Taming Cowtown

"Why isn't this is in Dallas?" was the out-loud reaction of a friend when he first set eyes on USA Cafe. (From blocks away, I might add. You can't miss it, and I'd like to try.)

Good question.
USA Cafe--big, trendy, and mega in every way ("23,000 square feet of good food and fun," brags the phone-mail menu)--is exactly the kind of national, glitzy, media-moshing, eatertainment theme park that Dallas adores, its opening thoroughly covered by the panting people-press. Why isn't it in the West End?

Is it because Fort Worth is becoming the city Dallas wants to be?
For years, Fort Worth has been a food-free zone. Sure, Dallasites could say superciliously, it's got great museums, but where do you go to eat? Dallas was the city with the world-class restaurants, and after all, what really counts as culture? I know all about the few exceptions--apologies to Michael, Michel, and Bernard--but no one could have called Cowtown a great place to eat. Until now. The Basses have reinvented their hometown's downtown, and part of the result is a dining renaissance all over Fort Worth.

Like I said, you can't miss USA Cafe--over its entrance, the Lady of Liberty's bust is extremely prominent. Inside, you're greeted by more larger-than-you'd-like art. Artist-of-all-trades Bob Wade's simple-minded satire of Mount Rushmore depicts Washington in a baseball cap, Lincoln in a leather football helmet, Teddy with a stogie and fedora, Jefferson decked out in feathers. It's a reminder that one of the problems with this particular theme is its celebrity deficit. It's also an appropriately cliched vision that prepares you for more of the same downstairs, where you can hang out in the brewpub-sports bar or eat from a slightly more legitimate menu in the grill. It's not much of a choice, really. Everywhere, the decor plays the same red, white, and blue chords--walls are plastered with newspaper (free press, cheap wallpaper), the Declaration of Independence is punned at every turn, and famous Americans' witticisms and wise sayings serve as graffiti. For instance, there's one from Will Rogers: "Calvin Coolidge didn't say much, and when he did, he didn't say much," an easy paraphrase for USA Cafe itself, a theme restaurant whose concept is stretched as thin as democracy.

The pub features a cyberbar--a bank of frozen-up computers that, when we were there, denied anyone access to anything, in front of a wall of Warholian flags. So we perched at a stilt-legged table in sight of the sports events repeating themselves on the multiple monitors and surveyed the scene while we waited for a waitress. We waited so long that we started wondering how far they were planning on taking this American theme. Was the goal for us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, so to speak, and serve ourselves? I finally went and asked the bartender if we were supposed to be waited on. He answered, "yeah, something like that," and sent a waitress over with beer--"New World Amber," a nice, bitter brew and "Lady Liberty," one of those fruit-flavored mysteries that brewpubs consider a necessity. The pub serves sandwiches, burgers, and soups, an American snack menu that is expanded on in the grill across the hall. But of course the grill isn't notable for its food--what has people talking is its semi-stage and chorus line of chambray-clad waiters and waitresses who can all sing and dance, and unfortunately do. We were eating early, and the waitstaff outnumbered the diners by maybe three to one; this didn't improve service any, but did inspire a semi-spontaneous rehearsal of several routines. When things are really busy, I hear they break into more choreographed boogaloo.

An American theme restaurant is not a new idea--it's been done before and better. One wonders if USA's owners (I like that phrase) ever visited Ark Restaurant Group's America in New York, with its coast-to- coast mural and menu. But USA Cafe celebrates America's generic food, the kudzu cuisine that's smothering regionalism.

Leaving USA Cafe, you have to blink for a minute to realize that you're outside the theme restaurant. Because downtown Fort Worth is becoming a theme park. Forget Cowtown--those billionaire brothers are busy building Basstown, their city of dreams, and people are coming. In the past year or two, Sundance Square in downtown Fort Worth has become a dining and entertainment nucleus, and it's enticed a number of Dallas restaurants to go west. Blue Mesa Grill, Mi Cocina, Empire Baking Company, 8.0, and Flying Saucer transplants are all flourishing--some, like Mi Cocina, wildly.

Shannon Wynne, owner of 8.0 and Flying Saucer, says his business is up 20 percent at Flying Saucer, and he attributes a lot of that success directly to the Basses, the Medicis of Fort Worth. "They told me people in Fort Worth won't stand in line and wait, but now lines at my place are half a block long. The Basses have done it." You see lots of people out at night on the streets of Sundance Square, because the streets are patrolled by what Wynne likes to call the "Bass-stapo," a private police security group that communicates with Fort Worth Police Department.  

