Survival Skills

Ready for Prime time: Park Cities' bone-in rib eye.
Tom Jenkins

What about the dinosaurs?

This is often the question posed when science wrestles with God, when empirical evidence scrums with Scripture. The big bones are clearly in the ground, but Tyrannosaurus Rex is absent from the Bible—a huge reptilian omission for a book with a reptile clearly playing a starring role. What gives?

What about the steakhouses?

This is often the question posed when Dallas' culinary professionals trash talk the city's reigning god, when intensive culinary training and individual style head-butts a food that needs nothing from chefs save a good source of beef, a broiler and a few pinches of kosher salt. It's a bloody disappointment. Why would a just, benevolent God permit the promiscuous breeding of dining rooms anchored on a foodstuff whose cultivation generates so much toxic shit? Why would he allow steakhouses to suck all of the creative oxygen out of dining?

But there is a third question: What is it about steakhouses that keeps them from going the way of the dinosaurs? Why do they seem so impervious to natural selection, despite their genetic stagnation—dark woods, pestered spuds, Sinatra, iceberg wedges, shrimp cocktails, huge lists of red wines—and timeless inadaptability?

Look at the hostile environment in which the steakhouse must survive: mad cow disease, cholesterol, triple bypasses, erectile dysfunction threats, PETA billboards, prime beef shortages and price spikes. If you accept the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis, you are forced to agonize over the fact that it takes roughly seven barrels of crude oil to bring a steer from calf to prime porterhouse. How many flats of petunias must be planted to offset the carbon (and flatulence) emissions from that bone-in rib eye?

Yet steakhouses survive. They proliferate. And except for those transplanted from other cities, steakhouses don't die. Even the mediocre ones. Why?

Umami. That's the reason. Say it, oo-MOM-ee. Umami is the Japanese word for delicious. Umami is a mystical "fifth taste" hovering above the sweet, sour, salty and bitter sensations on the tongue. We know this because the National Cattlemen's Beef Association has identified it. "The ability to detect these five tastes has been key to our survival throughout the ages, directing us toward vital foods and away from poisons," says the group. Sweet means energy. Salt means life-giving minerals. Sour says proceed with caution, since many foods sour as they rot. But "umami signifies life-giving protein. And bitter warns 'spit it out, don't touch it' because many natural toxins taste bitter." If it weren't for umami, we'd all be dead, poisoned by our vain attempts to substitute life-giving tenderloins with kale.

This is why steakhouses survive. Umami is addictive. Thick hunks of beef arouse our umami receptors. So do mushrooms, tomatoes and fat red wines, each a timeless staple on steakhouse menus.

Park Cities Prime tickles the umami receptors on two counts—no, make that three. First: the Baron's 22-ounce bone-in rib eye. It is almost naked on the plate, resting on a spread of green beans and slivers of bell pepper. The knife cuts easily through it. The meat around the edges is dirty gray but dank. Carve toward the bone, through the supple rivulets of fat and the ruddy fibers stinking of umami, and it orchestrates the senses into a daze until all that's left is a stripped bone.

Filet is an equal piece of sensory hypnosis: red, smooth and firm with a lithe finish reeking of minerals. Cut further and the steak turns red, almost blue, instead of the medium rare that got the knowing nod and the "chef's recommendation" assurances from our server when we ordered it that way.

Lamb chops had umami. But they also had fat, not rivulets but great cloudy Old Man River channels that wind and hug the meat with a loose grip. You could peel it away. The meat is rich and racy, sweating musky primal spice.

But then the umami goes, and it takes everything else with it. Founded by real estate investor and PoPolos owner Stevan Hammond, Park Cities Prime bills itself as a boutique prime steakhouse; the finest of the finest—umami on growth hormones (or maybe just a larger dose). Kobe carpaccio is something that has the ring of near unobtainability, like "Ferrari," for instance. But this is what is: a mound of microgreens wrapped in four puny, craggy sheets of thin loin that taper at the top into a volcanic cone with sprouts lazily spouting from the top. The greens were yellowing. The bright rose sheets had almost no marbling. The meat is clean but unremarkable. This is Kobe? This is 22 bucks?

Tomato and buffalo mozzarella was about as much as you could expect from tomatoes this time of year. But the Caesar was sloppy, a bowl of soggy, limp romaine debris overdressed and warm.

As an instrument of survival, most steakhouses have evolved a considerable seafood appendage. Sometimes it's highly developed. Most of the time it's adequate. At Park Cities, all of the regulars are here: sea bass, salmon, tuna and broiled Australian lobster tails screaming market price.

But Dover sole?

"It's great. Nice and light," offers our server. "I had some folks the other night say it's the best in town." Well then, let's have it.

Shouldn't have. The fish is four long seasoned ribbons draped over the green beans and bell peppers that seem to appear on every plate. The fish was overcooked, rubbery and lukewarm instead of hot—so lacking in heat that the pear beurre blanc pooled on the plate had entered the early stages of coagulation.

Alaskan halibut on a bed of coarse listless tomato risotto fared worse. The fish was dry and didn't flake. It was almost like forking into a pound cake, except it frayed on the tines instead of crumbled.

The most tragic part of our Prime time was the fall of the sides. The sautéed spinach was soggy, and as we rummaged through it we saw why: It's served in a boat that's an eighth full of water. Asparagus stalks, with deep green tips and waxy white ends, had a strange whiff and flavor of molded plastic. The apple crisp was all apple (limp thin strips) and no crisp, save for the few bits tumbled over the top.

Park Cities Prime has all of the clichés, albeit with a little updating. It has the dark woods, the stone, the handsome wine cabinet, plush upholstered seating and the blotchy smoked mirrors. It has dining on two levels. It has a pianist who plays the mandatory "What a Wonderful World" and a sound system that dispenses the usual Sinatra-Connick tonic between sets. It has an attentive staff, a wine steward and fine wine list from which we plucked a crisp, fruit-affluent Claiborne and Churchill Pinot Noir that should have successfully straddled the steak and fish at our table if the fish hadn't drowned. What it doesn't have are brass chandeliers and plush draperies and rows of black and white photos with scribbles from actors and quarterbacks. But there's still time. If the umami can save it from extinction, that is.

8411 Preston Road, Suite 132, 214-691-7763. Open 4 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $$$-$$$$

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