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Spin city

Antares' menu rises far above the restaurant's reputation as a tourist trap.
Jon Lagow

It twirls around once every 55 minutes, like clockwork. And you can time your meal and thus the quality of service to its creeping revolutionary swirl. When we put in our order at Antares high atop Reunion Tower, we were staring deep into Dallas' downtown core. It wasn't until we gazed upon the restraining confines of the Lew Sterrett Criminal Justice Center that our salad actually arrived. Which would equal about 30 minutes if my circle-parsing geometry is up to snuff.

I asked our server what was in the salad I ordered, since the menu verbiage had long ago slipped from memory. He picked up the smudged butter knife from my bread plate and pointed out the ingredients. "Well, there's the meat," he said. "And there's the tortilla strips. A little tomato here and..." he lifted up some lettuce with the knife, "there's the jicama." There was a brown puddle of liquid at the bottom. "And what's that?" I asked. "Well, that must be the dressing they put on it," he said.

I thanked him for guided salad tour and thought how well this episode was in keeping with the theme of Antares: The restaurant planted on the 50th floor of the city's architectural shrine to urbanity has long been known as a tourist trap, a place where couples get engaged and locals bring out-of-town guests to twirl, twitch, and marvel at Dallas. And why not? This ball on stilts is a smirk at modernity: a 23,600-ton tower composed of four concrete columns supporting a geodesic dome covered with a web of aluminum triangles.

Above all else, Antares restaurant (named after a supergiant red binary star that is the brightest in the constellation Scorpio) is an attraction, an eatery that tugs mightily on tourists and conventioneers.

You see them everywhere. A sign near the host stand makes it clear that Antares prefers guests who are properly dressed, which means casual business attire, which means no cutoffs, T-shirts, or sandals. A jacket would be nice too. But this doesn't stop Antares guests. Little crowds of people spilled out of the elevators in T-shirts and frayed shorts strapped with bulging fanny packs.

Reunion Tower trivia is plastered on a placard inside the elevator. There you'll learn that it takes 55 minutes for the restaurant to complete one rotation and that the elevator takes 68 seconds to scale the 560-foot tower. The tower's stairwell has 867 steps and 61 landings leading up to the top. The geodesic dome has 260 lights linked by 14 miles of wire and 40 circuits. A computer in the lighting system can create an infinite number of patterns in the nighttime sky.

Completed in April 1978, Reunion Tower, plugged like a giant blazing ball-topped golf tee between Reunion Arena and the Hyatt Regency, represents the clean, youthful vigor of the city. And maybe much more.

In 1985, an actor clung to the top of the ball and fired a gun at a helicopter during the filming of a movie called Hostage Dallas. Maybe not as dramatic as a giant ape swiping at biplanes in Gotham, but daring nonetheless. In 1994, the dome was transformed into a huge soccer ball when the World Cup came to the city. In 1995, the lights became dancing Christmas trees.

On his first visit atop Reunion Tower, futurist Buckminster Fuller, who invented the geodesic dome, sat down for dinner and instead of marveling at the view, calculated the speed at which the revolving restaurant would have to spin to centrifugally splatter the food against its floor-to-ceiling windows. Not that this is indicative of the food served at Antares. It's actually better than what you would expect considering the creative limitations imposed by its clientele. "We're trying to keep the menu updated while working within the constraints of what our customer base is," says chef Cheryl Scantleberry. "Sometimes it doesn't sell because our customer base isn't that adventurous...but we have tried to give the food a little twist here and there."

Filling the slot vacated by lauded chef Doug Brown (Nana Grill) some 18 months ago, Scantleberry, who has been traipsing around Hyatt properties for the past nine years, comes to Dallas by way of the Hyatt hotel in Atlanta. She laments the fact that the No.1 seller on the menu is a grilled filet with garlic shrimp and mashed potatoes. But then she sounds a note of hope: Her char-grilled Muscovy duck breast with duck sausage has been a hit.

Despite whatever insipid paths customer tongues might dictate, she still finds room to flirt with her cuisine. She's cleverly tucked those here-and-there twists into the folds and under the leaves. Her cooking shows thoughtfulness.

Chili-marinated London broil salad ($10) is the kind of dish any burly-bellied conventioneer with trade-show tags on his lapel would love. It's tossed with red meat, yet it's a salad, so it has the veneer of health-conscious respectability. But if you peer closer, a level of culinary complexity peeks out of the assembly. Thick, chewy ribbons of beef (too thick, I would argue, as a more subtle carving would make this salad just about perfect) under a snarl of crisp tortilla bands rest on a bed of greens studded with bell pepper and bright, juicy tomato wedges. Under that bed are strips of jicama and chayote (an Aztec-Mayan gourd-like fruit) washed in rice-wine vinaigrette.

