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Skyscraper chow

At first glance, the Yorkshire Club is a confusing venue. Situated on the 48th floor of the Republic Towers downtown, it's spacious, with floor-to-ceiling windows and a long hallway decorated with original sketches leading to the dining room. Its whitewashed wood paneling and brick walls hold a few abstract paintings that would look swell under a black light. The tables are simple, with institutional-looking white and green coverings and folding whitewashed wood chairs with padded seats. The ambiance feels transient, like a setting for a tented back-yard wedding or a conventioneers' lunch in a hotel banquet room. At any moment you expect them to pack it all up and bring on the Bluebonnet Pug Dog Club board of directors slide show.

What kind of atmosphere is this? Is this a restaurant or a rent-a-mixer domicile? "There's nothing that we're trying to create with this space," answers chef Zachary Kellerman. "It mostly just centers around my food. We've got a great view up here...there's no serious concept that's trying to be put on." Forget that there's probably not much they could do with this space anyway, as it's open to the public only for lunch on weekdays--the rest of the time it's used primarily for private functions. Reviewers, and to a far lesser extent diners, get preoccupied with the intentions behind food and the concept driving the setting in which it is swallowed. They forget that fine cuisine served in a room that doesn't smell bad or look like a Liberace costume is often wholly appropriate. And while Dallas isn't exactly the Florence of Texas when it comes to cityscapes, it's hard to imagine a decor ensemble more interesting than a commanding view of the north and west ends of the downtown skyline.

But the food, not the view, must make these Spartan digs sing. And for the most part, this menu slips in the necessary notes. Kellerman has constructed a simple, understated menu with a few Asian and Southwestern hues at exceptionally reasonable prices. Things strike an alluring pitch at the outset and maintain an ascending curve right through dessert with only a few pockets of jarring turbulence along the way.

Cream of leek soup, a soup of the day with chunks of potato and bits of Canadian bacon, carrots, onions, and peppers floating in a smooth, lightly creamed chicken stock broth was both subtle and well layered with flavor. An appetizer of red chili garlic tempura calamari on Asian spiced mustard greens, however, required some thought. The corn starch-based batter seasoned with red pepper flakes and fresh garlic was light and airy, and the calamari was remarkably silky and tender. But there were pockets of gumminess in the coating, and the bed of mustard greens with bits of bacon harbored a perfumy aroma and a sweet, spicy intensity that, by no means off-putting, required some getting used to. A ramekin of dipping sauce, pureed red peppers and tomatoes infused with cilantro, was potently bright, fresh, and mouth-sparkling clean--a dramatically appropriate accompaniment to this deep-fried substance.

Crispy chicken spring rolls encasing shreds of carrot, cabbage, and chicken were on the greasy side. But the innards came alive with a slathering of dipping sauce borne of sweet rice vinegar, mint, roasted peanuts, soy, and a Thai garlic chili sauce.

And it wasn't just the appetizers that had their potential shortcomings effectively neutralized by well-orchestrated sauces. The molasses-grilled pork tenderloin was served overdone, flirting with toughness. But rich, engaging dribbles of pork loin pan drippings injected with cranberry au jus rescued the thing, infusing it with moisture and savoriness. A side of moist, creamy sweet potato croquettes, hush-puppy-like balls of sweet potato mixed with flour and nutmeg before a roll in bread crumbs and a swim in deep fry, completed the composition deftly.

The sauce thing continued to defy shortcomings with the jalapeno-grilled tuna on Southwestern shrimp corn chowder. Veneered with fresh pureed jalapenos cut with a little brown sugar, the tuna was slightly overcooked and void of melting tenderness. No matter. The dazzlingly rich chowder rendered from bacon and seafood shells pulled it out of its malaise. This chowder concoction is simply one of the finest excuses for a sauce I've ever tasted.

