Saint Ann: Pretty People in a Pretty Room Eating Pretty Awful Food
How you feel about Saint Ann may depend upon how you feel about Jägermeister ice cream drizzled with a Red Bull reduction.
As that sugary debacle demonstrates, the new Uptown restaurant has a firm grip on its young and trendy clientele. Saint Ann is designed to appeal to diners who are disappointed when a hostess offers to seat them immediately, since that surely means the stylish crowds have congregated elsewhere. "The wait's two, three hours on the weekends," a bartender recently assured a drinker who wondered why every table wasn't taken early on a Monday night.
The team behind Saint Ann understands its perfectly appointed customers have come to strut, and generously gives them the time and space to do so. The space is stunning: Only longtime Dallasites and eaters in the habit of Googling their dining destinations could guess it once housed a Catholic school. (The menu's design provides a subtle clue, but it's an Olympic leap from noting faux ruled paper to figuring out the 1927 building served as the city's first school for Hispanic students.)
The dining room is all wood and shiny surfaces. There's even a trompe l'oeil trick of flooring running alongside the marble-topped bar, where a deep, pebbled terrarium sits beneath spotless glass. It must be disorienting after a few Jägermeisters, but the element nicely echoes the very pretty patio that's bound to become a summer destination. Outfitted with an attractive central bar, strings of white lights and an array of slatted wooden tables and chairs, the exterior scene would make a splashy centerfold for an outdoor furniture catalog.
The Saint Ann renovation couldn't have come cheap, but the developers wisely resisted the temptation to decorate in a way that would flatter their achievements at the expense of the restaurant's guests. The room's honeyed lighting and white oak color scheme help diners to look as beautiful as they believe themselves to be.
But diners have had a tougher time making sense of Saint Ann. The restaurant certainly looks swanky, and there are ritzy dishes like steak and scallops on the menu. But service is consistently abysmal, and as the food inches up the fancy ladder, it becomes more and more horrifying. While the prices are frighteningly reasonable (What sort of scallops can a restaurant afford to unload for $15 a portion?), it's hard to make a case for a nice night out at Saint Ann.
And therein lies the problem. The displays of samurai armor, borrowed from the museum that shares the building, and the guests clad in designer suits and dresses are terribly misleading. Saint Ann isn't a nice restaurant. It's a sports bar with a very impressive floor.
Perhaps the preponderance of televisions should have tipped me off to Saint Ann's true identity: They're scrunched in every corner of the otherwise elegant dining room. Or maybe I should have fully thought through what it means when there's a cheap burger, cheese pizza and ranch dressing on a menu.
Instead, I reached the conclusion painfully, after suffering through a series of miserable dishes. I gather other diners have endured the same ordeal. But you, you who weren't swept up in the buzz that made Harwood Street sway when the restaurant opened in early November, can be spared such hardship by ordering a sandwich.
Easily the best thing I sampled at Saint Ann was a French dip sandwich, featuring loads of salty beef bits on a soft white roll. It wasn't flawless: The horseradish sauce could have been more generously applied, and the accompanying sweet-potato fries were ghastly. The flavor of sweet potatoes, it seems, has been confused with the marshmallow-forward flavor of sweet-potato casserole: If Willy Wonka got into the fry business, he'd probably produce something like this cloying concoction.
So I stuck with the sandwich, which a server told me he ate two or three times a week. I didn't ask his work schedule, but I'm guessing he eats it almost every night he's at the restaurant, since I couldn't find anything else as appealing as the shaved beef.
A few dishes were beset by small problems: An onion soup was saddled with too much pepper and too little texture. The requisite floating slice of French bread wasn't toasted, so it started out spongy and got spongier, making it impossible to politely devour with a spoon. And the crowning layer of cheese, which should have been broiled to a burbling gold, was just barely melted.
I liked a garlicky hummus, but didn't know what to make of the novelty fried pita wedges that came with it. While I wholeheartedly support a restaurant's right to fry whatever fits in the fryer, the results tasted quite a bit like funnel cake, an odd foundation for a grilled salmon dinner.
Salmon shows up twice on the menu. Among the priciest items listed is an appetizer of smoked salmon served with capers, onions and a crushed hard-boiled egg. It's a basic brunch plate and unobjectionable. It would certainly pair well with vodka, which I'm guessing is the spirit of choice at Saint Ann.
The real trouble comes when the kitchen's called upon to do more than chop onions and roll up smoked fish. When I visited, basic skills like boiling and grilling seemed to elude whomever was on the line.
Soggy scallops were served burrowed into a sticky, lumpy heap of grits that had a weirdly smooth consistency most diners would associate with mashed potatoes. Nobody could be persuaded to eat much of it.
On our server's advice, we ordered a linguine with chicken and lemon pesto cream sauce, a humdrum-sounding dish I probably wouldn't have considered without prodding. The entrée turned out to be worse than I feared: The pasta was so overcooked that I suspect I could have patted the whole mushy mass into a noodle snowball. The sauce was badly over-salted. Still, I can excuse issues of timing and seasoning. I'm far less forgiving when I find a hair in my chicken.
I typically wouldn't mention finding hair in my food, since it's rarely clear whom to hold responsible. A stray hair could have belonged to the server, or—more likely—the eater. That's not what happened at Saint Ann. I couldn't immediately extract the hair from my mouth because the chicken was attached to it like a fish on a line: Pulling the hair out of my mouth would mean exposing already-chewed meat. Which I did, allowing me and my steel-stomached tablemates to discover the long human hair was cooked into the chicken. Although I had little doubt a cook was at fault, I swung by the open kitchen to check out the headgear situation. On that particular night, nobody was wearing a head covering (on another visit, one of the five cooks I saw was wearing a white ball cap with a Texas state flag patch).
The hair situation was the second signal that Saint Ann's kitchen doesn't really care. The first was a "baseball sirloin," a steak cut to mimic a filet mignon. The sirloin's billed as "steak and frites" on the strength of a handful of scraggly potato sticks. Fine: At $20, maybe fries are too much to ask. The real issues concerned the steak, which I'd ordered rare. The steak, the color of a Cleveland winter sky, was cooked medium well. Since a sour smell was emanating from the meat, I wondered whether it was overcooked for my safety. That's not a worry any paying diner should have.
Saint Ann looks great. The televisions are crystal clear. If someone invited me there to drink a beer and watch a game, I'd probably go, especially if it was warm enough for us to sit outside. I just wouldn't get anything to eat.
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