Coffee bars, sports bars, home meal replacements, steak houses, bagel shops, and specialty theme restaurants--these were the hottest concepts in the food business in 1996, and it looks like 1997 will serve up some more of the same. Places like Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock Cafe, and Margaritaville (a parrothead's paradise) have set new dollar goals for restaurant operators, so you can look forward to even better, bigger, more bizarre themes. Marvel Mania, a mammoth comics-themed cafe brought to you by the principals in Planet Hollywood, is slated to open this spring in southern California, and they're supposedly already considering other locations in New York and London. And Apple Cafe, a cyber-styled restaurant licensed by Apple, the McDonald's of computers, will feature computer-equipped tables so you can e-mail instead of converse with your fellow diners (almost a necessity since restaurant operators evidently perceive a direct relation between high decibels and high dollars). Even the dullest diner could come away from one of these establishments understanding some general rules for restaurant success. You have to have eye-popping design, a hot location, plenty of cachet provided by incessant media exposure, a trendy menu (preferably including tiramisu, ostrich, and something made with huitlacoche), and good service, by which is meant cute servers. And, of course, to be successful, a restaurant has to be very noisy.
Well, What Else, a new French restaurant on Greenville Avenue, does have tiramisu on the menu. Come to think of it, the manager's kind of cute, too, but that might be pushing it.
The truth is, there's no reason What Else should succeed, if you follow the formula the way the big guys do. But fortunately for diners in Dallas, Rene Peeters, owner of What Else and its parent restaurant, Watel's, has his own stubborn idea about what dining should be, and even though it differs considerably from the money-makers' rulebook, it seems to be working out just fine for him, thank you very much. (Or I should say, merci.)
I do say "merci" to Peeters and Thierry Plumetazz, his partner and manager of What Else, because I think this is the best new entry on the Dallas dining scene since Cafe Izmir opened. (And French food is much rarer in Dallas than Middle Eastern.) I doubt Peeters did a lot of market research to find the location for his new venture, other than shopping for the lowest rent on lower Greenville. He didn't have to brainstorm for a concept--what he does is simply what he knows, and what he knows is French food. He certainly didn't spend a lot of time with interior designers--the restaurant is thoroughly charming but appears to have been decorated by the staff in their off-hours. Imagine an Andy-Hardy-opens-a-Provencal-bistro decor. A shirred, tented ceiling of a sunny print fabric (you can picture Thierry with a staple gun) conveys the idea that the menu will feature Provençal-style food. Christmas twinkle lights along the walls convey the idea that you're going to have a good time. I'm not saying the effect isn't pretty, warm, and welcoming. I'm just saying it's unpretentiously and unusually unprofessional looking. Is this a theme? What Else is new? Yes, it is. (Don't worry, you'll get used to the quiet and maybe even remember how to dine and converse at the same time.)
The menu at What Else is also designed not just to seduce you, but to make you comfortable. All the entrees, listed on the right side of the menu, are $16 and come with your choice of one dish from the left side of the menu (soups, salads, appetizers, desserts). Add any two items and your dinner costs $20. Add three and the total is $24. Very simple and shockingly straightforward, and the wine is handled the same way. Every wine on the list is $22 a bottle. Most of them you haven't heard of, but Thierry calmly reassures you that if you know your grapes and order by type, you'll be pleased. (Of course, there is also a list of fancier wines priced by the bottle for the inveterate wine snobs--and aren't they all?)
I wasn't brought up to clean my plate--evidently my parents didn't link my aversion to Brussels sprouts to the children starving in the Third World. They just insisted that I try everything I was served, to see if I liked it (as if you couldn't tell that Brussels sprouts taste terrible just by looking at them) so of course the litany at our house became, "I do like it, so do I have to eat it?" And plates were generally returned to the kitchen with a tidy pile of barely disturbed green or brown. Palate paranoia was my problem then. But palate fatigue is a real problem when you eat out as often as I do. That doesn't mean I need to be tempted with lark's tongues, ortolans, or even, say, huitlacoche-sauced ostrich. It means I crave something rarer still: Simple food, well prepared, gracefully served. And my meals at What Else inspired me to clean my plate. I liked it all.
Before both lunch and dinner, we were brought a little ramekin of tapenade with golden toasts, the dip's deep, sexy garlicky taste serving as a teaser for the full flavors to follow. One day, we tried the ratatouille, a hearty vegetable stew that should be a summertime dish, full of tomatoes and zucchini rounded out with melted onion, but it tasted surprisingly warm and sustaining on a winter's day with a glass of wine and the impossible French pop music playing above our heads and the bright flowered ceiling and tablecloths. Of course, it's always summer somewhere. The plate was made serious by a portobello mushroom cap with pale mozzarella cheese oozing down its rounded brown sides. Another day, the duck breast appealed, a dozen lean, skinless, rosy slices overlapping on the plate like a Japanese fan pooled in a remarkable clear brown sauce perfumed with lavender and sweetened (as duck should always be) with honey, then saved from cloying by a spritz of lemon.
