Service with a frown

One of the things I love most about dining out is excellent service. I prize that coddled, back-to-the-womb feeling of knowing that someone cares enough to strive for that 20 percent gratuity by brushing the bread crumbs from my wingtips or wiping the burgundy dribbles from my chin.

Service: It's the element that, when absent, we critics, in our perennially indignant rants of overweening culinary self-righteousness, seem to whine about endlessly. "Go ahead. Serve me an E. coli infested burger crawling with ants," we say. "But saturate me so thoroughly with your pampering gestures of graciousness that when your menu does me in, your royal treatment will convince Elton John to record a cheap, tear-jerking retread of one of his sappy '70s melodies on my behalf." These are just some of the things we critics say.

And somewhere down deep in Mel Hollen's heart, I know he believes service is a swell thing to strive for, a strand of fundamentalist dining dogma. That's why I have to believe the service I experienced at Mel Hollen's Bar and Fine Dining was an aberration; either that or I was right smack in the middle of a training video on how to turn your dining guests into indignant postal employees.

It started when my companions and I were seated in one of Mel Hollen's romantic little private dining booths cordoned with burgundy-hued velvet curtains. A lot of traffic was sweeping past our cozy little hovel, and it moved swiftly--servers, busboys, guests, even Mel himself--for a full 15 minutes without anyone noticing we were there. And I'm convinced we could have stayed in that little dining closet rent-free for weeks without so much as a "Can I help you?" if I hadn't been able to flag down a busboy in mid-stride.

It was several more minutes before a server came by in a huff and said "I didn't even know you were here. They went and switched tables on me." So here we were in Mel Hollen's Bar and Fine Dining, and after nearly half an hour, the only thing we were served was an excuse.

But after we digested his explanation, service was suddenly attentive, if a little poorly paced. Then things started to get rushed. At one point, one of my companions was contentedly nibbling her salad when our server delivered the entrees and began to slowly shove her salad out of her immediate reach with a plate of food. He didn't stop until we protested. He stopped pushing and left her entree half in front of her and half off to her left side.

Yet the most interesting example of Mel Hollen's avant-garde interpretation of excellent service occurred when our server began clearing the table. In his zeal to remove our dishes, he dumped a small cup of soy sauce in front of my companion. She flinched and watched as the dark liquid spread, threatening her personal space. "Don't worry," our server said. "The table covering is thick. It'll absorb it."

We, of course, thought he was kidding. No server could be so socially stunted that they imagine a diner would think it swell to eat dessert over a huge, aromatic wet brown spot directly in front of them. But after several minutes without a sign of his return, we concluded he was indeed the nitwit we imagined he couldn't be. We were forced to flag yet another busboy and instructed him to return with several napkins.

He delivered them, but seemed confused as to what to do. So we pressed one into the wet spot, making cute little soy handprints into the clean white cloth, and this seemed to click on a light somewhere. From there, he mopped up as best he could and covered the spot with layers of fresh napkins--fine dining at its best, the kind that transforms the potential 20 percent tip into a priceless bit of advice: "Consider the postal exam."

Unfortunately, the food, while adequate, had nowhere near the star power to pull the dining experience out of the cellar. The restaurant is patterned after an old San Francisco restaurant, and the menu is heavy on seafood available broiled, sauteed, or pan-fried. There are also steaks, lamb chops, veal, chicken, and seafood pasta dishes.

Pepper seared ahi tuna, thick slices of chilled flesh with a putty-hued exterior moving in a gradient of deepening pinks up to its deep rose interior, was plopped atop a bed of pickled cabbage. The fresh, silky fish came with a cup of that infamous soy-ginger dipping sauce seasoned with a little brown sugar to tone down the salty intensity of the soy.

But the dish wasn't freshly prepared. The plate was cold, indicating that it had been prepped and put into a cooler, which was painfully evident in both the pepper-corn crust--mushy instead of crunchy--and the accompanying pair of cold wontons, which were lifeless instead of freshly crisp.

With generous fragments of cheese, the sliced tomatoes with sweet onions and blue cheese crumbles had a rather stingy portion of tomato slices. But the sharp, tangy sting of cheese contrasted well with the slightly sweet, juicy tomatoes.

