There are two great things about Jaden's: The restaurant's Web site does not use the words "hip" and "urban." It doesn't use "trendy" or "chic" either, so this restaurant gazelles out of the starting blocks--at least on paper (though there is a Jaden's talking points memo that says it's "one of Dallas' newest hotspot dining experiences for Uptown clientele"). There's ingenuity, too. Jaden's is actually two separate buildings: a bar and smoking-ban loophole, where patrons can feel free to feed tobacco-company coffers without guilt, and a restaurant side, where the rest of us can eat without fear of being traumatized by someone stricken with secondhand-smoke hysteria.
Jaden's has other attributes as well. It cost roughly $4 million to build, all 11,000 square feet of it. An upper level houses two private dining rooms and a "contemporary interpretation of a wine cellar, featuring glass-enclosed wine storage." The dark, cave-like cellars of the past are eschewed, the prose boasts, in favor of a "bright airy space with large windows overlooking the outdoor patio." Hmm. Though perhaps démodé, there's a good reason why cellars have been dark and cave-like for centuries. Light--especially sunlight--turns most wine into Drano chaser. And judging by the attendance in the Jaden's dining room, they're going to have those bottles basking in "bright and airy" for a long time.
This is also weird. Because while a few dishes on this menu, performed by ex-Green Room chef James Pitzer, come off miserably, a handful of Jaden's creations rise to the top--mostly in the appetizer realm. "Head wedge" comes in one of those huge white bowls, its base slightly off center so the contents are angled toward the diner. The head--a layering of crisp, blemish-free lettuce leaves--is carpet-bombed with blue cheese crumbles and cherry tomatoes. What tips it out of the ordinary is a few rust-red spiced English walnuts. The interplay of the nutty sting with the piquant grip of the blue cheese is fascinating.
Foie gras $16
Leek potato soup $5
Crab cakes $9
Head wedge $7
Mahimahi tacos $12
BBQ prawns $21
Duck confit $26
Garlic tenderloin $30
Pitzer also takes on seafood clichés by weaving a couple of innovative strands into the fabric. They're called lump crab scallion cakes: Three little crab cylinders, rising from the plate like wine corks posted on their blunt ends, are near a slithering sprawl of green and white strands. The cakes are moist and supple with precious little binding--the stuff that all too often becomes a cost-cutting measure, making the things hardly worth the trouble. Because the binding is minimal, the cakes fragment when pressured, crab flakes tumbling away from the cylinder. The meat is clean and sweet with the scallion coils adding a whispered sting. The fennel slaw is another thing entirely. It crunches, and it's seasoned in a briny dressing that cleans and wakens the palate should it grow listless from crab fatigue.
You can snag your sleeve on the turnip, leek and potato soup and be better for it. It's infested with things called cayenne shoestrings: defined lines near the surface, hazy curves as they twist and go deep. It's smooth, savory and lush.
But then things take odd turns, skid in the gravel, blow tires and end up in the ditch. Odd turn: Long Island duck confit. Sweet and fierce spices struggle and sweat in the bowl bottom in the form of black bean stir-fried rice (spice) and orange peanut sauce (sweet). Black beans are tiny, almost lentil-like in posture. The duck itself is almost an afterthought. It isn't highly seasoned, or crisped, or intensely rich. Just a bunch of joints and bones that get lost in the underpinnings.
Skid in the gravel: seared Hudson Valley foie gras with butternut squash puree, collard greens and an intense black currant port reduction. Take a look at this. Does it make sense? Is there a way to tease some meaning from this array? Perhaps, but only with an eraser. Foie gras is a deliciously rich food that works best with minimal interference. So why is it that so many chefs feel compelled to clutter it up and get in the way of its magnificence? Do they feel small in its presence, compelling them to cover it with their own signatures? All good foie gras needs is a few inconspicuous greens to freshen the palate between every two bites and a fruit presence of some sort (usually this part is painfully overdone). That and the grit of kosher salt. Think it needs more? Suggest diners order a glass of smoky Madeira with their liver. Your wine list has that, doesn't it? (Note: It's one of the few wines that can survive a wine terrarium.) The problem here is that the foie gras serving is so puny--respectably prepared though it is--that it becomes an afterthought, much like the duck.
In the ditch with blown tires: BBQ tiger prawns. Does size matter? These things sure seem to think so. They look like they were nursed on male enhancement treatments...ones that work. These are thick. They coil tightly, promising sweet succulence and an alluring whiff of tempered tide pool. The pinkish shell segments taper off into rosy tail fans charred on the edges. Bite into these things, and the meat instantly goes from firm to gummy--and with good reason. They're dreadfully undercooked. Peer into the center after cutting--or worse, after biting--and the meat goes from milky opacity to gray translucence. After this, does it matter that these things came with collard greens, grilled goat cheese grit cake or rosemary butter sauce?
In a way, the Jaden's dining room is the appropriate venue for such menu schizophrenia. The interior is Spartan gray and silver, pipes snaking through the ceiling, reddish wooden baffles covering the pipes as they reach deeper into the room where the tables rest. It's an understated, modern elegance, one that neither warms nor intrigues--the perfect empty vessel for dynamic culinary chemistry.
And chemistry wasn't a problem with the garlic-rubbed tenderloin. It was near perfectly prepared: grill marks scorching a gray-tawny surface that hides a rosy interior. Garlic is more of a passionate conversation than an unruly shout, allowing the meat's richness to come through. No, the problem here is one of texture. The meat is coarse and stringy, like a piece of tongue that's been dried and frayed, though it bleeds a good flow of juice into the Peruvian lima beans and balsamic wilted spinach. Mahimahi tacos, wrapped in a supple tortilla, were unremarkable--neither resoundingly good nor disappointing. Yet the lentils spread on the plate were dull and left to fend for themselves. Tamarind glazed baby back ribs with bok choy stir fry work from start to finish. Ribs are chewy, succulent and superbly seasoned. Bok choy fringe worked wonderfully in this context.
But does Jaden's work? It's of two minds. There's the head wedge. And then there are those shrimp. Risky. 4425 N. Central Expressway. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$$
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