At dinner, we found parking was a problem because the valet works both sides of the street. We had to wait quite awhile for someone to show up to park our car, and there was no street parking in sight. But that was the only rough place in the evening. Seth de Witt, chef de cuisine, put bliss on all our plates. Sweetbreads, served as an appetizer with a subtle chive sauce, were prepared virtually perfectly, sauteed to rich crispness on outside, but within tender as custard, as any infant flesh ought to be, and my father, who constantly seeks out sweetbreads as he does desserts like pecan pie and bread pudding, put them at the top of his life list. The ambitious-sounding "lobster napoleon" is a version of a trend--chefs all over the country have been playing with savory strudels and pastries this year. This dish featured a big puff paste hat-shaped triangle, the top barely floating on a saute of lobster meat and mushrooms. The big chunks of tail meat had a rarely genteel texture, amazingly tender but firm instead of rubbery as it almost always is unless you're dissecting the just-boiled exoskeleton yourself. And there was a whole, lovely curved piece of claw meat, not flaunted as garnish, but simply part of the whole. We were a threesome, and a red wine had won the toss, but Thierry was upset that Mother considered drinking the mourvedre the rest of us were going to drink and insisted she have a little glass of Reserve St. Martin Viognier with the lobster. A wise host.
The grilled tuna was thick and fresh, with that stripped-down taste that tuna has because it's meaty without being fat, but it was enriched here with a red wine sauce. It and the other entrees, lunch and dinner, came with very ordinary vegetables--zucchini, carrot slices, roasted potato quarters--made extraordinary just by the prosaic fact that they were cooked correctly. How many times have I tried to spear a carrot slice with a fork only to find it as resistant as a rubber sole? These carrots and their companions were seasoned--with salt, even--and perfectly crisp-tender, the way God and Escoffier intended vegetables to be cooked. Lambshank was stewed tenderly, not until it fell off the bone, but just to succulent moistness, with pale green flageolets, in another hearty stew that kept its ingredients distinct even as one flavor enhanced another. And desserts--all made in-house--were just as satisfying. Fig ice cream tastes faintly like Fig Newtons (a cookie whose time has returned), pithiviers, the classic but rarely encountered French almond cake that is more like a pastry, was barely sweet, and tarte tatin the grandmere of all apple pies, was served warm.
What Else's parent restaurant, Watel's, has become a mainstay of French cuisine in Dallas, a stubbornly funky little place on the wrong end of McKinney Avenue, with a--might as well be blunt--tacky, sloping patio, glassed in and covered in a blue-striped awning, cooled by a window unit, warmed with space heaters, decorated with sickly pothos ivy and yellowing asparagus fern in tag-sale white iron holders. Again, it doesn't matter that most big-deal restaurant operators would consider the place to be decoratively challenged; the menu is not only appetizing but accommodating and welcomes the diner with real hospitality. It should be the mark of a good restaurant that if you don't see what you crave on the menu, the kitchen will prepare what does appeal. But when even cash registers are programmed to the menu items, custom cooking is hard to come by. It's typical of Rene Peeters' renegade retro philosophy that Watel's' menu states at the top "If you don't see something you'd like, please ask for it; we'll make it if we can."
We liked what we saw when we dropped by for lunch recently. A cold salad plate hardly sounds tempting in the face of a blue norther, but thick little seared chunks of tuna, left rare in the centers, crusted with black pepper gravel and nestled in mustard, lent heft to the concept of salad, balanced by a mound of coolly substantial lentils. On the other hand, cassoulet is precisely what you daydream about on a blustery day, and the shallow bowl of white beans, bits of bacon, ham, lamb, and a roasted duck leg simmered together until the smoke and the fat and the flavor permeated everything, was a dream come true.
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What Else? 1915 Greenville, (214) 874-WHAT. Open for lunch Tuesday-Sunday 11:30 a.m.- 2 p.m.; for dinner Sunday-Thursday 6 p.m.-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 6 p.m.-10:30 p.m.
Watel's, 1923 McKinney Ave., (214) 720-0323. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday-Thursday 6 p.m.-8:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 6 p.m.-9:30 p.m.
Ratatouille and Portobello $6.00
Lobster Napoleon $9.00
Duck Breast with Honey, Lemon, and Lavender $8.00
Two Courses $16.00
Three Courses $20.00
Four Courses $24.00
Peppered Rare Tuna and Lentil Salad $11.00