"Suze. No, S-U-Z-E—it's at Northwest Highway and Midway, right next to the Albertson's."
This singular restaurant should need no introduction, but I probably suffered through this painstaking routine five times before finally convincing someone to join me for dinner one evening. Perhaps if I refrained from mentioning the strip-mall setting—makes Suze sound like one of those dreaded suburban family establishments of inside-the-loop lore.
But the restaurant seems oblivious to image-conscious geography. Although technically beyond the Northwest Highway cultural barrier, it falls well within the LBJ Freeway boundary protecting sophisticated Dallas from the supposed barbarian hordes of Addison and Plano. For those living in the city's neighborhoods, Bluffview represents a secure, almost casual haven between the old-school assuredness of Highland Park and Uptown's wannabe snootiness. Being plunked into a cheapo brick and asphalt shopping center, visually out-muscled by a plebeian grocery store and boisterous burger joint, lends Suze some in-the-know aura...which, of course, is why people lose track of the place.
And why you end up explaining that it's "Suze, not Sue's."
No matter—on a Tuesday evening visit so many guests crowded in that the maitre d' begged me to push up our reservation by 15 minutes to make things easier on kitchen staff. Another time we ended up stuffed into a corner as rambunctious (in the Bluffview sense of the word) groups took over long tables. Once you find the restaurant, you never forget.
Indeed, I recall trout almondine served by chef-owner Gilbert Garza almost five years ago. The rich, mellow and buttery crust floated over superb fillets. This time around, the golden, flaky slivers feel heavier, yet equally tranquil. Instead of a less-than-memorable side, which honestly I can't remember, chefs Garza and Jeffery Hobbs now employ a base of quinoa, imported from South America and popping like dry, nutty caviar. The seeds form a down-to-earth contrast, similar to setting, say, pan-seared scallops atop black-eyed peas.
Other changes to the restaurant include the addition of daily menu items. And the dishes themselves are busier.
Case in point, their Kobe beef carpaccio: gossamer sheaths of silken meat drape over your tongue and should cause you to ooze back in the chair and contemplate decadence. They did me, until salt crystals began to explode like mini cluster bombs. Salt holds in its brackish grasp the power to both preserve and destroy. In this case, saline shrapnel pierced through my Kobe-induced reverie, forcing attention away from the simple beauty of densely marbled beef and back to the plate, to the efforts of the chef. Here sat a mound of creamy guacamole—nice, but serving little purpose—and larvae-shaped squiggles of fried onion. It's the chef and his creative efforts on display, not the prized red meat. Bittersweet comfort seeps from the onions, blending smoothly into the luscious carpaccio while the familiar crunch stands out in contrast to that ethereal, cashmere mouth feel.
One day I'll have to ask the whys and wherefores of the guacamole and vicious carpeting of salt.
Flat-iron skillet king salmon hardly describes Garza's apparent passion for complication. The fish is glazed in hoisin, soy, ginger, toasted sesame and perhaps even some mirin then placed on a bed of rice noodles, cucumber, a little cilantro and a noticeable spike of mint steadied by sake vinaigrette—and there's probably even more to the dish, but I quickly lost count of the flavors, which are so neatly arranged they pour over each other en echelon. It's a compelling experience. The main ingredient, reamed with fat, flecks apart with ease, maintaining enough character to earn at least a nod from fans of unvarnished seafood but smothered with gusto that will please those who consider salmon too "fishy." For the first few bites, I just stammered "wow" as the maze of sweet, salty, intensely earthy, sour, fresh, fatty, savory...as every sensation known to humankind engulfed me.
It takes some work to deconstruct even the simple dishes. The kitchen builds an intense mustiness into pappardelle by using two types of porcini powder in a Bolognese sauce softened by portions of ground veal instead of regular beef. They first brine chicken breast for tenderness before stuffing it with prosciutto and sage and roasting until the skin crackles into a deep, inviting brown. The sauce is formidable (in the good sense of the word), blending the common, savory and meaty bravado of demi-glace into something creamy and vaguely biting—cambozola, perhaps? In their version of an easy arugula salad, flavors waver, tumble and rise in an unpredictable yet perfectly scripted medley as greens, goat cheese and ruby Medjool dates search for footing under tomato-sherry vinaigrette.
This is not the convivial bistro fare of Lombardi-ville. There's no fuss to the place; Garza and Hobbs bring in cambozola and Medjool dates and quinoa appropriately. Hudson Valley foie gras flows from brittle, charred skin. Buttery, gamey liver rides over an essence seared from the pan, extravagantly bittersweet and meaty, as though the chef just finished an order of prime beef or even duck before reaching for the foie gras, as if the flavors are inadvertent. Melting over it, a sauce redolent of cherries or French Pinot Noir: currant and balsamic, reduced and just maybe touched with truffle oil. My dinner companion that particular evening called the next day to continue her verbal essay on the wonders of foie gras after I cut her off during the meal. The cooking is engaging—winnowed from some fancy ingredients, plated and served for the "informed casual" set.
I don't know how else to describe Suze but informed and laidback. Smart casual means jacket and no tie, or something—so that's out. The word "neighborhood" misses the point. Sure, they fry up green tomatoes, an everyday recipe leftover from original owner Susie Priore's days, but dab this Southern classic in marinara—what trendier kitchens would call "tomatoes two ways." There's the rustic, cornmeal-style crunch of Dixie yielding to a striving acidic fruitiness, dusty Italian herbs and piquant shavings of cheese.
Chef-driven? Obviously. Yet consider my experience reserving a table that one evening. Or, better still, another visit when people at the next table repeatedly asked for "Gilbert" to stop by, only to be rebuffed because, the waiter explained, orders were still coming in and the chef couldn't possibly abandon his post. Food-driven—nay, food-obsessed—may be more accurate, if only they would keep their obsessive, salt-shaking mitts off Kobe beef.
No, Suze defies description. It's a restaurant above inside-/outside-the-loop snobbery. Well, maybe not above, as it makes no pretensions to be other than what it is, and what it is...um...damn it, despite a few creeping flaws and a cramped dining space that steadfastly shuns fashionable décor, the place is still good.
Whether you know it or not.
4345 W. Northwest Highway, 214-350-6135. Open 5:30-10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. $$$
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