Of course, we're not talking throngs of art patrons, or even many out-of-Texas tourists. The opening of the NASCAR track has drawn the largest crowds to the area so far. So large that the USA Cafe, which was still in its colonial stage at the time, didn't even try to serve food from its menu, offering instead a country-club-style buffet, complete with steamship round. So large that the staff at Angeluna, the shiniest star on the new Fort Worth dining scene, has already developed a Dallas-like snobby attitude about the "race people."

You never used to see restaurants like Angeluna in Fort Worth. The sibling of chichi Mezzaluna in Aspen, it's a hard-core contemporary space, sound bouncing off the tiled floor and high, sky-scaped ceiling. Its visual piece de resistance is the wall of 200 original works of art interpreting the restaurant's name (which means "angel moon"). Unfortunately, these are hung so tightly they seem to be a single, wallpaper-like piece, and there's no catalog or key, so you don't know who did what. Art as interior design was handled much better by Shannon Wynne at 8.0 down the block. There, you can't miss the point.

Angeluna chef Clark McDaniel is a graduate of El Centro's Culinary Apprenticeship Program and worked with Kevin Rathbun at Baby Routh, so the metaphorical menu is hardly unexpected. Dishes have names like "standing streudel" and "angel wings" (in a tamarind-lime "birdbath"). A Chinese-inspired beef salad comes with Asian "begetables." Ravioli are stuffed with "yesterday's truffle tators." And McDaniel's "one world cuisine" label means he pulls in a wild diversity of ingredients and techniques, so you find menu listings like "Joe's shrimp paesano with Limoncello butter martini style," "sumac-seared lamb carpaccio with black lentil hummus and harrissa-mint aioli," and "jerk-spiced chicken with bonito fufu and mango-habanero vinaigrette." It's only a degree over from USA's cuisine--Angeluna features the food of the un-melted melting pot. Translating this from the page to your palate's imagination so you can order a coherent meal takes quite a bit of time, yours and the waiter's. Even then, what we expected and what we ate often had little to do with one another. Jerk chicken had no more flavor than any grilled chicken breast, despite the implications of "jerk," "habanero," and even "bonito fufu." Those truffled-tator ravioli were a giant conglomeration, a pasta stew strung with threads of oxtail meat, only faintly redolent of fungus, and slicked with rich demi-glace. Lamb carpaccio, slices so thin they had to be scraped from the plate, had flavor in corresponding amount, though the black lentil hummus molded in the center of the plate was good with the mint. And the satin scallops, scented with the green curry and lemon grass that infused an accompanying "risotto," succeeded in blending world flavors satisfactorily through the universal medium of rice. Pork tenderloin, cooked medium, came with a tangy Stilton flan, caramelized pears, and candied walnuts--a well-conceived, if unseasonal, dish. Still, the bread basket we were presented at the beginning of the meal, with two breadsticks rising like alien antennae out of a loaf, was accurate foreshadowing that the food at Angeluna was going to be more about style than taste.

The best of the new restaurants showcase Fort Worth's flair for the understated, whether they celebrate a return to Cowtown's roots (which it's not afraid are showing), or a re-creation of relaxation in another part of the world. There's an inclination towards easiness, an absence of stylistic shrillness in some Fort Worth restaurants that seems to stem from a lack of cultural self-consciousness. For instance, Reata--named after the ranch in "Giant," probably the most hallowed mythological place in Texas (after the Alamo)--could have been the hokiest place in town. We've all seen too many kitschy Western interiors with horseshoe chandeliers and cowboy-boot wine coolers. But Reata comes across as a genuine article, the real thang, even though its location is 35 floors up in a bank building, normally a bad sign for a restaurant. Even though it has its own souvenir shop.

Here's how authentic the cowboy theme is: Some of the beef served at Reata actually comes from the herd of Herefords on owner Al Micallef's Clear Fork Ranch, and the first Reata restaurant was in Alpine. Fort Worth's Reata presents real Western style--furnishings and fittings are designed for full comfort, and no apparent corners are cut, but the attitude is open-armed, and on a recent Saturday night the restaurant's dining rooms were filled with loud-laughing Fort Worth families as well as business types and couples. The bar serves real margaritas, and you can eat right there if you want to, cuddled in a cowhide chair with a view of Sundance Square and USA Cafe. The menu is straightforward and protein-heavy--velvety calf fries come with thick, pepper-spiked cream gravy; big juicy shrimp were wrapped in bacon and sweetened with caramelized onions and star-shaped polenta. A hefty, perfectly cooked T-bone (your waiter will insist on cutting it open to make sure it is perfectly cooked) makes you rejoice in your carnivorousness and is accompanied by a rich enchilada filled with herb-flecked cacciotta. Tamales are luxuriously packed with shredded beef, smoothed with goat cheese, and given a gentle crunch with toasted pumpkin seeds. For once, a restaurant where the food is about flavor, not fashion. This kitchen's horizons end with the Red River and the Rio Grande, and that's world enough for this menu.  