 

But that's not the only flavor balm Scantleberry puts in the bowl. That brown puddle I asked about was actually a lightly savory red-wine demi-glace. This sets up a fascinating interplay in which the demi-glace heightens the meat essences while the vinaigrette puts a surge in the vegetation. The balance, in terms of both flavor and texture, never slips.

That same level of careful thought emerges in the mushroom tortellini ($10), which is plugged with sun-dried tomatoes that strike with a mild surge instead of shrill sharpness, asparagus, and a trio of wild mushrooms (woodear, shiitake, and chanterelle) and bathed in a garlic cream sauce. The flavors are smoothly integrated -- assertive enough to keep the tongue engaged while the restraint shows respect for the delicate fungi. Textures blended and merged while the core ingredients retained their distinctiveness. Coated with a dusting of shaved reggiano cheese and chopped chives, the pasta rings struck a near perfect balance between tenderness and firm resilience while the mushrooms speckled the dish with crisp texture and a woodsy, even fruity aroma. A dish like this has so many spots that could lead to dramatic stumbles -- through under- or overcooked pasta, mushy ingredients, or a lame sauce -- -in a restaurant like this. But here, all was merged with expressive fluency.

Yet sometimes these hidden twists got away from the dish. Shiner Bock-marinated buffalo rib eye steak was one turn that never went anywhere. The meat was dense and grainy, as is to be expected. But it was also shy on flavor, utterly lacking in the strong sweetness often found in buffalo flesh. And instead of a serving of meat flush with buffalo's pronounced deep red hue, this slab -- requested medium-rare -- -was served a dull gray, untinged by even a trace of blush. Or tenderness. The Shiner Bock marinade added no hint of interest either. Despite the creamy chili relleno and the tasty poblano-sparked cornbread that kept the buffalo company, this was a dish driven breathless by an unfulfilling foray into clever twists.

But at least it was a foray, which is much more than you can say for Antares' decor. Maybe with the "breathtaking" view this twirling dome provides of the metroplex, a carefully accessorized dining environment would be too much for those drawn to the city by the home-builders convention or the boat show. Sensory overload is an ugly thing 50 stories up in a spinning dining room.

But bubble-gum-purple vinyl seating with royal blue napkins and royal-blue-accented glassware? Carpet art on the walls? Banquets and trim in a shade of diluted green straining mightily toward teal? The carpet swirls with variations on all of these colors (with a few red spots tossed in to add interest) as if it's locked in desperate fits to bring the whole thing into balance. Add the overall disheveled nature of the accoutrements (peeling trim, fading frayed accents, soiled walls), and you have a room that's as ready to meet the millennium as a Dallasite without a Y2K disaster plan.

That's why it was compelling to find snails slithering across Scantleberry's menu. Maybe a few years into the next century, the fanny-pack set will be slipping snails between their lips as easily as they do curly fries. Antares escargot niçoise ($9) is a good start, though it could use a tweak. A haphazard array of kalamata olives, tomatoes, onions, and snails mingling with tangles of angel-hair pasta, the assembly was over-drenched in butter sparked with lemon and white wine. It made the whole thing lumber, and the snails, while tender, tasted slightly off.

Seared red snapper sandwich on toasted panini bread ($9) was similarly constrained, though not because of the fish, which was moist and flaky. It was that toasted panini, which lacked even a hint of exterior crispness and had a flavor that resembled raw pie dough, dragging the entire thing into a fog despite its Cajun seasonings.

As with the Shiner Bock buffalo, the most stirring elements with the Antares chicken breast ($19) were those in supporting roles: the splashes of lively plum coulis dribbled along the plate edges and the crisp stalks of asparagus and leeks tangled in basil-garlic linguini. Though moist and tender, the herb-rubbed free-range chicken lacked expressiveness. Whatever formula was massaged into that bird, it remained mute.

 

Dessert was a dismal disappointment. The crumb apple pie with raisins and nuts ($6) was pasty with a pastry shell that seemingly wasn't cooked thoroughly. It was as if the dish were thrown together and nuked.

But that's OK. Because the rest of the menu is respectable, even more so, considering the context. And a view of Dallas from 560 feet up in a "Bucky ball" goes better with coffee anyway.

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