The buttermilk pan-fried double chicken breast with herb-whipped potatoes and bourbon pan gravy, however, seemed a pointless culinary exercise. The chicken was slightly dry, and the batter was bland and pasty. The pan gravy had pronounced salt and pepper flavors, but not much else. And this limp clucker was delivered on a bed of rice instead of the whipped potatoes (they ran out) with a thyme, rosemary, oregano, parsley, and basil treatment. While the rice was perfectly prepared, it didn't do much to show off the dish, even if there wasn't much to highlight. Plus, being informed of outages after the fact, rather than at a time when you have an opportunity to make adjustments if you choose, is inexcusably shoddy.

 

Perhaps the finest example of Kellerman's restrained inventiveness, though, is the chicken pot pie, an immensely tasty, monstrous thing encapsulated in a molded sage crust. It's loaded with sauteed onions, carrots, celery, peas, roasted chicken, and roasted corn all suspended in a ripe, rich cream gravy thickened with corn starch.

The white chocolate custard and cocoa wafer sandwich proved a tight finish for a high-altitude lunch at Yorkshire Club. Not overloaded with sweetness, the crisp wafer contrasted flawlessly with the firm, creamy white chocolate custard.

The Yorkshire Club serves the quintessentially appropriate metroplex business lunch because it flies in the face of every Dallas cliche ever generated. It's unpretentious, unflashy, and refreshingly inconspicuous. It's a venue centered on nothing but good, interesting food at down-to-earth prices, even if it is stuck up in the clouds.

Tequila is a peculiar beverage. Not in that it's made from fermenting and distilling the sweet sap of the spiny, cactus-like agave plant, but that it's considered a beverage at all. Tequila is, in reality, high-performance jet fuel, and if massive quantities could be produced economically, the stuff would no doubt be used to power every combat aircraft in the U.S. arsenal. Look closely at the typical practitioner of the lick (salt), shoot (tequila), and bite (lime) method of delivering straight tequila into the body. Tell me after three shots the shooter's face doesn't resemble that of a fighter jock absorbing inhuman G-force loads. Add a few more, and the tequila aficionado's eyeballs swell to five times their original size and the victim flails about like a pilot locked in an emergency ejection.

That tequila is no ordinary drink was brought home to me some years ago while attending a conference in Puerto Rico given by a major New York publishing house. It was a stodgy firm, the kind where, if you wore suits that deviated from khaki or navy blue you were immediately suspected of cheating on your expense reports and drag-racing your company car on weekends. The conference ended with a small party in a hospitality suite that quickly evolved into a lick, shoot, and bite fest.

Things eventually deteriorated to such an extent that one of the executives (he was in charge of coloring-book marketing and development) was carving out lines of salt on the bar with a credit card in an effort to transform the lick leg of the ritual into a snort. After a few of these, he screamed, "Let's do the turtle." He then belly-flopped onto the floor and scooted across its surface in a slow, reptilian crawl, pulling his limbs into his body and his head under his blazer every few feet like a turtle in intermittent distress. The next morning found his head heavy, his nose red and runny, and his career prospects in doubt.

This is why it's hard for me to take tequila seriously, though I've never considered it anything but an extremely serious drink. It's to spirits appreciation what jacked-up rear ends and loud car stereos are to serious motoring, or so I assumed. Tequila is actually a beverage amenable to concerted connoisseurship. In fact, Mattito's Cafe Mexicano takes it so seriously, it has devoted itself to the stuff, offering a huge selection of ultra-premium brands. It boasts having the "world's largest tequila collection," stocking more than 125 tequilas--or every one legally available in Texas. The lengthy list includes anejo tequilas, aged in oak barrels for one to three years and imparting a smooth richness without the typical tequila bite; reposado tequilas, mellowed by a two-month to one-year stay in oak barrels; mezcal, a rougher spirit also from the agave plant that's distilled once while tequila is distilled twice; silver tequila, which has no aging; and amber-hued gold tequilas, with color imparted from oak aging or additives.

