Second Coming

Seeing red: Café Patrique is drenched in color. Trust us.
Stephen P. Karlisch

Patrick Esquerré compares himself to God. Not in a megalomaniacal way but in an almost self-deprecating sense. Back in 1983, Esquerré successfully took an idea for a French bakery and café and multiplied it into more than 60 offspring sloughing off revenues topping $100 million. That first Le Madeleine was on Mockingbird Lane.

When one looks at his growth numbers in a vacuum, maybe Esquerré has a right to compare himself to God. Yet when he sold his stake in Le Madeleine in 1997, he left behind a company wincing from growing pains, afflictions that included sluggish sales, internal bickering and a lack of systems and training and development programs. His concept glistened. His company was a lusterless dynamo grinding itself into a puffy mound of fine corrosion.

But Esquerré got out. "I was retired, I think, for six days," he says. "God did it the other way. God worked six days, and then he retired the seventh day...But after six days, I realized that doing nothing in life is not something for me. So on the seventh day came an idea."

On the surface, Esquerré's idea looks like...well, it looks like Anna Nicole Smith dressed to the nines in a fire engine-red leather sundress, yellow spandex, high-heeled slippers with fur puffs on the toe straps and spicy shrimp tamales as bust-point tassels. There's so much high-voltage red in Café Patrique you almost feel as though you've stumbled into a dining room on Anna Nicole's lip. Red drips from everywhere: the walls, the artwork, the ductwork, the table bases and the counter in front of the kitchen, which looks like it was pieced together from the chop shop remains of a hot-wired fire engine. Other walls and accents are seared in kayak yellow. Esquerré says he chose these colors because they are the color of the sun--maybe, if the sun was made in Las Vegas instead of on God's fourth day of work.

But the most daring design movement in this takeout cafeteria is the bathrooms. The men's room is drenched in red with various phrases of wisdom scrawled in yellow concerning life, laughter and good eating, the kind of wisdom you might find in Chinese restaurants if Hallmark cornered the market on fortune cookies. Under the sink is a basketball hoop and net. "The toilet seats are mine," says Esquerré proudly. Letters, numbers and various punctuation marks are painted by hand, it seems, on the toilet seat and the toilet paper dispenser. I'm not sure what he's composed on the seat in the ladies' room, because I couldn't get anyone to go in there with a Polaroid.

Yet there really is a method to all this loudness. Esquerré says his quest with Café Patrique is to create inexpensive, creative gourmet food. The best way to do this, he contends, is through a café where people can sample "and then love the food" and want to take it home with them in sealed vacuum-packed wrappings. And that's basically what Café Patrique does. Everything is fresh. Everything is prepared in a kitchen off-site and shipped to the restaurant. Esquerré says that his model of a centrally located kitchen with a brood of satellite cafes (he intends to expand the concept) feeding off of it is more efficient and economical. Maybe he's learned a lot from his experience with Le Madeleine. To enhance the possibility for capturing profits, Esquerré has attached a gourmet market to his café, where everything from capers to wine can be bought and bagged. (The wine list in the restaurant has lots of imaginative bottlings at sinful prices. I mean, who ever heard of enjoying a bottle of decent syrah in a restaurant for $12.75?)

To ensure Café Patrique plies food that people will be infatuated with, Esquerré employed a small flock of hot and heavy chefs as consultants. These puffed toques include Antoine Westerman, who has earned three Michelin stars at his restaurant in Strasbourg, France; former Riviera chef David Holben; and ex-Chow Thai Pacific Rim chef Kenneth Mills. Also leaving a stamp on Esquerré's menu is that piece of Dallas glitterati Stephan Pyles. His creations are conspicuously called out on the menu: beef chili by Stephan Pyles; beef with skillet corn sauce by Stephan Pyles; spicy shrimp tamale by Stephan Pyles, and so on.

The muffin-like tamale was delicious. A disc of corn crust buttresses a smooth, delicate garlic custard that swaddles roasted tomato, onion relish and a single shrimp. Though the flavors merged brilliantly in all manner of spice, smokiness, acid and ubiquitous hints of sweetness, the corn crust was dry and gritty.

Esquerré and Pyles collaborated on the chicken tortilla soup, a lushly thick and zesty medium coddling scraps of avocado, jack cheese and chicken, the latter in surprising scarcity.

But Pyles' beef with skillet corn sauce is a perplexing orchestration. Though described as tender, our steak was spongy and stringy like a soggy round steak. Plus, the whole dish was bathed in a potent vinegary flavor, perhaps from the cabernet sauce, which gave the meat an alarming aftertaste. This entrée just came out all wrong, and knowing Pyles' near unmatched skills with Southwestern flavors, my guess is a mix-up occurred somewhere along the assembly line.

Esquerré says he's been a friend of Pyles for several years and that the one-time Star Canyon chef sits on the board of the foundation he set up--Gourmet Angel Foundation--to feed on Café Patrique's profits. Actually, Esquerré says the reason he launched the café was to generate resources for abused children. To that end he created the foundation, and it was positioned as a Café Patrique shareholder. "The idea was to create this business, make this business profitable, grow it, and then generate either profit or [some] other way to generate money to help this charity."

Esquerré finds implied synchronistic possibilities in the fact that Café Patrique opened the same day in 2001 as Le Madeleine did in 1983: February 26. So perhaps his stars are aligned for a blockbuster, as long as the red in his cafés doesn't infect the balance sheet.

But if this place is to last as long and slough off as many progeny as Le Madeleine, Esquerré will have to do something about his chickens. Both chicken entrées sampled tasted as though they were tortured in a microwave. Panang chicken, a piece of breast in a curry sauce, was dry, bland and unevenly cooked with pockets of chewy sponginess and pods of arid toughness. A side of red potatoes in a creamy spinach sauce rescued the state of this plate somewhat.

Chicken olive, a breast wading in a chunky tomato kalamata olive swill with bell pepper, was also little more than a rubber chicken gag with pockets of sponge. A side of wild rice clumped together like caramel balls.

Perhaps the most successful dish was the smoked salmon sandwich with a bouquet of assorted greens doused in a light vinaigrette. Served on a rosemary ciabatta (an Italian "slipper" bread), the sandwich was generously padded with strips of smooth, supple salmon. The strips harbored none of the troublesome stringiness that can sometimes afflict this fish preparation. The salmon shared the ciabatta interior with slices of tomato, onion, lettuce, fresh sprigs of dill and a smooth herb spread that surrounded and married the enclosed flavors.

The French onion soup looked like a claymation character, a football helmet topped with a toque. A flaky, airy puff pastry rose out of the mouth of a bowl like a Jiffy Pop foil dome. After the flaky, delicate dome was punctured, the soup could be reached, which quickly revealed itself to be something strenuously created to be inoffensive. There was no striking array of spice, no alluring seasonings, no sweet unctuous onion reduction. The presentation was beautiful, but other than that it was hard to pick up much of anything worth tossing down the digestive circuitry.

The pecan cheesecake with caramel sauce was better than most, though I would have preferred a thicker crust.

Despite some holes in the menu, holes that could easily be filled with some of the flair generously applied to the bathrooms, Café Patrique is a bistro with a lot of infectious energy. And when you consider what a value it is to explore its ample wine list, dining here can be a thrill-packed experience if exercised with a little discretion. Café Patrique is a comfortable casual spot with just enough quirkiness to keep you engaged. God willing.

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