From chef Andre Natera's fictional archives:
Wherever Elementary School
Second semester report card, 1966
It's a joy to have young Andre in class. He follows the rules, raises his hand and sits up straight. Oh, he's such a good influence on all the other boys. Why, just the other day, some of the students were tromping through Mrs. Mitkin's tulip garden, but Andre wouldn't join them. And after those mischievous children ran off, he straightened each one of those flowers. I declare, that garden looked better than when Mrs. Mitkin's been working in it!
The standard kitchen back story in the Bourdain-and-Batali era is Hemingway-esque, rife with drugs, sex and impossibly manly pursuits like motorcycle repair. And it's certainly possible that Andre Natera, the new chef at The Fairmount's Pyramid Restaurant & Bar, has his own tales of drinking Old Crow with hookers and losing his Mustang in an arm-wrestling match. But that's not what his dishes suggest.
Natera's cooking, devoid of the brashness and bravado that look better on a book jacket than they taste on a plate, is wonderfully calm and restrained. Using herbs, fruits and vegetables plucked from a rooftop garden just two floors above the restaurant, Natera treats his ingredients with a respect usually afforded Nobel Prize winners and tribal chiefs. He excels at simplicity.
Unfortunately, Natera's reserve sometimes segues into conservatism, an occupational hazard of hotel cheffing. While Pyramid's menu offers a few exquisite dishes, the restaurant still hasn't transcended its surroundings. The dining room, with its bank office chairs and area rug, is perpetually a quick turn away from coffee and continental breakfast service. And it's sadly possible to lunch on overcooked basmati rice and a dry chicken breast, the kind that makes wedding guests and banquet-goers wonder if they shouldn't have requested the vegetarian option.
But if you go for dinner and sit closer to the modest wine wall than the bedraggled travelers who've just gotten off the plane from Chicago, Pyramid can be downright lovely. While the chipper service staff is prone to forgetfulness and verbal flubs, Natera has crafted some splendid dishes worthy of attention.
To better understand what distinguishes Pyramid from the current locavore clatter, it's best to start at the end. With the exception of an assuredly corporate-blessed plate of cupcakes, sporting a description ripped from the headlines of Restaurant Trends Today—red velvet! banana mousse! rum butter!—every item on the dessert menu appropriately references the season. There's a French toast sauced with raspberries and served with stone fruit. Or, if another starch seems too onerous after a meal spent saying yes and yes again to the fellow offering warm, crusty dinner rolls that rise high above the hotel order, there's a dish of "summer" berries—a hedge that allows the kitchen to plate whatever's freshest—and Texas wine sorbet.
But I was most impressed with a small, not-too-sweet chocolate lava cake, drizzled with a banana-scented caramel sauce and accompanied by a terrific horchata ice cream. It was the ice cream that got me. Acolytes of local eating too often prioritize territory over tradition, preferring to measure their diets in miles rather than generations. The most obvious exposition of locavorism on most menus is a plate of goat cheese and honey from around the way, since those items are relatively easy for small-scale farmers to produce. It takes a connoisseur to differentiate between the standard "local plates" in Alaska and Alabama.
There's nothing wrong with cheese and honey, which makes for a fine meal-ending course. Pyramid serves a cheese plate too, pairing its lineup with Texas Honey Bee Guild honey and port-poached figs. But Natera's willingness to draw on the area's heritage as well as its bounty reflects a far deeper understanding of local eating. When he styles his ice cream after horchata or playfully crowns his Caesar salad with pillowy polenta croutons, he reminds even the most dazed traveler where he's landed.
Perhaps in deference to the summer heat, the ice cream represents a rare foray into the dairy case at Pyramid. The kitchen admirably resists the urge to pander to its patrons with cheese, cream and butter, serving an unadorned gazpacho that many chefs might dress up with a dilled crème fraiche or basil sour cream. The naked soup brimmed with clean tomato flavor and was perked up by an assortment of fresh vegetables and herbs, creating a complex, multilayered taste of the restaurant garden.
The chef's hand was similarly invisible in a humbly titled "veggie start" served at lunchtime, featuring a pebbly tapenade; sheer, lemony hummus; and cherry tomatoes varnished with olive oil and threads of torn basil. While tomatoes and hummus are rarely showstoppers, Pyramid's version restores a bit of dignity to what's become the default vegetarian appetizer.
I found the basic starter even more successful than the much-touted dinner salad of gently torched watermelon wedges, neatly arranged in a clock-face pattern around a mess of microgreens, dressed with sherry vinaigrette and mint simple syrup. The well-conceived salad suffered from overdressing: Every bite reminded me of Coco Chanel's dictum to always take one thing off before going out. The noisy dressing eclipsed the natural sweetness of the ripe melon.
I should have been tipped off by my excited server's lengthy description of the salad, which involved "the chef hitting it with oil" and "the chef hitting it with mint." In this server's telling, the chef pummeled every dish, an idiom that seemed strangely out of sync with the refinement I found on most plates. Chef hit the salmon with miso butter, chef hit the rib-eye with red wine: By the end of his spiel, I wasn't sure if I should put my money on an entrée or the chef.
Both dinner entrées I tried were excellent, including a Pacific sea bass that my pugilistic-minded server warned me was nearing the end of its menu run. For those who haven't kept up with sustainable fish news, the Patagonian toothfish became so popular after being rechristened "Chilean sea bass" that it's now severely overfished, and the former menu mainstay heads most "avoid" lists. But not every sea bass stock is in trouble: Environmentally-sensitive fishmongers—including Whole Foods—still carry the right kind of sea bass, which is what appears on Pyramid's menu. Yet that subtlety's lost on diners doing their best to eat responsibly. The words "sea bass" are apparently making Pyramid's guests nervous, so Natera's pulling the preparation. That's too bad, because the rich, buttery fish, enlivened by a bright grapefruit finish and accompanied by a phalanx of slivered radishes and melons, is delicious.
I was also fond of a deeply flavored beef tenderloin, cooked to a perfect Valentine red rare. The steak, served with hickory smoke-tinged mashed potatoes, was blanketed with an umami concerto of funky blue cheese and woodsy sautéed mushrooms. Still, the dish was clean and controlled: Even Natera's steaks aren't tainted by swagger.
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But that shouldn't have come as a surprise. Natera might very well be as well-behaved as his cooking led me to imagine.
"I'm a nerd," Natera recently told the Morning News' Spanish language website. "I do not like to talk much about it, but I love studying quantum mechanics and quantum physics, Eastern philosophy as well. I try to practice what I read and learn."
And on that score, Natera easily gets an A.
The Pyramid Restaurant & Bar 1717 N. Akard St., in The Fairmont, 214-720-5249. www.pyramidrestaurant.com. Open 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.