Premium tequilas--which are made from 100 percent blue agave and can cost more than $500 per bottle (real tequila must be at least 51 percent agave)--are savored at room temperature in a brandy snifter to concentrate the rich oak aromas. And Mattito's offers an engaging, sexy setting to explore these top-shelf spirits with a curvaceous, marble-topped bar showcasing rows of colorful, odd-shaped tequila bottles shimmering on a delicately lit back bar. The entire room is clean, crisp, and spacious, with a concrete floor holding wood-plank inlays, wrought-iron seating with cushions tied to the back rails, stucco-like padded booths, and faux columns. The walls are speckled with colorful paintings, carved wooden plaques, and in one dining area, deep, lit alcoves holding brass sculptures. Manager Paco Alarcon says the ambiance of the restaurant mirrors the more sophisticated eateries in Mexico City.

 

Unfortunately, while the tequila focus and setting mesh into a smooth, premium experience, the menu is locked in the lick, shoot, and bite mode. An appetizer of wild mushroom quesadillas--sauteed onions and shitake and white mushrooms thickly folded with jack and cotija cheeses in grilled flour tortillas--proved a good starter, offering a rich, smoky gooeyness with a breath of earthen flavors. But dig deeper into the menu, and you'll discover Mattito's takes its tequila infatuation a little too seriously, forcing it into service as a marinade. It's a technique that amounts to little more than culinary harassment, needling the entrees with tequila's forward, off-putting bitter bite. The tequila chicken, a grilled breast topped with a dab of guacamole butter, was moist and tender, but the marinade killed any hope of meaningful flavor engagement. A side of slightly overcooked rice and presentable black beans speckled with goat cheese helped a bit. But a runny salad with diced jicama floating in a cold chipotle, orange juice, and olive oil soup proved unappealing, giving this engagingly crunchy, nutty root vegetable a poor backdrop (according to Alarcon, the recipe is to be reworked).

This dissonance was amplified with the fish. The swordfish tacos, subbed with chunks of tequila-assaulted halibut, were rolled in thick, cumbersome corn tortillas with salsa verde. The fish was sweet and supple, but the tacos could have used some lettuce, onion, and tomato filler to add fresh crunch and tang as well as to neutralize the tequila.

But even without tequila, some of the dishes had a hard time keeping their footing. Though a relative value at $13.95, the filet mignon was chewy, mealy, and void of fresh meat richness. The only worthy flavor was provided by a light, tangy chipotle sauce. A side of grilled potatoes, onions, and bell pepper were hearty and flavorful, but the bed of spinach supporting the filet was overcooked and bitter.

By far the best entree sampled, the grilled baja shrimp, bravely strolled the edge between balanced richness and choking cholesteric overkill. Fat, glistening shrimp are stuffed with Monterey cheese and bits of jalapeno then swaddled in thick slices of bacon before they're tossed on the grill. It yielded a sweet, smoky knob of flesh with pleasing creaminess. The only drawback to the assembly--at times producing a mild revulsion--was that the bacon was fatty and undercooked, rendering some pieces stringy and slimy. A dessert of flan, however, capped things off amicably with a firm but smooth, creamy texture and a rich burnt-sugar flavor edged with a lime tang.

Departing from its Oak Lawn sibling only in its arty, sophisticated decor, the Addison version of this Mexican cafe, opened this past spring, will serve as a blueprint for an expansion of the restaurant in other states. And the tequila emphasis--far more successful in Addison than in Oak Lawn--coupled with the ambiance is vigorously attractive. But the menu needs some honing to match the curiosity-piquing sparkle of its bar focus.

The Yorkshire Club. 325 North St. Paul, Tower II, 48th Floor; (214) 871-2001. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Open for happy hour Monday-Thursday 5-8 p.m.

Mattito's. 5290 Beltline Road (at Montfort), Addison; (972) 503-8100. Open Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.

Readers with comments may e-mail Mark Stuertz at markstz@juno.com.

The Yorkshire Club:
Crispy chicken spring roll $4.75
Jalapeno-grilled tuna $11.25
Chicken pot pie $7.50
White chocolate custard $3.75

Mattito's Cafe Mexicano:
Wild mushroom quesadillas $7.95
Baja shrimp $16.95
Swordfish tacos $12.95
Filet Mignon $13.95


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