Rule Britannia

It's surrounded by tie-dye emporia overflowing with all the equipment you need either for inhaling perfectly legal substances or for dying your hair blue. But Anglophiles and resident Brits know all about the proper little store on Greenville Avenue stocked with all the essential British goods: shortbread, sure, and marmalade, too, but really, you can get those things at gourmet shops if you have to have them. World Service UK sells the true-blue British stuff for which there is no substitute--like Mr. Bean videos, Bronnley's Lemon Soap, and the infamous Weetabix, a perfect example of the kind of stupendously stodgy food the unfortunate Brits have become famous for. Nick and Kelli Barclay, upper lips defiantly stiff in the face of certain ridicule and possible failure, opened World Service UK over three years ago, and it's still jogging along steadily. So we can only assume that when they opened Barclay's (in Juniper's old location on Fairmount) a month ago, not only were they prepared for every British food joke ever devised, but had probably heard most of them within recent memory.

Barclay's serves "modern Euro-British cuisine"--a term clearly devised to put some positive spin on the definitive oxymoron "British cuisine," to cushion a famously laughable phrase with a trendy idea and link English edibles safely to the closest continent. The restaurant's chef-owner, Nick Barclay, is best known in Dallas as the founding chef of dani, the mega-catering firm that now runs the food service, including Seventeen Seventeen, at DMA. But before that, the double-pierced, spiky haired, ex-Brit Barclay cooked in Plaza of the Americas' kitchen under Peter Schaffrath, and those who can remember that far back should remember Schaffrath as one of the few true top-notch European-trained chefs that have worked in Dallas. A master of nouvelle cuisine, he was under-appreciated while he was here, and Barclay remembers the German-born Schaffrath's kitchen as the epitome of organization and order (this is where the Brit-trained brain might be cued to remember the "Don't mention the war!" episode of Fawlty Towers, and Barclay does), at the same time lauding the experience.

Owning your own place is every chef's dream. And nightmare. It's come true for Barclay, but he's made a good deal with the devil. "After 20 years in the business," he says, "I just decided I'd take the things I liked about it and throw out the things I didn't." So Barclay's is only open for dinner five nights a week, Thursday through Monday, nights that Barclay feels are dead spots in Dallas for people in the restaurant's uptown neighborhood and for downtown hotel visitors. The limited hours mean that the restaurant has the same staff every night, so (theoretically, anyway) the teamwork should be polished. To put even more shine on it, Barclay pays his waitstaff more than the usual hourly wage and puts all the tips into the pot, to be divided among everyone, including the potwasher and the reservationist. That way, Barclay figures, it's in everyone's equal interest that the restaurant succeed.

He keeps things tight--there are only six or seven selections in each category on the menu--and it's prix fixe. Two courses cost $25, three cost $30, four cost $35. In Dallas, which has twisted Brillat-Savarin's maxim into "you are what you spend," the simple, unostentatious approach may be slow to catch on, but Barclay says most fine European restaurants do a fixed price menu, and that it's easier not only on the diner, but on the restaurant. He's got a keen idea about his costs, keeping an eye firmly and simultaneously on his restaurant's bottom line and his own quality time. His catering experience allows him to keep it tightly efficient, a necessity in this business of small margins. His goal is to serve about 80 dinners a night, which will not make Barclay's a gold mine, but will cover everything, put a little money in everyone's pocket, and keep everyone from getting fired. (He will also match your optional donation of two bits a table to donate to the charity of the month--currently the Neonatal Unit at Medical City Hospital--so you can see that he really does have a cooperative philosophy in the most capitalist of luxury businesses.)

Barclay's got a lot of creative ideas about running a restaurant, and fortunately, a lot of them are on the menu. All the first courses we tried were imaginatively mouth-watering. He does a Cinderella number on traditional British nonsense-named dishes like cod cakes with bubble and squeak (we asked, and were told that this is the noise the cabbage makes when it's cooking, though that sounds like a fairy tale to me). We expected earthy cottage food, but we were served a prissy, molded cake of tender cabbage leaves and potato surrounded by puffs of cod, fried in a frothy-light batter, with a sprightly sauce of tomato and basil that replaced American ketchup or traditional fish-and-chips vinegar.  

