Perhaps Lola owner Van Roberts operates on a different plane, maybe the kind derived from a salad where the porcinis are subbed with magic buttons. Whatever you make of his latest culinary plunge, The Tasting Room, his balance-sheet projections seem to emanate from a different dimension than those generated by the rest of Dallas' nibble barons. While the bulk of those operating in the upper sliver of the city's dining culture are tweaking menus, cutting prices and gradually wringing the "cult" from their wine lists, Roberts is kicking a conga line further up the scale. A few months ago, Roberts converted a driveway alongside his 3-plus-year-old restaurant into a tasting room complete with a dedicated kitchen and a chef, David Uygur. It's a Dallas version of the precious "dish" prepared with nanotechnology and eaten with tweezers and jeweler's loupes à la the French Laundry in Napa and Charlie Trotter's in Chicago. It's the kind of food that on a per-pound basis is more expensive than Defense Department toilet seats. What a fool.
Except it's been a petite smash (just try getting in on a Friday or Saturday night). "It's had a little bit of a halo effect in terms of bringing in new customers," Roberts says. "It's got a little bit of a buzz going on."
There's no buzz in The Tasting Room, though. Unlike the regular Lola dining room with its hard floors and windows that contribute to a conversation-harassing din, the tasting room has thick carpeting and opulently upholstered chairs. You can hear a peppercorn roll off your fork tines.
The ochre room is also bedecked with artwork, mostly women (seminude) and mostly from Roberts' hand. Roberts not only operates a lucrative auto dealership (Point West Volvo) and a successful restaurant, he's also a skilled artist.
Go ahead. Hate him.
But there is a bit of schadenfreude in there for us: Roberts works like a schnauzer. He toils six days a week, five of them in excess of 15 hours each, keeping his fingers on both the restaurant and car dealership joysticks. This doesn't leave him much time to paint, which, judging by the work on the tasting room walls, is not a good thing.
What is a good thing is the food, especially when each dish is taken out of the context of the tasting chain. These dining vignettes (technically known as "petite courses") come in installments of 10 or 15. Courses are grouped into clusters of two or three and are headed off by a wine suggestion.
The visual aesthetics are as compelling as the tastes. A single cold poached Wellfleet oyster on the half shell with droopy cucumber slivers is embedded in a puff of wet salt studded with red and black peppercorns. Once past the lips, the oyster somehow liquefies and dissipates in the mouth, leaving behind a gentle vapor trail of brisk vinegar.
Few greater works of culinary penmanship exist apart from the loup de mer (Mediterranean sea bass) escabeche and panissa. Panissa is peasant food, a blurb of polenta-like fiber made of chickpeas and sizzled in oil. It's an oblong disc of gold on one end of the tiny plate, like a teardrop framed with baseboard. It's a fitting contrast to the strip of fish subjected to the blistering Spanish "pickling" treatment known as escabeche: a spicy marinade of vinegar, onions, peppers and spices. The fish bit with brine and brushes of acridity. But intermittent applications of panissa buffered the power, keeping those bud synapses from going numb.
Like many of the room's little phrasings, the octopus carpaccio arrived on a square plate: little discs of thinly sliced poached octopus tiled with precision in rows and columns. An adhesive of olive oil and lemon gripped them to the plate while a buzz cut of chopped mint and parsley gave them herbal breath.
This trio was paired with a serviceable but ultimately unmoving Roerderer Estate sparkling wine. The next batch was hooked to a compelling Terlano Classico, an Italian rag quilt of sauvignon blanc, pinot bianco and Riesling that washed with raciness, gentle aromas and clean melon fruit.
It worked with fungi that assumed the texture of cream in a salad of raw and cooked matsutake and porcini mushrooms, though the thick and chewy matsutake slice draped over the mush was firm and chewy, injecting contrast.
Pink snapper hobnobbed with shellfish: a pair of tiny littleneck clams in a dribble of soubise (béchamel with pureed cooked onions and a dab of cream) juxtaposed to a petite snapper strip crowned with mirapoix. Briny fish flakes poked at shellfish sweetness with downplayed richness.
Yet at this point cautionary flags must be scurried up the pole. While the previous entrants were sublime, the dishes that followed were sublimity dressed in alarming plus-sizes. Richness and weight grow and veer off the rails--so much so that while little pleasant stimulants teased the tongue, the power harangued the gullet.
Lola's tasting room is similar to a Charlie Trotter's orgy: a brutal, pleasurable torture delivered in thousands of precise, petite teases. But while the Trotter's menu is weight-conscious, this one suffers from unbearable bloat delivered in increments. Delicious gratin of cardoons (a celery-artichoke crossing) and fennel is moderately rich and is followed by a well-placed respite of lobster-mushroom pasta envelopes in feather-light mushroom consommé.
But poundings come after the soup sweat is licked (and you will lick it) from the bowl's bottom. Date-stuffed quail with prosciutto and lacinato kale is exquisite: two upended rolls of quail breast with dates in the centers, like a pair of pupils staring into your nostrils. The meat is juicy and rich, with a quail stock reduction that flirts shamelessly with caramel. But the real lucre arrives as a rectangular block of seared terrine of pork shank with aligot--a sauce formulated with mashed potatoes and cheese. This is a pork fat, starch and dairy body blow, even if it is no bigger than a cell phone.
You need Kevlar gullet lining to keep up. Because what follows is a silky but elegantly rich roasted saddle of lamb--two chops with a green tomato gratin. Then to ensure you're shuffled to the valet on a conveyor belt, lamb is followed by an exquisite seared lobe of foie gras with grapes dueling in micro-plate corners with a foie gras mousse straddling a sauterne gelatin.
Yeah, there is a fig and mint sorbet breather. But all it does is snap you into consciousness so that you're in reasonable shape to face more tortures, which in this case is dessert: three American farmstead cheeses with pears; cognac-soaked brioche; and a rich but deft chocolate genoise with mousse and bananas. It's paired with an Australian Tokay muscadelle, but I couldn't go near the stuff, lest I pop like a Fat Bastard vulgarity.
If you look at this tasting menu as isolated musical phrases, each dish is executed almost flawlessly. But a fixed tasting menu is not a normal feeding with individual plucks from a slate of appetizers and entrées. It is an orchestration, one in which each phrase in the continuous string must be composed with acute awareness of what precedes and what follows. Perhaps that's why the Trotter's menu is restrained with its terrestrial flesh and relatively promiscuous with its flora. Tasting room chef David Uygur has shown himself to be a brilliant composer of vignettes. Perhaps more consciousness to context will catapult what is already among the finest dining experiences in Dallas to the pinnacle.
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