Slipping and sliding

One of the best things about dining at Pearl Street Bistro is the surrounding scenery. Tucked downtown in the Plaza of the Americas and occupying the space that was once home to Trattoria Amore, Pearl Street is within shouting distance of the plaza's ice rink.

Ice rinks are standard equipment these days in many public spaces. NorthPark Center slipped one in a tent next to the parking lot this winter. The Galleria has one right in the mall. Even Prestonwood--that ghost town of a mall that will soon be razed to make room for more high-rise office buildings--has an ice rink.

I'd forgotten how much fun it is to watch other people slide around like bumper cars with shorted wiring. We saw a sinuous fortyish fellow in his underwear twirl, skate backward, and finish his Lutzes on the seat of his boxer shorts. Another gentleman dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans leaned hard into his potbelly, which was crowned with a belt buckle the size of a hubcap. His gut provided natural cover for his feet--a good thing, as I don't think he would have been able to concentrate if he could have seen the spastic toe- and heel-work happening beneath him. A tiny girl in a gold lame tutu was getting a firm lecture from her coach, a guy who looked as though he couldn't pull a pair of skates past his corns and bunions.

The only drawback to this whole episode was that you had to dine to the same music that bathed the rink, which after a few probings of the menu actually proved appropriate. With French doors, green patterned carpet, green textured paneling, yellow walls in rag-attacked textures, tables cloaked in white with numbers printed on strips of paper sandwiched between the tablecloth and the glass tabletops, Pearl Street is to bistros what Vanilla Ice was to rap.

Pearl Street is a modestly priced, casual Italian restaurant with mix-and-match pasta (choice of pasta, sauce, and meats), plus veal, beef, chicken, and seafood creations. Executive Chef Robert Brown says plans call for a transformation of Pearl Street's menu into what he describes as "Italian-eclectic," a collection of mostly Italian dishes supplemented with other ethnic cuisine. From there the menu will be regularly reshuffled some three times a year.

My first indication that this was going to be more of an assembly-line feed rather than a presentation of good, cheap Italian grub struck with the delivery of the bruchetta. Instead of toasted bread, its core was bland, stunted, pontoon-like dinner rolls around a glass dish filled with chopped Roma tomatoes accessorized with basil, red onion, and Parmesan. The chewy, halved rolls were brushed with butter that tasted as if it had been parked next to something suffering from a case of refrigerator BO. While this was not the only problem with the menu, it thankfully represented its deepest plunge.

Pearl Street's house salad, an arrangement of fresh lettuce and juicy tomato, was dressed in lively, clean vinaigrette with none of the off-putting sweetness that sometimes infects these dressings. The house-made minestrone, however, was blase--slightly tangy, yet flat with an off metallic flavor on the finish.

Oblong meat-filled ravioli were slathered in a fresh, brisk marinara. But the thick ravioli--claimed to be fresh--were gummy and filled with mealy meat paste.

Gambari fra diavolo, shrimp cooked in a spicy red sauce served over linguini, had dry shrimp with a slightly soapy taste struggling in a sauce of marinara jolted with chili peppers and herbs. But the sauce had none of the lively dimension found in the ravioli coating and had precious little to offer other than spice heat.

The linguini alla carbonara had al dente pasta in a filmy sauce rendered from a heavy cream reduction. There was little taste to break free from these textural shackles, plus, it was speckled with stuff that resembled chopped pancake-house bacon rather than authentic pancetta.

Pearl Street's vitello (veal) piccata seems to suffer from the same afflictions that decimate this dish more often than not: less-than-fresh meat in a sauce painfully out of whack. Traditionally made from veal pan drippings, butter and lemon, the piccata sauce should be satiny smooth. This was, but a surge of lemon knocked the flavor hopelessly off course and all but crushed the taste of the meat, which was perhaps a blessing, because what peeked through was off.

The wine list was underwhelming, even for a modest place like this. By-the-glass offerings were limited to a Chilean Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet, with no Chianti or Pinot Grigio to complement the Italian fare, although there were a few Italian wines by the bottle.

Friendly, if painfully disjointed and distracted, Pearl Street's service is hard to understand. On one visit, our server slipped away just as we were in the midst of a dinner order. She didn't return for several minutes and asked us where we left off. (Wasn't she writing this down?) On another, our zuppa di cozze appetizer (steamed mussels) was never delivered. Plus, the staff seemed oblivious to the numerous tables left disheveled long after diners had departed.

