Soley's blend of French-Italian Makes for an Awesome Saturday Night
A friend of mine refers to "Tuesday night" prices and "Saturday night" prices. By this he means not some inflationary trick, like hiking gas prices for the summer or raising national security alarms before Election Day, as if that would ever occur to...rrrove...sorry, had to clear my throat.
No, the difference amounts to that between a regular go-to local restaurant and the destination place people visit maybe once or twice before the shine wears off—between, for instance, Vickery Park and the late, great Nove. Simply put, success in almost any market leans a little on the side of decent cooking at moderate prices, with an emphasis on the latter. Even formulaic chains employing teenage kitchen help often outperform upscale restaurants in the ledger books, no matter how accomplished the chef.
Longevity teeters on the fickle workings of economics and popular whim, things that may very well undermine Soley!—one day. For now, it ranks as one of the best new restaurants in Dallas.
Since I just moved back to Dallas three weeks ago, maybe I don't really have the right to name a contender. I haven't been to the new iteration of the Mansion, recently acclaimed by Esquire's John Mariani. And I just ducked into Charlie Palmer once, only for a much-needed martini. But chef-owner Jose Vasconcelos' French-Mexican creations at Soley! are, for the most part, so well-conceived it's difficult to imagine another joint issuing any kind of challenge.
Skeptical that French-Mexican fusion can work? Don't be. Colonial overseers from both Spain and France influenced Mexican cuisine in centuries past, and Vasconcelos trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and Nice's Paul Bocuse Institute where, by the way, he met wife Norma studying the art of pastry.
There's no real trick to pulling it off, other than an understanding of ingredients and technique. He rests escargot in a tomatillo puree revved up with spicy tomato coulis. In less capable hands, the smoldering chile-tomato sauce would easily pummel earthy garden pests into submission. But here flickers of heat relent just enough for an expression of musty and bittersweet flavors to emerge. French tradition includes escargot a la Valaisanne, plunging petit-gris snails through kindred layers of garlic and chile. Soley!'s interpretation is distinct and far more intriguing.
Chile en Nogada, a fat poblano stuffed with duck confit, reads like the opposite of an Adam Sandler script—it makes sense when you think about it. Many chefs plate duck with fruit sauces, picking up on the taste of forest and field natural to the bird. The bite of chili underscores shreds of rustic, tender meat in the same manner, helped along by the addition of chopped fruits and a sprinkle of nuts. Seemingly suspended above the softened poblano skin, an ethereal, crispy patina of cornmeal adds textural contrast. It's enough, but the kitchen nudges things a little more upscale, resting everything in mellow walnut sauce, more creamy than sweet, pooled around the plate. The effect is fascinating, a dessert-rich sauce that scurries from the chili like water off a you-know-what yet transforms its filling into something four-star and campfire at the same time.
It's a brilliant starter, harmed only by drizzled pomegranate boiled down into a fierce, face-scrunchingly sour reduction. (It's about time chefs and bartenders let go of this pomegranate craze.)
Dense halibut falls into long, firm flakes. The flesh is clean, urged along by an herbal Veracruzana salsa, a classic preparation of chopped tomato and onion stiffened by garlic, olives and capers. A foamy rectangle of citrus-infused beurre blanc rings the halibut. Like pomegranate, foam has become the fall-back trend of late, a way for chefs to dress up lazy presentations. But this has soft edges and a brisk character, formed as the acidic fruit slices through the butter. And to his credit, Vasconcelos relegates the foam to a mere decoration rather than turning frappé into a centerpiece. He doesn't even mention foam on the menu.
Of course, they make a few overt sacrifices to whatever god demands unnecessary fluff—such as serving patties of pineapple and kalamata olive butter with bread that isn't worth a mention. Other problems crop up here and there. Ceviche, which the ever-solicitous waitstaff pushed on us one evening, failed to live up to in-house hype: Halibut had softened in a puddle of peppery tomato. Elsewhere, strips of scallop slipped from night-out fare to cutesy, childhood nostalgia thanks to a combination of orange and vanilla, a shellfish Dreamsicle. And they should pull pollo al guajillo from the menu.
Oh, the orange and chili sauce is finely balanced, with mild, leathery guajillo calming citric sweetness and building to a gentle, lingering burn. But the dish begs for something more than bland, tacky white meat. It needs free-range chicken, dressed that very day if possible, dark and bold in flavor—something to explode from the sauce rather than cower underneath.
And I hate to say it, but you find better mashed potatoes at Denny's. OK, maybe not Denny's, but you get the idea.
Vasconcelos and his crew rebound, however, with a neatly Mexicanized ratatouille, the classic Provençal mélange often served alongside better chicken than this. It's a reminder that Soley!'s kitchen stumbles, but doesn't collapse—smooth, ripe with vegetal sweetness, a bitter taint falling in behind and, deep within, a hidden snap of chili.
Turn to their lamb chop entrée, however, for a true expression of Vasconcelos' French-Mexican concept. Once again, a glance at the menu is enough to raise some consternation. Yes, it starts with the usual delicate meat in rosemary jus (the kind of thing you find at any continental restaurant). But the chef teams this not-very-resilient chop with raspy chorizo, a spread of black beans and a few plantain slices. Surely this bold surge of New World flavors will obliterate quaint Mediterranean lamb, right?
Ah, but they make it flow somehow, from the intensity of Mexican cured meat to creamy mustiness to rich and gamy, with the pine needle-tinged rosemary bridging the gaps.
So forgive Soley! if servers hover and pester and solicit your approval with every course. These are trying times for destinations trying to compel $28 of dwindling credit from guests for an entrée. Let them off the hook when they mess up, such as the evening a waiter mentioned happy hour prices—sending me into a fugue state broken moments later by an "I was just told that's only at the bar" apology.
OK, maybe giving false hope is beyond pardon. I'm not a lawyer.
But I'm even willing to let them slide for the annoying, gratuitous exclamation attached to their name, the one wasting minutes of my day repeatedly canceling spell-check warnings.
If the market continues its slide, those crowds filling modestly priced restaurants will grow and Soley!—already down to half-empty (sorry, half-full) on a recent Saturday night, may have to respond accordingly.
And so my friend frets over Soley's future. What happens, he wonders, if they start to shed some of the fineries and appeal to the less-discerning Tuesday night crowd?
2405 N. Henderson Ave., 214-485-1302. Open 5-10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. $$$-$$$$
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