There's a guy in San Francisco named John Cunin who was the longtime maître d' at a place called Masa's before he decided to open his own place in 1990 called the Cypress Club. The Cypress Club was (and still is, I suppose) one of those see-and-be-seen places. People like Johnny Depp eat there. So does a cadre of well-heeled suburbanites and their assortment of trophy spouses and paramours. A "San Francisco brasserie," the Cypress Club's decor is odd, with an interior described in one Bay City rag as phantasmagoric. It's also been described as a parody of an ancient temple and a futuristic space-war backdrop. To me it just looked drenched -- dripping with a rippling façade of the type that fills the claustrophobic with fear. What I remember most about the Cypress Club are the lighting fixtures implanted in the ceiling -- perfect replicas of the handiwork crafted daily by Dallas' fleet of cosmetic surgeons.
Seeking to replicate his Cypress success, Cunin opened another spot, a Spartan thing with a brief menu, in San Francisco's Castro District. Only this one he didn't give a name. This made it a bitch to find if you didn't know where it was, since even directory assistance couldn't track it down without a moniker. (It was later tagged with its address, 2223 Market, after Cunin ran a contest among his patrons offering a $1,000 house account for the best name.) The restaurant became a no-name wonder, a draw because, one suspects, it's hip to know of and nosh at a spot your neighbor can't find.
Salve! Ristorante, Phil and Janet Cobb's Mi Piaci sibling on McKinney Avenue, has a similar problem that could potentially turn into a similar drawing card, though not because it lacks a name. Salve! -- Italian for "welcome good friend" -- is a cool name, and it's rendered in a stylish sign. But the building housing the restaurant, right smack in front of Trammell Crow's new 2100 McKinney Ave. high-rise office development, looks like a bank branch, or maybe a clinic where trophy wives go to get a chest that looks like the Cypress Club's ceiling. Camouflaged in Dallas professional high-rise duds, Salve! doesn't look like a restaurant. Even the sign is hard to spot. "We're very aware of that. Painfully aware," laments Janet Cobb. "But the building had to meet the criteria of the office building behind it." Plus, Salve!'s proximity to the street limited the size of its sign under city regulations.
But the Cobbs could easily strip the puny sign off the building and let word-of-mouth and pilferage of its cool paper hand towels in the bathroom do the restaurant's marketing, because Salve! is dazzling in a way that precious few restaurants in Dallas are (including Mi Piaci). Its sparkle goes beyond the high-profile pros -- former Mansion maître d' Wayne Broadwell, onetime Mansion chef Kevin Thomas Ascolese, former Zodiac Room Executive Chef Sharon Hage -- pulling Salve!'s levers. Something extraordinary has jelled inside this bank-branch bunker that serves quick-lunch sandwiches, pizzas -- even balsamic-glazed baby chicken -- in the bar.
The risotto bears this out, pricey though it is. Risotto al Barolo ($17) is delivered to the table in a saucepan and is spooned from its depths onto a frosted, rippled yellow plate. The server returns to the table with a smoked-glass bottle and splashes the rice and arugula in a little Marchesi di Barolo, a noble red wine from Italy's Piedmont district. This was an unexpected surprise because, while I often splash red wine on my meals, it's usually caused by klutziness. Anyway, this risotto, richened with beef marrow, was astonishing: creamy but firm and resilient; hearty, with a complex confluence of flavors.
The list from which that Barolo is plucked is a good piece of work as well. Composed exclusively of Italian bottlings, Salve!'s wine list is organized by region: Tuscany, Piedmont, Veneto, and so on. Each wine has a brief flavor descriptor (a few suggestions for food pairings would be welcome) above the price. And it's hard to see how you can go wrong, even at the lower end of the scale. The 1997 Michele Chiarlo Barbera d'Asti ($32)(Barbera is a widely planted grape also from Piedmont, this one grown around the city of Asti) was deliciously bright, smooth, and loaded with clean, silky berry flavors edged with a bit of tannic grip. But the sommelier was a little rusty. After presenting the label and pouring a splash for me to taste in that way that sommeliers do, he went around the table filling the glasses and skipped me, leaving me to savor the tasting dribbles before pouring my own reinforcements.
But that's OK. There is much other stuff to savor while the sommelier figures out protocol. There's the insalata di carciofio e finocchio ($7), which, once translated, turns out to be a salad with arugula, shaved artichoke, and fennel doused with lemon and extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with Parmigiano Reggiano. It's a magnificently simple blending that's crisp, refreshing, and articulate.
