The French master

Guy Calluaud is a flexible guy. Once the proprietor of Dallas' top French restaurant, now the Hard Rock Cafe's parking lot, Guy and his wife have since opened and closed several, mostly Gallic, eateries.

The current place on Lovers has been open a year or so, and even in that time has bent, changed, and shifted considerably with gastronomic fashion. Right now, its menu is titled (in three different typefaces): The Bistro, Calluaud's Mediterranean Cafe, Tapas and Wine Bar. Tapas makes you think of Spanish food, but lots of these little dishes are more French. On the other hand, some of the entres are more Italian, and you'll find Moroccan couscous and merguez sausage and Spanish paella on the menu, too. In other words, what have we here? Whatever you want.

So we sat back and ordered cold white wine and the first thing that appealed to us--a plate of olives, some goat cheese, and some fried potatoes. The food came first, a little dish of big purple kalamata and small glistening nicoise olives, goat cheese molded into cigar-shaped cylinders and wrapped in crisped phyllo, and a plate of the best fried potatoes in the city: pale gold, crisp, lightly salted, and dusted with oregano. (The oregano allows them to be called "Tuscan"--not "French"--fries.)

Unfortunately, we had seriously diminished the food before the wine finally arrived--in fact, we had to call Guy for wine aid.

As we softened the edges of our hunger, we checked out the room around us. It's actually not much to look at, and this fare deserves a more exciting setting than a roomful of Park City blue-hairs. But sometimes food creates its own ambiance, and somehow, though our eyes told us we were sitting in a conference room with chandeliers under an acoustic ceiling hardly disguised by the molding strips tacked to it, our taste buds told us we were sitting in a Mediterranean bistro or taverna, with a blue sky overhead deepening to purple. Surely there was salt water somewhere nearby.

Still feeling nibbly, we ordered some artichoke hearts, quartered, blanched, and marinated oh-so-lightly in oil with garlic and oregano and a little dish of sheer ravioli swollen with minced mushrooms. Spanish shrimp came tightly curled like little ears in a garlic and pepper-flecked sauce; a pitiful-looking quail was naked and spread-eagled on a butter plate, grilled till not quite done. Pull his little legs off, and you feel like you're eating a large bug instead of real food. So why don't you feel squeamish? Because he tastes so good.

There were some problems. The bread was too hot when it was cut--you could tell by the squished slices and shattered crust. It was not so hot when we got it. The ramekin of butter cost 75 cents. We sprang for it in spite of the olive oil pools around most of the food and wished for Empire's crusted loaves. Why cut this corner? The cold potato omelet was just that, and probably happier in its previous life as a hot potato omelet. But our table was full of little empty dishes, testament to the good time the taste buds were having.

We ate more and switched to red wine, asking about one bottle on the by-the-glass list, but all our server could tell us was, "It's French." (We looked around for Guy to tell us more.)

Finally, we decided to go for an entree. Lamb chops are still morsel-like, and eating with our hands suited the style of the meal we had set. By this time, the room was filled--even the smoking section where we were sitting, though we don't smoke. But we didn't like the table by the front door we were offered to begin with, and on a Friday, they were determined to give a couple a two-top. The table next to us wasn't exactly smoking, but the big men were sucking on unlit cigars, not goat cheese. They were obviously regulars (as were most of the diners) and got hugs and attention from Martine.

And the lamb chops were disappointing after all, bitter-tasting from the grill char but otherwise lacking the sweetness, even the pre-mutton whiff, of good lamb; lacking, in fact, any kind of flavor at all. But they came with more French fries, not "Tuscan fries" but close, so all was not lost. A salad of soft bibb with a creamy, tart, mustardy dressing took us back to the Calluauds' past restaurants--surely we've tasted this before?

Finally, dessert. It's a guiding rule of life not to pass up dessert souffles, they're just too much fun. So we ordered one, even though we neglected to order it in advance. Twenty minutes for a classic Grand Marnier pouf seemed okay. It turned out to be a little tough on top, but the inside was a soft hot cloud, and the creamy sauce was self-serve. A marvelous lemon tart came in a crisp cookie crust, meltingly warm with an oozy center like yellow pudding but shockingly full of flavor, a surprise and delight to the mouth.

Just forget about expectations. Whatever Calluaud's place is or has been labeled, it was, is now, and ever shall be (as long as it's open) a place where you can give yourself up to the joys of eating. The list of entrees and tapas, cold and hot, is long and varied--so don't lock yourself into a pre-conceived menu. Order as your taste dictates. The present format lends itself to the kind of indecisive, leisurely dining that allows the palate to make up its own mind.

The Bistro, Calluaud's Mediterranean Cafe, Tapas and Wine Bar, 5405 W. Lovers Lane, 352-1997. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; for dinner Monday-Saturday 5:30-11 p.m.

Fried goat cheese cigars $3.25
Spanish garlic shrimps $4.50
Ravioli of wild mushrooms $3.75
Small house salad $2.50
Tuscan fries $1.50
Spanish omelet $2
Grilled lamb chops $16


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