We'd never heard pate labeled this way, but as soon as we'd taken a bite of the chicken liver parfait, its ice cream-parlor name made sense. The mousse of chicken livers, pale as pink velvet, was as delicate, creamy, and light as frozen custard, and its gamey smoothness was leavened by the mass of jammy dark grape chutney we smeared on the brioche toasts with the mousse. Potato ravioli, foldovers of round pasta around a soft potato filling, swam with bits of mushrooms in a port jus, a clear, brown, winey sauce which had a dark resonance of dried fruit and so was perfectly garnished with bits of Stilton cheese. The fanciful "cappuccino" of seafood was served in a cappuccino cup, the lumps of scallops, shrimp, and fish barely immersed in a tomato broth that desperately needed salt.

Forks were flying during the first course--this food made us all greedy just because it was a little different for a change (no pasta, for instance, or pizza). Joking aside, the truth is that London is one of the great places to eat in Europe right now, which should be no surprise. The Brits have always been supporters of fine dining--London is where Escoffier made his name, after all, and the British palate's thirst for claret and port was a big factor in building those businesses. (By the way, Barclay's wine list is reasonably priced, and everything is available by the glass). Anton Mossimon, one of the world's great chefs, has raved about the quality of modern British foodstuffs, and Barclay made a wise decision when he decided to stay on native ground in his own restaurant.

Though entrees were not as exciting as first courses, they were good, reflecting the Empire's polyglot influence in dishes like the coffee- and spice-rubbed quail in apple brandy jus--the glossy, dark-skinned quail was surprisingly slick and pink inside, the spice massage's bare bitterness just cloaking the naked bird and stiffening the sweet taste of meat. It lay pooled in a clear brown sauce, like the ravioli, this time with brandy and apple as the sweet-tart duo instead of port and cheese.

Sauteed Dover soles, firm-fleshed fish in a brown soft crust, were topped with translucent chips of fried potato, like Lay's, and served with a tomato basil pistou that, being slightly insipid, too pale-tasting, was the dish's only flaw. Perhaps the kitchen should try another sauce if the tomatoes aren't fully ripe. Beef tenderloin with celeriac mashed potatoes came in a stilton-black olive sauce--yet another clear brown sauce, the sight of which made us wonder. How many variations can the kitchen make? Do these sauces actually start as the same base with the kitchen adding basil to one, port to another, according to the dish, in a kind of cook-by-numbers creativity? Even the ubiquitous grilled chicken (yes, white meat, but at least it was still juicy), served over a wet wad of British bread "sauce" (it must be the ancestor of American stuffing), with another chutney (cranberry orange), came in a clear brown sauce, with which we were not as deeply in love anymore. That's marriage for you.

Desserts, now, we could get excited about, each one excellent and each unique. The toffee banana crumble, a round, sugar-crusted pastry holding a molded disk of sliced bananas in caramel, rested in a moat of thick, sludgy, Cadbury's milk chocolate fudge. The English summer pudding, one of those thrifty cottage desserts originally based on leftover bread and fruit that's about to "go," was a mold of wet, bloody-red fruit, mostly berries, in a casing of thin bread slices and a red sauce. The three-lemon plate was a yellow fantasy holding a tiny lemon tart, a ball of white lemon sorbet delicately topped with threads of caramelized lemon peel, and a cute little butter ramekin filled with creamy lemon syllabub, the English version of the dessert universal we know better as sabayon. Even the chocolate tart, always the least promising sweet, turned out to be exceptional, a warm melt of crusty chocolate pie with a quenelle-shaped scoop of satin Devonshire cream instead of ice cream.

Nick Barclay might seem like a knucklehead--opening in a location most restaurateurs would want to exorcise first, ignoring the lunch crowd which many swear is the backbone of the Dallas restaurant business, only opening a few evenings a week, including Monday, when conventional wisdom says people don't eat out at the beginning of the week. But, remember Worldwide UK. Again, his plan seems to be paying off--the past three out of four Saturday nights, it's been hard to get a table at Barclay's. For British cuisine.  

Barclay's, The Restaurant, 2917 Fairmount, (214) 855-0700. Open for dinner Thursday-Monday 5:30 p.m.-11:30 p.m.

Chicken Liver Parfait, Cod Fritters, Tomato Basil Chutney
Potato Ravioli, Stilton Cheese, Port Wine Jus
Sauteed Dover Sole Filets, Crispy Potatoes, Tomatoes, Basil Pistou
Roasted Beef Tenderloin, Celeriac Potatoes, Stilton-Black Olive Jus
Grilled Chicken, British Bread Sauce, Cranberry Orange Chutney, Natural Jus

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