Affettati misti ($9) is a feast for the delicate carnivore with careful little scraps of house-cured salami (with a ripe, gamy taste that made it seem better than something pilfered from a sub), lively pepperoni, tasty bresaola (salted, aged beef), and mortadella (larded pork sausage). The flesh was flared up with fresh herbed olives that gave the meaty plate some briskness. Prosciutto Galloni ($9), slices of meat with cipolline onions, slips. The flesh was gray, indicating it may have been sliced hours (or days) before it was served.
But carpaccio ($9) with mustard sauce on a carpet of fresh arugula is precisely as it should be: thin, silken meshes of well-marbled, red-raw elegance.
Even the caprese classica ($9), that simple, ubiquitous mozzarella-and-tomato ensemble, vibrated with distinctive clarity. Slices of imported buffalo mozzarella were rich and briny -- a pleasure to chew -- while the tomatoes, so often a disappointment in Dallas, were firm, bracing, sodden, and rich.
Salve!'s menu is divided into three sections: antipasti (appetizers), primi (the first course, usually soup, pasta, or risotto), secondi (the meat or fish course), and dolci (sweets). But it's hard to wreck a meal here, no matter what menu permutation or combination is used to assemble it.
Even the decor dazzles in its own razor-sharp bank-branch sort of way. Janet Cobb calls it the Milano style of architecture and design, and it's crisp and no-nonsense. Chairs are curvaceous molded gray plastic with brushed metal legs. You'd think such a fabrication would be profoundly uncomfortable, but somehow they've designed a seat that comfortably hugs the body.
Nearly everything is gray, from the neck-hugging two-button jackets of the service staff to the semicircular, high-backed banquettes. To thwart the potential for dusky monotony, bright red fabric chairs surround the center table; green rubbings of Italian herbs stripe the walls; and spindly sconces, five-pronged things that look like bifurcated candelabras, jut from patches of wall covered with smoked mirror tiles. On the wall near the host stand hangs a series of 23 plates painted with faces by Italian artist Fornesetti.
And there's that irregularly shaped piazza carved out of the center of the restaurant with a speakeasy-like rectangular slit that peeks into the pasta-manufacturing section of the kitchen. On one end of the piazza, there's a fountain, a kind of minimalist flurry of impressionistic plumbing that looks like a downspout flushing into a sink. On the other is a series of screens fashioned out of grapevine twigs with long branches rising out of the top like some sort of abstract sweeping utensil. The mesh below is woven with strings of Christmas lights. These odd little touches make the space compelling, and it should be used now before the piazza is transformed into an oven in about seven weeks.
At which time you'll have to chew the scottaditi d'agnello ($28), a confusing way of saying grilled rack of lamb, in air-conditioned comfort. The pieces of meat are brushed with olive oil and seasoned with wild oregano and coarse mustard, creating sweet, velvety flesh with subtle tang to give it a compelling edge.
Salve!'s pasta is exquisite from ripple to pillow. Bucatini all'Amatriciana ($8) -- long, thin pasta pipes bathed in a light, spicy tomato sauce pocked with chewy pancetta bits -- was simple and sown with firm, resilient pasta. The sauce, sparked with just the right amount of heat, clung meticulously to each strand, and a dash of caramelized onions foiled the spice bite (maybe more of a nibble) with sweetness.
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Pappadelle ($13) with cremino and portobello mushrooms, was strips of thin pasta tattooed with basil, parsley, and oregano. This earthy dish, slathered in a sauce of mushroom juices and hen (when did it change from simple chicken?) stock, had strips of tender lamb, a scattering of peas, and flecks of diced tomato, giving it a rich, balanced heartiness.
Even Salve!'s seafood is brilliant. Brodetto Adriatica ($24), a stew of mussels, shrimp, and spiny lobster swimming in a tomato-saffron broth, had the most gaspingly good clams I've ever come across.
Desserts were wonders too. Tartufo ($7), a double-chocolate gelato truffle with brandied cherries, was a silky blob of rich creaminess. A trio of sorbet scoops ($5) -- blood orange flanked by raspberry -- watered the muzzle with their rich, brisk, and opulently clean fruit flavors.
There's little to quibble with at Salve!, and the quibbles mainly center on sticker shock. But maybe that's OK, because Salve! goes a long way toward obliterating the adage that Dallas can't do Italian. It's obvious the kitchen staff tastes relentlessly -- there's no other way to pull this off -- and it's something I am willing to pay for. Plus, Salve! is filled with little value-added details. At lunch, the tables are centerpieced with tiny Salve! note pads and Salve! pencils (making restaurant critiquing convenient), which will no doubt help out with the word-of-mouth campaign. Directory assistance even has a listing for the place.