Veal piccata was slathered in a satiny sauce with a lemon surge that was smooth and appropriate instead of clumsy and out-of-control. Thinly sliced, sauteed zucchini was sprinkled over the top. But the seasoning on the thin slice of veal itself was underpowered, leaving the meat a little too bland and lifeless. A scattering of capers surprisingly provided no intensity whatsoever.

A pile of crab claws in a butter-garlic-white wine sauce sprinkled with Parmesan cheese proved dismal. The tiny claws seemed overcooked, dry, sinuous, and virtually sapped of any trace of sweet succulence. And at $19.95, this dish seemed excessively priced. A side of beautifully sauteed zucchini, yellow squash, bell pepper, onion, and celery did little to reverse the flabby first impression.

Desserts took the crab-claw price ball and sprinted with it. Fresh seasonal berries, a simple sundae dish stuffed with sliced, juicy strawberries and topped with whipped cream, was good. But at eight bucks, the price-to-flavor ratio was ridiculous.

Creme brulee a la Vincent (as in Vincent Price) was a wimpy affair with a pasty--rather than creamy--custard and a thin, barely discernible burnt sugar crust. And the whole thing was chilled, indicating that it was prepped and tossed into a cooler.

The menu makes a big deal about the restaurant's great drinks. Served in martini glasses, Mel's signature drinks include the martini, margarita, Manhattan, Rob Roy, whiskey sour, daiquiri, and old-fashioned. But the San Francisco connection, a blend of Remy VSOP Fine Champagne Cognac and Grand Marnier under the warm drinks menu, was served cool.

With selections exclusively from California except for two French champagnes, Mel Hollen's wine list is adequate, if unimaginative. It's heavily weighted with Chardonnays--not a surprise given the seafood emphasis on the menu, though other whites often work better--while the red section emphasizes the Cab/Merlot paradigm.

Far better than the fumbling execution experienced at dinner, service at lunch exhibited adequate attentiveness and professionalism, though this could be due more to the empty dining room than any heightened sense of hospitality. Yet the food struggled to keep pace. Alderwood-smoked salmon, a chunk of caramel-hued fish with a creme fraiche-horseradish dipper and a scattering of capers and chopped onions, was far too dry and tough, and a little slim on flavor. But its fresh field greens with a slightly sweet vinaigrette added liveliness to this dull assembly.

Sea bass with lemon butter had a paper-thin sauteed crust. The fish was buttery-rich, flaky, moist, and firm with an engaging, mildly sweet flavor. A side of sauteed vegetables was, as is usual here, nearly flawless.

Carved from top sirloin, Mel Hollen's English dip, a version of the French dip, was stacked with thick slices of beef in a roll slathered with horseradish sauce. The slices were a bit too thick for my taste and proved dry and chewy, making that cup of au jus work awfully hard. A side of crosscut chips had freshness problems: flat-tasting and pliable without a crisp snap on the bite.

Among the most famous restaurateurs in the metroplex and one of the founders of Cafe Pacific, the Double Eagle Steak House, and the defunct Atlantic Cafe, Mel Hollen has been involved in more than 100 restaurant launchings in the United States and Europe over the years. At one time, he was president of special projects for Hard Rock Cafe.

With partner Perry Moore Jr., he opened Mel Hollen's in December 1996 in the Addison space that was once home to Lexi's and the Capitol. Since then, little has changed save the addition of a piano in the bar, lunch service with brunch items, and the discontinuation of his policy of providing female patrons menus sans prices.

Hollen says he's going for a San Francisco neo-classical look with his restaurant, with darkly stained Greek columns and arches around the dining room, polished marble floors that give way to rich, red-patterned carpeting, and a few art deco touches. The revolving door at the front is from the Roosevelt Hotel in New York, and the rare alabaster light fixtures are from old smoking rooms in Denmark and Belgium. Cherubs, alleged replicas of the ones hovering on the menu from Lasserre restaurant in Paris, are painted on the dome in the center of the ceiling over the main dining area.

It's all quite an impressive stab at an Old World, urban dining experience. And the look and the feel of the place work well. But there's a little too much lacking in execution here to make it worth the trip, unless you only want to have a drink in the handsome bar and listen to the piano. Just don't spill anything.

Mel Hollen's Bar & Fine Dining. 15175 Quorum Drive, Addison; (972) 233-8669. Open for Lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Open for dinner Monday-Thursday 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Closed Sunday. $$$-$$$$.


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