Rock stars—real rock stars, not the earnest unsigned musicians who always remember to fold up their friends' sofa beds and invite their parents to their CD release parties—are unrepentant egoists. They'd rather curse than converse, rather wear meat than cotton. They love themselves dearly, and are devoted to making sure everyone else does too.
And if they can't be loved, most rock stars will settle for being noticed: They wear down the public with outrageousness.
There's something very rock star-ish about The Green Room, the second incarnation of the revered Deep Ellum dining room that was designed as a canteen for performers at Trees. For groupies who come to bask in the restaurant's past and banter with the bartender, The Green Room's just wonderful. But The Green Room's less welcoming to guests who care more about a memorable meal than the restaurant's rumpled cool. Like all great rock stars, The Green Room rarely has the decency to recede into the background.
The Green Room
I didn't especially mind The Green Room's self-centered vibe when I ate there alone: Bon Jovi, even blared at top volume, isn't so bothersome when you're all by yourself. Although the food wasn't any better when I dined solo, I found it easier to surrender to the scruffy restaurant's stylized Gothic mood. Still, I'm not sure a diner paying $30 for an entrée should have to put up with insouciant servers, hipper than they are knowledgeable, and the hostile fluorescent light that spills out from the windowed kitchen, ensuring none of the restaurant's guests look better than the room.
The Green Room's hurt by inflated prices and reputation, but it's clotheslined by dreary, undistinguished plates. Save a simple iceberg salad and a meaty grilled pork tenderloin, I didn't sample anything I'd want to eat again. What made my meals doubly disappointing were my memories of executive chef Joel Harloff's cooking at Dali, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Harloff has to contend with the static of nostalgia. Even those customers who don't recall The Green Room's glory days and its legendary mussels, plunged in a jalapeño-ginger broth, are likely to have dedicated a page in their mental scrapbooks of successful Dallas dishes to Dali's steamed scallops with orange butter. There are mussels and scallops at the new Green Room, too, but they're roughly executed. Instead of subtlety, the kitchen consistently delivers a deluge of overwrought sauces and garish colors. Perhaps The Green Room is in its power-chord phase.
The classic way to experience The Green Room is the Feed Me, Wine Me program, which the menu describes as "a unique four-course menu created by the Chef specifically for your table." At $47 without wine and $69 with wine, the prix fixe is a bargain, although it's not exactly as advertised. While The Green Room plans to eventually restore Feed Me's mad-chef promise, the two-month-old restaurant is currently filching its featured courses from the regular menu. The upside of the arrangement is every guest gets a different dish.
I have some reservations about allowing the kitchen to assign dishes willy-nilly, since staffers are far more familiar with "best by" dates and bottom lines than the likes and dislikes of an eater who just walked through the door. But what I found most troubling was the wine pairing procedure.
The Green Room offers a limited selection of wines by the glass, and it's an odd lineup: There are beef and lamb on the menu, but the only Cabernet available is a light and fruity rendition from Arnold Palmer's winery that the bartender readily conceded couldn't "stand up to the steak." The list is heavy on jammy reds and oily white blends, a few of which aren't especially food-friendly. With such an idiosyncratic roster, it would make sense for the restaurant to figure out which wine belongs to which dish. But that's not quite how The Green Room does it: The servers are entrusted to design the pairings every time a customer chooses the "wine me" option.
That could work if the restaurant had bothered to school its servers in food and wine. Yet a server on my first visit seemed especially unequipped to play sommelier, identifying a glass of white wine as Cabernet and confessing she had to repeatedly appeal to the bartender for pairing advice. She was equally unnerved by questions related to the menu: Asked from which region the "regionally pan-seared salmon" hailed, her pussyfooting betrayed a lack of proper training.
The salmon, she explained, wasn't precisely Scottish, but it was sort of Scottish, because it was from Alaska, which is like Scotland, but better than Scotland. We didn't inquire further.
The only other hat tip toward ingredient sourcing on the menu is the daily soup, which is described as "utilizing the best of local and regional ingredients." That meant mushrooms the night I tried it. The gunky, pasty soup was a tar-colored debacle without any discernible flavor. It was rivaled in unpleasantness only by the chopped steak tartare, its dryness unleavened by the traditional raw egg. The Green Room plates its tartare with a pair of hard-boiled quail eggs, a novel touch that doesn't make up for the under-seasoned meat's pallid gray hue.
The colors of a scallops appetizer also needed adjusting: The pan-seared scallops are served in a swamp of cherry beurre blanc the shade of a Shirley Temple. But here, the dish transcended appearances: The scallops, garnished with a slaw of pickled red onions and radishes, were tender and rich.
The most popular shellfish starter is bound to be mussels, which wisely aren't prepared according to the original restaurant's recipe. The healthy mussels are saturated with wine, which figures into the cooking likker twice: The garlicky mussels are steamed with albarino and a white wine butter sauce, which makes for a slightly bitter, boozy flavor. The Green Room servers distribute bread with a missionary zeal—house rules apparently call for an opening portion of six slices per person—but I wasn't tempted to use any of it to sop up the broth.
Perhaps the best appetizer I tried was the grilled quail. While infected with the same off-taste of artificial smoke I detected in the lamb and strip steak, the quail was fairly juicy and had a nicely crisped skin. An accompanying pile of spry fava beans was very good. Less impressive was a ziggurat of thinly sliced potatoes and tangy cheese, which was lousy with fresh flour.
There are three salads on The Green Room's menu, and anyone who's going the "Feed Me" route gets one. It might be worth whispering the words "grilled iceberg" in your server's ear, since that attractive plate of lettuce, avocado and red onions is far superior to a clumsy spinach salad drenched in a greasy bacon vinaigrette: The lightly dressed iceberg salad is fresh and texturally engaging.
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Had I visited The Green Room in its first month, I could have sampled a lamb shank, the bartender told me, sounding a bit like friends who've reminded me I missed the chance to see a pre-fame Nirvana play a 400-seat venue in my hometown. He shrugged at the replacement grilled rack of lamb, and—considering the cloying red wine sauce—that strikes me as about right, although I was happy to see the fava beans again.
Halibut was overcooked, salmon was undercooked, but my strip steak was perfectly medium rare (although I imagine there are "Feed Me" guests who take their steak less pink and would prefer if the server asked for a temperature). Still, the steak was spoiled by a demi-glace made with an unsuitably aromatic wine that gave the beef a cheap cologne tinge. Far better was an elemental pork tenderloin, served with swiss chard and oozy roasted plums.
Of course, diners don't flock to The Green Room for edible epiphanies. They come to claim their share of the Deep Ellum zeitgeist, which is there for the taking. For those who don't let ill-considered sauces and mishandled proteins screw with their going-out groove, we culinary perfectionists salute you.
Mussels $14 Scallops $12.50 Quail $9.50 Beef steak tartare $12 Grilled iceberg salad $8 Baby frisee and spinach salad $8 Halibut $32 Rack of lamb $34 Salmon $25 NY Strip $29 Pork tenderloin $25