Taste of Whimsy
New York magazine proclaimed it the new hanger. Is this a compliment? Hard to tell, especially when you consider ancestry. The hanger steak, a grainy beef cut that a flock of clever chefs nudged into tender meat with intense flavor, quickly landed on bistro menus. But its pedigree is not for the squeamish. The hanger, also known as the hanging tender and the onglet among the French, is a pair of supporting muscles of the cattle diaphragm joined by an elastic membrane. Its function is to push secretions from the pancreas. Yum. "Onglet must be well hung," says the encyclopedia Larousse Gastronomique, "the meat is then tender and juicy." Something must have been lost in translation. Culinary reference books usually aren't this funny on purpose.
The hanger is also cheap.
Flatiron steak, the "new hanger," is also cheap. But instead of being an incidental meat vivified by therapeutic kitchen treatment, the flatiron is contrived. Research teams from the universities of Nebraska and Florida developed the cut with funding from the National Cattleman's Beef Association (great steaks aren't born; they're test-tubed). The flatiron is actually a blade steak creatively severed from the tender top blade roast, a "beef chuck shoulder clod" in Cattleman's Beef Association parlance. But like the onglet, the French may have been in on this one, too. One theory has it they tagged it "flatiron" because of the thick gristle and sinew plate running through the center of the cut; gristle as hard as iron. Yet once this plate is removed, the flatiron is considered one of the two most tender muscles on the cattle carcass.
It's not surprising then that Mignon, originally conceived as an Americanized Parisian steak bistro bathed in 1960s cultural tedium, would eventually toss in a flatiron. Mignon's grilled flat is remarkable: strips of rosy tender meat with brittle singe edges pepper-corned into grittiness. Steak slices are crowned with bright greens and bedded in a smooth, light black truffle reduction.
The most arresting element is squirreled under the meat: a creamy foie gras, shaved celery root salad. Think of the suspicions a bowl of this would elicit at a church picnic. Think of the howls of heresy those picnic-goers would throw when they discovered that the salad is served at room temperature. Bacteria cultures and hangover pizza are served at room temperature, not side salads. What's with this culinary limbo? Chef Jon Stevens, who once worked at the defunct Mercury in the Shops at Willow Bend, says his intention was to serve this rich and smooth salad precisely at room temperature as it hits the table, an intention that demands precise service coordination. "The foie gras gets kind of funky," he says. "When it's hot, it gets weird; it starts to get grainy." It arrives dead-on room temp. But it's still weird, tasty though it is.
But is the transmogrified Mignon? When Mignon was embedded in the portfolio of E. Brands Restaurant Group, the former fine-dining concept incubator of Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, it had a quasi-French bistro menu, from tableside-prepped steak tartare, to French onion soup, to lamb French dip. Stevens says his quest was to strip the steak-heavy French veneer and stir in a slightly brash New Americanism. He even pulled steak frites off the menu, which turned out to be a blunder as customers bewilderedly asked how a restaurant could abstain from steak frites when the dish was part of the restaurant signage outside? For new owner Nick Natour, who operated the defunct Enclave restaurant, Mignon was an off-the-shelf endeavor. He changed almost nothing after pulling it from Carlson, leaving untouched the martini and highball murals above the bar, the orange spiraling velvet banquettes, the portrait of Audrey Hepburn and the clock behind the bar permanently set at just a couple of minutes past midnight.
But Stevens has seemingly drained a little of the whimsy flocking the walls and irrigated his menu with it. Like the room-temperature salad, grilled Texas quail is just plain weird. A bird is completely de-boned, rolled and wrapped in thinly sliced apple-smoked bacon, then pan-seared so the bacon renders. It's a long, thin tube that resembles a sausage--a characterization Stevens reacts to with some horror. The tube is flanked with wings of creamy parmesan polenta. Richness is supplied by shavings of blue cheese that melt and run like creamy fingers down the crusty grilled tube. All of this soaks in a puddle of balsamic butter; searing acids tamed by fat. At first sight, I suspect that this roll is dry and leathery. This is a mirage. The quail is slightly pink, tender and flush with juice just beneath the gritty sheath. "The biggest thing with quail is fighting the bones," Stevens insists. "And a lot of people don't order quail because of that. So I just simplified it." Simplified?
Even snails are tampered with. Stevens drills streaks of wit into the classic escargot en croute collusion of snails and puff pastry swamped with garlic, butter and parsley. Sautéed snails arrive as tarry dots in a puddle of Madeira demi-glace pimpled with minced red onion that's steeped in red wine vinegar and sugar and finished with butter. The snails were tender and chewy. Nested nearby was the pastry: a crisp strudel with a dry, pasty goat cheese and wild mushroom core. "I really didn't want to do it the classic way, because everybody can do that," Stevens says. But is every twist viable? This is pleasurably close, but a rethinking of that strudel might position it for the kill.
Unfortunately, duck confit salad was the walking wounded. Not pathetic and stumbling, just a swagger with a shuffling gait, a dish in dire need of editing. A swath of greens is riddled with shabbily trimmed frisée--browning cores still clasping the ragged ribs. The mouth has a load to contend with here, but the duck carries almost none of it. Blueberries sweat sweet unction in a thick syrup while black lentils and pickled onions pebble the verjus, a racy, youthful dressing made from unripe grapes. Duck was lost, both in quantity and taste, which fades precipitously on the tongue. The meat had no presence or clarity. It is a deadly sin to hide a headliner in a blur.
But this is rare. Like the flatiron, most of the entrées are solid--if surprising--marriages. As if to announce a strange alliance, the salmon fillet is served in a bowl instead of on a plate. Salted, peppered, oiled and grilled, the fish rests in a ragout of leeks, potatoes and parsley buerre blanc. The meat is firm, rich and moist with flakes peeling off promiscuously with every forkful.
The other white meat does well, too. It's tall: two thick chops stacked and littered with fried onions on a plate dotted with roasted apple wedges and caramelized cipollini onions. This may sound too pestered to be worthy, but be patient. These thick chops are nursed for two days on a diet of nothing more than olive oil, garlic and thyme. What this gets you is a thick, pink chop that burns with flavor and is so tender and juicy, simple fork pressure severs it into bite sizes. Supple, creamy banana crepes neatly tie off the ends left disheveled from all of this shameless meat indulgence.
But with a name like Mignon, only a filched quote from Larousse can sum it up: "well hung."
4005 Preston Road, No. 518, Plano, 972-943-3372. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily. Open for dinner 5 p.m-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$$
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