On the other hand, the cuisine at Bistro Louise is described confusingly as "Mediterranean," with "bits of Asia, South America, Mexico, and, of course, the U.S." (After all, what else is there? Does this just mean the menu boycotts kiwi?) Louise Lamensdorf has been part of the Fort Worth food scene for decades. With Renie Steves, she founded French Apron School of Cooking, and she's been in charge of some of Fort Worth's most notable kitchens, so it's not surprising that her new restaurant is one of the best places to eat in Fort Worth. Or that she ignored trends and settled in a space far from Sundance Square in a new, nearly-strip shopping center. Designed as a little market, with cases of imported cheese, olives, baked goods, and a tiny wine bar, Bistro Louise's style is refined but relaxed. One wall is painted like a clouded sky, another is hung with a collection of plates, and one area is set off by a gazebo, reassuringly entwined with plastic grapevines. How unpretentious can you get?

And despite the description, the results on the plate make perfect sense. Bread--hot, crusty, and irresistible--is baked on the premises. Caesar, a southwestern version, is garnished with smoked corn and roasted peppers, melded to the lettuce with a heavy, tangy dressing. A fabulous appetizer of shrimp, solidly crusted with crushed macadamia nuts and sauced with grilled pineapple and melon bits; a bread pudding of garlic and shiitake mushrooms in a leek coulis; a quail stuffed with veal and duck, then topped with candied mushrooms, exhibit the kind of creativity this kitchen is capable of. Occasionally, a dish goes over the top--a special of saffron linguine and ricotta-stuffed tortellini was topped with duck sausage as well as a stew of wild and domestic mushrooms--with so much, in fact, that your mouth lost track of them all.

Louise's desserts were good, too, especially the cheesecake, but the best cheesecake we've had in a long time (excepting the Carnegie Deli classics Marty's flies in) were at Randall's Gourmet Cheesecake Company & European Market, a long handle for a tiny downtown cafe, not far from the glow of Sundance. Randall's offers a different selection daily, rotating cakes from their collection of sixty recipes. We tried three--chocolate, apricot, and plain--and found them exceptional without exception--tall, fluffy but creamy, not too sweet, not too dense. Randall's also makes savory cheesecakes, flavored with prosciutto or smoked scallops or salmon, all unfashionably heavy-duty concoctions that for us constituted the beginning and end of the meal on one plate. Randall's is open for lunch and dinner--for lunch, one of the thick sandwiches made on homemade herb bread, with a green salad and a glass of wine from the nice selection, is one of the more civilized experiences Fort Worth has to offer. It's the kind of old-fashioned, low-key, confident food style we see so little of in Dallas.

By the way, Randall's is next door to the Peter Bros. hat company--Fort Worth is still the kind of town where a man knows where to go to buy a hat. And how to wear one.

Angeluna, 215 E. 4th St., (817) 334-0080. Open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Friday 11 a.m.-midnight, Saturday noon-midnight, Sunday noon-11 p.m.

USA Cafe, 425 Commerce St., Sundance Square, (817) 335-5400. Grill is open Wednesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-midnight. Brewery is open daily 11 a.m.-2 a.m.

Bistro Louise, 2900 South Hulen, (817) 922-9244. Open for lunch Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; for dinner Monday-Thursday 6 p.m.-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 6 p.m.-10 p.m.

Reata, Bank One Tower, 500 Throckmorton St., (817)336-1009. Open for lunch Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; for dinner 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m.

Randall's Cheesecake Co., Houston St., (817) 336-2253. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday-Thursday 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m.  

USA Cafe:
Quesadillas $6.25
Smoked Prime Rib $14.50

Truffle Tater Ravioli 15.00
Wood-Fired Pork Tenderloin $19.00

Calf Fries with Cracked Pepper Gravy $7.95
Hand-Rolled Beef Tamales $14.25

Bistro Louise:
Japanese Macadamia Shrimp $7.50

Chicken Pesto Sandwich $6.95
Cheese Platter $7.95

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Reata Restaurant

310 Houston St.
Fort Worth, TX 76102



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