Owned by Tom Murphy and Mark Schneider, whose holding company operates cafeteria-style corporate restaurants such as MarketPlace and Dewey's in the Park West office complex on LBJ Freeway, Pearl Street is the first table-service venture for the partnership. Unfortunately, cheapness, rather than exquisiteness executed inexpensively, flusters the luster of this pearl.

A dilemma reviewers often face is whether to forestall scrutiny during an operation's transition (such as a menu restructuring or a chef change) or during a particularly long ramp-up period after opening, or to go ahead with a critique. My own philosophy is that if a venue decides to serve customers when it's not firing on all cylinders while charging full prices, it's often time for closer inspection, not reason to back off. In fairness, though, the transition should be noted and put into context with a follow-up visit if necessary.

This is the situation in which Cedar Street finds itself; it can't seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be a bar with a sophisticated menu, a restaurant with a good bar, or a half-assed hybrid.

Since opening in August 1996 in digs that were once home to Baby Routh, Cedar Street has evolved from a straight-ahead bar, to a bar with a decent menu, to a bar with less than noteworthy fare. Executive Chef Scott Colby, who created the original menu last summer with items such as steak tartare, braised duck breast, a smoked salmon platter, and a selection of cheeses and pátes, left in February. "They wanted to scale down the kitchen," says Colby, who is now a chef at Breadwinners. "They felt they wanted to go to a kitchen-manager-style supervisory role instead of having to pay the salary for a full executive chef."

Since then, the stripped-down menu retains only the pastas, burgers, steaks, and a few of the appetizers from the original roster. But owner Bram Browder, who purchased the Dallas location a year ago, says he's going to build the menu back up, committing to food to an even greater extent than when Colby was on board.

A Culinary Institute of America graduate from Chicago with broad food and beverage experience will be brought in later this spring to modify the line-up yet again, retaining a few of the more successful items on the current scaled-back menu.

Perhaps they should make up their mind on what they want to be fast and get on with it, because the current muddling could turn folks off before they get a chance to put things in place. Interestingly, the more elaborate stuff on the menu is fairly good, while the run-of-the-mill bar food falls flat.

Cedar Street onion rings--thick, deep-fried monsters served on a towering spindle--had a good, sweet flavor without being mushy or greasy. But they were served just a few degrees above room temperature. Cedar's hamburger was dismal: The flavor was passable, but it was dry, chewy, and dressed only in iceberg lettuce. Amazingly, a request for pickles was met with blank stares. House-smoked pork tenderloin, slathered in a slightly sweet sauce, was succulent, tender, and tasty. But a scoop of wild rice with painfully off flavors ruined the entree. A side of grilled zucchini and yellow squash was unremarkable and dry.

Instead of fresh and supple, the Caesar salad featuring a potently garlicked dressing over chopped romaine was flaccid--as if it had been dressed and left to sit.

Service was efficient in a busy bar sort of way, but the servers know little about the menu and seem indifferent to the deficiency. Our "build your own pasta" order of grilled-mushroom fettucini was mixed up, and instead we got black-pepper pappardelle. While the pasta was slightly overcooked, it came in a lively, smoky, sweet marinara with succulent rock shrimp topped with tangy Romano.

Cedar Street has a good wine list with an ample selection of red alternatives (Pinot, Zin, blends) to the Cab-Merlot rut, and a good batch of white alternatives (Pinot Blanc, Riesling, sparkling wine) to Chardonnay.

Parts of the Cedar Street bar setting are top-notch. The cozy, bordello-like cigar bar with a small humidor is drenched in deep reds and irregularly shaped booth seats covered in cigar-patterned fabric. The enclosed patio and covered courtyard (where the bands blare) are also crisp touches. But the open bar area was marred by large, soiled intake vents that streaked the walls while the carpet around the bar was specked with cigarette burns and gummy dirt spots.

More than the menu needs attention here. Stay tuned.

Pearl Street Bistro. 600 N. Pearl St., Plaza of the Americas, #101, (214) 220-9229. Open Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-9 p.m. $$

Cedar Street. 2708 Routh Street, (214) 871-2232. Open Tuesday 5 p.m.- 12 a.m.; Wednesday-Friday 5 p.m.-2 a.m.; Saturday 6 p.m.- 2 a.m.; Sunday 6 p.m.-12 a.m. $$-$$$.


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