Taster's choice

Everyone has to keep up with the latest information in his field. Doctors have to learn about lasers, teachers have to learn about guns, mothers have to learn about Power Rangers. (The white one is named Tommy.) And food writers have to go to tastings.

The palate needs constant education. It's snail eggs one year and shiitake the next. So, every few weeks or so you'll find me at some wine tasting, where not only do I taste the wines of the company that's invited me to lunch, but I "network" with others in my so-called field. People for whom food and wine aren't just the end, but are actually the means of living--not just the good life, but at all.

A couple of weeks ago, a group of men and women (mostly men), including me, were gathered around a table at a chi-chi restaurant, solemnly swishing and slurping, rinsing and sipping, swirling and breathing, communing quietly together in the "reverence for the wine"--Cuvaison today, requested by the winemaker, a smart Swiss gentleman with the long nose of a connoisseur.

When the tasting was over, the food was served, and conversation resumed. The talk turned immediately to food--not what we were eating at that moment, but food elsewhere and everywhere. Most of us choose wine to go with our food; wine people choose food to go with wine. Since this was mostly a group of wine people, we focused on their favorite kind of restaurant: the kind without a liquor license, where you bring your own wine.

From a foodie's point of view, they seemed a single-minded bunch--if they were fashion people, they'd blow their budget on shoes and Chanel bags. Who cares about the suit?

Amici was the name that came up--mentioned by one wine guy, seconded by another. It's not a new restaurant, but it is one I've never visited, so I made a reservation immediately, especially curious because it is in an uncharted area of Dallas, at least according to mental restaurant maps.

Carrollton has been home to some interesting things, like The Living Word water tower, but it's never been a fine dining destination, unless you happened to be desperate for some Pakistani food. (Speaking of educating the palate.) So we packed for a trip to Carrollton, which really isn't so far away as it is unfamiliar. Our luggage was simply a Mapsco and two bottles of wine, a 1992 Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay and a 1992 Saintsbury Carneros Pinot Noir (both bought at Red Coleman's).

We found Amici on the old Carrollton square, where at this time of year the store windows are filled with quaint hay bales, quaint scarecrows in gingham shirts, and piles of pumpkins, too, but quaint is the prevailing style. We took a right, then another right, drove down a side street, then screeched to a stop; we'd nearly passed Amici.

We followed the sign up the stairs into a sort of attic, the kind of low-ceilinged space that feels like a private room, or a place where you should have a password or membership card to enter. But Amici is no secret--it was full on a Thursday night. We had a feeling we were intruding as we entered, perhaps because on this night, a long table of ladies had laid claim to the entire middle of the room and all the other diners were lined up at tables around the walls.

Unless you count the stretched, but not framed, wall hangings that look like samples of Herculon for the sleeper sofa (or maybe it was textured acoustic tile), Amici has no decor, saving me a paragraph of mental notes right off the bat. I concentrated on remembering the food.

Our extremely serious waiter had some trouble remembering the food himself, but he managed to recite the specials with the aid of his notes and some consultation. I had been advised by the wine guys to order the specials. Our earnest waiter described them twice, collapsing several times over the pronunciation of feuillete, which he then defined as phyllo. We got it--thin pastry. But this appetizer was so much more than the description--great squares of the buttered pastry, piled light and high like real leaves over salmon, slivered and sauteed and creamed--and salted--to the point of terminal richness. Oh, for some crunch, some tang, some cold--well, we had the chardonnay.

And, in contrast to the utter frivolity of that enormous plate of pastry, a deep bowl of the lentil soup, drably brown, thick, nourishing, salty, smelling of smoky bacon. The kind of soup you sop with bread and call supper. We were finished before we'd begun--the appetizers finished us, you could say--but life isn't so easy for those who eat for a living.

The salads might be expected to lighten the load of that rich beginning, but it was immediately apparent that the heavily dressed Caesar had not been the best choice. ("Gloppy" was the technical term my companion used to describe it.) The thick cloak of mustard vinaigrette on the house salad overwhelmed any refreshment the greens might have offered, while the accompanying croutons with cool ricotta were pretty tasteless.

Studying the entrees, we considered how to follow such sturdiness. What about veal, with mozzarella and alfredo sauce, or shrimp and sausage in parmesan and cream or--something lighter--grilled tilapia--oh, it's in a champagne cream sauce. Three out of four specials were served in a port wine sauce. Several dishes were served with alfredo, two with "parmesan cream," one with champagne cream, one with brandy cream. No alternative to sturdiness.

So we ordered the shrimp carbonara--thick fettucine bound with an over-complicated mixture of prosciutto, bacon, sauteed shrimp and garlic, the whole thing stuck together like the nest of an enormous bird. It was tasty for about two bites. A special dish of chicken was also overwhelming--a whole half-bird, the white breast meat sliced and fanned out beside the beautifully browned leg and thigh, swimming in a deep sticky port wine sauce. (Betcha thought I was going to say cream.) The pinot noir came in handy and I could appreciate at least some of the wine guys' preference for BYOB restaurants--even if you don't love the food, you can be confident the wine will be good.

Amici, 1022 S. Broadway, Carrollton, 245-3191. Open for lunch Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday-Thursday 5:30 p.m.-8:45 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5:30 p.m-9:45 p.m.

Cheese Bread $2.95
Caesar Salad (with entree) $2.25
Chicken Alfredo $11.25
Shrimp Carbonara $16.25

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Amici Signature Italian

1022 S. Broadway St.
Carrollton, TX 75006



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