowland recast the spot as a New American thing with its requisite streaks of Asian and Mediterranean and Southwestern tumbled with his own vagaries. One such is lobster bastard, a whole lobster omelet fragged with American caviar that he sold for 60 bucks and has since downsized with just a tail for $20.
He recalibrates the wedge too, that ubiquitous hunk of lettuce relentlessly bacon-bitted and blue cheese-chunked every which way to Hereford and back. Rowland crossbreeds it with a Caesar, creating a slumped salad of uncut romaine leaves pretreated with olive oil and ladled with creamy dressing fringed with strands of Parmesan. You wonder what the point is.
While his bastards and wedges exhibit inventiveness touched with whimsy, his ceviche is so skittish you wonder how it mustered the temerity to show up. Here's the chaos of mixed intentions: gray chunks of hot soy-glazed tuna burrowed under cilantro and salad greens topped with warm chunks of sole as white as unbuttered popcorn. Beads of spicy remoulade weave haphazardly through the hillock. There's no citrus pinch on the tongue; nothing is raw. Except for the greens.
Yet Rowland's inventiveness inevitably returns. Lunch features 10 selections for $10 rigged with soup and bread and bottomless glasses of iced tea or house-squeezed lemonade. It's a sure-footed value: all $10 scream from the squeeze, mostly in harmony. There's fettuccini with littleneck clams in garlic cream and pork tenderloin stir fry or grilled tuna and roasted fingerling potatoes. There's the Szechuan noodle bowl, served in Limoges china with a dunce cap lid that's ceremoniously lifted in a sweeping motion just like they do in Dallas' endangered jacket-and-tie-required dining rooms. Great chunks of eggplant—seeds exposed and flaring—collude with chunks of yellow squash and zucchini, slices of mushroom, thick shavings of white onion and coils of scallion as delicate and frilly as drill bit filings. The sauce is as spicily assertive as the ceviche is timid. Lemonade flows.
Yet this bowled marvel is menaced by flimsy cookery. Its mass of twined noodles is woven at once with strands cooked to perfection and others barely cooked into pliability. It's like eating stale crackers.
Bistro Nous is Rowland's attempt to rescue yet another space from culinary ennui. It was a Modo Mio before it morphed into an offshoot of Avner Samuel's Urban Bistro expansion. Samuel put his heart and soul into the concept—for about 10 minutes—and then it wilted, leaving a trail of disgruntled employees and substandard ingredients in its wake.
So Samuel's investors backed Rowland, no doubt thinking he could work some Greenville Avenue Bar & Grill pixie dust into the lease. Bistro Nous has a spectator kitchen, charmed into Euro-country with paned windows framing the action of pots and sauté pans releasing their licks of steam and smoke. Slotted wine racks bracket the dining room walls (we unscrew the last bottle of the lightly brisk Delta Vineyard Pinot Noir from New Zealand). Banquettes are dark leather seats meshed to floral fabric backs in green and washed yellow. Arched portals separate dining room from bar, sculptures of various sorts filling in the portal spaces.
In the sunlight, the water glasses reveal their gauzy dishwasher film. Two empty tables flank the door at midday like sentries at its strip mall entrance, their knotted tablecloths fluttering in the wind just in front of the door.
These details reveal Nous' devil. Rowland sees things from an angle not taken by most chefs, and at times he seems to serve his visions before the thoughts behind them have fully gelled. But other creations are ingenious in their simplicity, such as the grilled pineapple with squash splashed in ponzu. The sportsman's platter reeks of Texas kitsch with simply prepared short ribs—moist and chewy—quail legs, and dense hearty slices of venison sausage ribboned with spicy remoulade that tugs and pulls at the meats smoky sourness.
Beef stir fry with broccoli and shiitake mushrooms snarled in fettuccini has rich strips of tenderloin, while sweet lump crab meat adds vigor to the angel hair pasta in basil pesto.
But then there was opa, a stiff, dried-out cake of fish topped with shavings of scallion and surrounded by greens. Steak au poivre frites has the requisite rich redness you crave. But it was tasked with elevating a loose cluster of frites that from French translated into fries ala IHOP: spongy, crude, undercooked, under-salted.
Rowland has lofty if quirky ambitions for his bistro. He sees Bistro Nous evolving into a hotel restaurant in a strip mall serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night snacks. He could invent suburban room service. "James Rowland will disappear, and Bistro will disappear. It'll just be kind of like nous," he says of it.
It's ripe for a neighborhood following with word-of-mouth ambiance. It's cozy, comfortable and engaging. But the details have to be rewired before the staying power can be turned on. Otherwise it'll just be clean white tablecloths twisting in the wind.
18352 North Dallas Parkway at the northeast corner of Frankford Road and the Tollway, 972-931-7800. Open 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday. $$-$$$
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