Room with a view and good eats:  Nana has a new look.
Room with a view and good eats: Nana has a new look.
Stephen P. Karlisch

The Babe's Back

The brothel burgundy that drenched everything--including the sagging velvet curtains--has been stripped away. The acoustical ceiling has been blown out and replaced by a glossy surface, recessed lighting and crystal chandeliers. Plus, there's more window real estate now, so you can actually see the Dallas skyline instead of just a building-and-a-half peeking through the fuzzy pleats.

Amazingly, you don't really notice the changes so much because, taken as a whole, the alterations are so understated they let the room breathe, allowing it to come to the forefront. Before, you had to wade through a slew of vulgar visual schlock before the room could speak.

This isn't to say that Nana Grill (as it was christened in 1984) was designed and outfitted with tin vision. Back then, the room duds were posh and plush. "It's hard to believe, unless you look at old pictures, how oppressive it really was," says Nana Executive Chef David McMillan, who last year replaced Doug Brown (now at the Melrose Hotel). That's why it all had to go, from the tables to the flatware and dishes, to the draperies, the artwork and the ceiling. Everything was sold off wholesale. The only thing that returned was Nana herself, a 6-by-9-foot portrait of a reclining, Rubenesque nude painted by Russian-Polish artist Gospodin Marcel Gavriel Suchorowsky in 1881.

But Nana almost didn't return. McMillan says a fresh frame on Nana resulted in a change in the picture's dimensions, a variance that no one had accounted for. The result was Nana didn't fit into the elevator to make her return voyage to the 27th floor when it came time to reinstall her. So workers carried her up to the floor above through the stairwell, opened the elevator doors and set her down on top of the elevator car one floor below. "A bare-assed naked lady went bare-assed naked up the elevator shaft," McMillan says.

Now she shares her digs with an assortment of priceless Asian art from the 7,000-piece collection owned by Trammell and Margaret Crow, who have amassed one of the largest private collections of such art in the world. Nana pieces include a pair of Thai gilt-bronze Buddhas, a collection of jade horses weighing in at 300 pounds each, two pairs of cloisonné vases and two Siamese watercolors that measure more than 7 feet.

All of this art fares well in a room with unobtrusive sage green curtains, colorful carpeting and newly installed banquettes. The clear glass windows wrapping the raised open kitchen--resembling an air traffic control tower--have been replaced with ribbed, sandblasted panels, subduing the severe visual thrust of this culinary cockpit. McMillan says the new glass reminds him of the check-in window in a dentist's office.

But instead of ruinously expensive bridges and crowns, McMillan installs ruinously expensive nibbles and grub. The cheapest appetizer is 12 bucks, while the most expensive (Beluga caviar and whole roasted foie gras for up to eight) are more than $100. Entrées range from $32 for roasted chicken to $45 for a wild Texas antelope chop. (McMillan says his food costs on the latter breach 50 percent.)

This is a special-occasion restaurant by almost any measure. And the food is, for the most part, flawless--as should be expected at these prices.

It starts with a complimentary appetizer in regalia: a tiny dollop of crab salad in a large silver spoon with a handle curved back on itself so that it can be perched on a plate. The components were refreshing, if a little fishy.

But entrants on the paid appetizer roster shined brightly.

Two coated and fried lobster claws served as meat parcels on the plate, which was crowded with four sauces that melded seamlessly. These included a gently brisk truffle vinaigrette splashed on an accompanying patch of scallion herb salad, dots of pink ginger aioli, oozing green swirls of coriander oil and splashes of sweet chili sauce. Coated with a delicately brittle chestnut flour layer that successfully dodged chalky, gummy consistencies, the claw meat was sweet and firmly fibrous. Callously dragging pieces of it through this congestion of fluids detracted from the meat in no discernable way--such was the thought that went into this heap.

Often the best thing about dining in the fine is being flabbergasted by a particular convergence of flavors a chef has come up with. It's a marvel how some can harness a battery of assertive tastes without them clashing into, stumbling over or neutralizing each other. Grilled Texas quail is one such forum. McMillan assaults it with Armagnac poached prunes, caramelized onions, a pinot noir gastrique (a sauce fashioned of sugar, wine and game stock) and props the whole thing on a thick pumpernickel-dark slice of medjool date cake. Medjool dates are a rich, moist fruit that McMillan hauls in from California. He combines the dates with currants in a buckwheat flour medium, stuffs it into pineapple juice cans and steams the melee until it mutates into a tubelike cake. This is an avalanche of palate-blunting sweetness. Yet somehow in the mingling, these gustatory powers elegantly wrap around the juicy fresh quail without squeezing it breathless.

This touch is also evident in McMillan's grilled prime fillet. McMillan starts with the acquisition of a superb piece of meat--one that hails from Chicago, not Texas. Then he hits it with a barrage of flavor salvos, including a black shallot sauce rendered from burnt shallot specks deglazed with balsamic and later port, and a tomato ginger jam. But these forces are militantly blunted with veal stock, butter and deft handling, mercilessly shaving off the edges. The result is an astounding piece of rich, silky meat that comes through clean and true with just the flavor edges enhanced and amplified by this rush of culinary ravishment.

Dishes given the Rossini moniker--named after the Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini because of his intense passion for food--harmonize meat, foie gras, truffles and a sauce. Nana's veal Rossini, a thick, juicy tournedos of veal draped with a rich blanket of sautéed foie gras, is an alluring commingling of inert pith with opulent glandular velvet. While the foie gras supplies the neutrally flavored meat with depth and dimension, the perigueux sauce, a brew of Madeira and truffles, gently wraps the two elements so that their flavor differential is smoothly broached and not left as a jarring chasm.

Yet for all the successes on this menu, there are a few missteps. "Duck by demand" is one of them, so named because McMillan begrudgingly installed it from the menu of the burgundy-sodden Nana Grill after his new duck dish failed to take hold. "We swore we weren't going to have anything off the old menu," McMillan says. "Nobody liked the new duck. So we just brought it back."

And all the elements are there: the generous heap of duck parts with crisp brown skin rubbed in a heady mix of sugar, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, fennel and clove and roasted; a balsamic dry cherry glaze with an understated balsamic presence and a crush of fresh cherries armed with a searing tartness that cleans the palate and allows the duck skin spices to prosper on the tongue; and a fresh, lush knot of hydroponic watercress crowded onto the side of the plate like some freshly shorn crop.

But the duck was dry. And a side of turnip mash was watery and bitter, throwing the well-earned flavor balance into an unnecessary fit of disarray.

Even worse was the Dover sole with roasted pearl potatoes, delicious fresh fava beans and lobster nage, a lobster broth-based sauce blended with wine and butter. The milky strips of sole were elegantly laid out over the nage, packed as it was with tender sweet pieces of lobster. But the fish was spongy, hard around the edges and didn't flake easily. It was smitten with an odd taste, one of aged flesh or maybe one conceived from a freeze and thaw. Whatever the cause, the fish was virtually inedible and at 39 bucks, hard to digest.

Dessert capped things off well with a fine citrus lemon charlotte in berry sauce. The cake was moist and smooth, and the lemon filling was tart and punched with slices of fresh grapefruit and orange on top. It's all so elegant, ever so priceless.

McMillan and company strive for an experience on the plate that matches or rivals the art and the view, and for the most part they succeed. But when--by design or momentum--these heights shot for are not reached, the crash can be pretty ugly, sending disconcerting ripples through the rest of an otherwise perfect meal. And that's when the bare-assed naked babe blushes.


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