Perhaps the best thing to do when visiting Gershwin's is have a drink. Actually, this is the best thing to do when visiting any restaurant, but it is particularly important at Gershwin's because the bar is spacious, warm, and well-stocked. Plus, it has a big fish tank with fish that change colors after two martinis (drunk by the beholder, not the fish). These cichlids come in loud oranges and blues, I think. They swim around and stare at the bored people who sit around the bar drinking martinis and looking at the fish tank. Only this time, there was no one else in the bar.
"What song do you want to hear?" came a voice from the tank. I thought maybe the well gin was a better grade than I expected, or the cichlids had been listening to English language tapes instead of staring down barflies to amuse themselves. Then I looked up; just above the fish tank and the bar was a woman dressed in brash colors seated at a piano. It was as though she had intuitively dressed to match the fish.
"I'm not sure," I said, flipping through some standards in my head. "How about 'Moonlight in Vermont'?" Gershwin's bar is a quiet, dark, and airy place. And that's just how she starts her songs: quiet and airy. It starts out slow, and the words are barely audible. This must be some sort of warm-up ritual. Within a couple of minutes, she repositions the microphone closer to her lips, and the words strike the mesh with a level of gritty mettle that can barely be sustained in an empty bar without upending the entrées in the dining room. I could have sat in this bar all night, tossing out songs, watching this woman's colorfully painted face work up in successive dramatic croons as the cichlids square-danced beneath her.
But there is the menu to contend with.
Gershwin's is an old Dallas restaurant, not quite an institution, but damn close. Opened in 1985 by an investment group led by Michael Maguire, this unblushingly '80s-era New American restaurant is dressed in brass, dark wood, etched glass, and ferny plants. It has had a small handful of chefs over the years, including Salvador Gomez and George Greiser. Greiser, perhaps the best known of its chefs, exited the restaurant in mid-1998 to pursue a post at Jakes in Austin. But that foray quickly fizzled, and Greiser ended up in the kitchen at Fish restaurant downtown after the exit of Chris Svalesen. Greiser has since moved on to The Prison in McKinney.
Gershwin's shut down early last year, and Nick and John Natour, owners of the Enclave, picked it up, promising a modest face-lift and a virtually unchanged menu from its most recent incarnation. To guide this relatively durable and fixed menu, the Natours hired Andrew Conroy to take control of the kitchen.
While little has changed on the menu, the service seems to have gone from friendly but graceless to friendly but graceless with a little inept indifference thrown in to make it more compelling. Though the dining room looked as if it was facing guest extinction, long pauses were common in our dining experiences, as if the staff was practicing inattentiveness as a stylistic touch. Several minutes after being seated, our drink order was taken. Several more minutes later, the drinks were delivered. But menus weren't. In fact, our server had to be flagged down after 30 minutes to deliver menus to our table. Maybe the menu is so unchanged they think most folks in Dallas have it memorized. Plus, simple requests--such as one for glasses of ice water--went unheeded.
Once the menus did arrive, they included some die-hard dishes that made this restaurant famous, or at least famous among regulars and maybe a few of the fish. There's "Gershwin's famous mushroom soup" and Gershwin's crab cakes, warm baby spinach salad with bacon, and barbecue duck confit enchiladas.
Yet most of the selections we tried would have a steep face to claw before reaching a summit one might call famous. Spicy rabbit spring rolls sounded provocative, but in the flesh, they were fat and clumsy. Large, hefty angle-cut logs were planted in the center of the plate. Around these logs were thick beads of peanut sauce. The rolls' thick, chewy casing leaned more toward mushy than crisp, and the sweetness from the sauce was a bit much. This made it difficult to detect the headlining ingredient. Rabbit isn't a very richly flavored flesh to begin with, and it was cluttered in the roll with so many ingredients and flavorings that it disappeared under the heft.
It's hard to tell what Gershwin's does to its steak tartare, a healthy looking but mushy ball of pink flesh accompanied by long crackers instead of toast points and little piles of chopped egg and onion. But the meat had a flavor strongly reminiscent of pickled herring (must be how the anchovies and capers come together in the grind). Pickled herring is a swell thing to eat every now and again, but it's a little disconcerting when it looks like steak tartare.
The anchovies came off much better in the Caesar salad, a skillfully fresh mix of romaine, sourdough croutons, and Parmesan cheese. The pungent dressing was smooth with a piercing anchovy bite.
Clumsiness reappeared in the poached pear arugula salad, an indelicate gathering of heaped greens and a skinned and sliced pear in the middle of a raspberry vinaigrette pool. The dressing was harshly acidic, throwing the dish out of balance.
Cream of spinach soup, a soup of the day, exuded far more balance, except for the tattered leafy flecks that looked suspiciously as though they entered the soup via a deep freezer. Nevertheless, the soup was smooth and creamy if a little shy on distinguishing flavors.
For sheer hearty virility, it's hard to go wrong with Gershwin's rigatoni with spicy Italian sausage (maybe this one will get famous). The mix of navy beans, tomatoes, roasted bell pepper, and Parmesan cheese is zesty, though the sausage is a freckling of fragments. Any dish that gives sausage top billing should have imposing chunks of meat of a size that would give vegetarians the vapors at first sight.
Gershwin's has steak, too, which is almost as ubiquitous in restaurants as cocktail napkins, but the restaurant mixes it up a little with venison and a steak-like sounding dish called "roasted lamb sirloin over sundried tomato ratatouille & polenta with demi glace." Despite the name, the dish was uneventful: a series of little gray discs of flesh resting on the plate in a row next to the ratatouille. The meat was tender and juicy with just a trace of gaminess. But the flavors didn't dance--nothing engaging to hang your hat on or your spurs.
The Parmesan-crusted sea bass was also a slight disappointment. The flaws, other than a slightly flabby texture and a crust that was virtually nonexistent, were not striking. Yet the whole assembly, including Yukon gold potatoes, fresh artichokes, sundried tomatoes, sweet onions, and leeks, didn't seem to come together with any appreciable vigor in the mouth.
Cioppino, a San Francisco fish stew, was a deft and breathy broth holding shrimp, scallops, clams, and mussels along with potatoes. Only it wasn't deft. Or breathy. The shellfish were tough and overcooked, and the broth was thin and uninteresting.
Dessert was a disappointment, too. The fruit cobbler was an overwrought mushy thing without much crust or fresh and vibrant fruit. Instead, it was laden with overcooked indistinguishable fruit, like a canned fruit cocktail that wandered into a microwave set to roast.
Gershwin's is tired, and new ownership isn't enough to shake it from its slump. It needs more minor face-lifting and a fresh menu with roots firmly sunk in a handful of its old standards. The rest of the old standards should be kept with the piano player.
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