One of the most successful dishes served at Susie Priore's restaurant Suze (it rhymes with ruse) was pilfered. "I stole it from this restaurant in Santa Fe," she admits. She figured she had no choice but to lift it, once pleadings cloaked in compliments didn't work. So she wrestled a few of the ingredients out of the chef -- mussels, mint, coconut milk, cilantro, and chipotle pepper -- and began experimenting with Dallas chef Russ Hodges. "It took about three tries, and we got it," she says.
And got it, they did. Half submerged in a yellowish slurry, Prince Edward Island mussels ($7.95) are supple and sweet. And it's clear that simply merging them with coconut milk would have made for a startlingly prosaic chew. So the sharp attack of smoky chipotle is essential: It foils this slumbering bath while the mint plays down the conflict so the whole thing doesn't blow up in your mouth.
The question, though, remains: What kind of explosive lapse of sanity knocked Priore into the restaurant business in the first place? Maybe it was a yearning for redundancy. Roughly two decades ago, she and her husband quit their "straight" jobs to launch a different exercise in masochism, right out of their own garage: a car-repair shop. He tinkered with the tools, she fiddled with phones and job tickets and books. Through that experience, Priore learned she could handle the mechanics of entrepreneurship. She also discovered that she didn't want to spend the rest of her life fixing cars. And that she yearned for an outlet to vent her love of cooking.
And this lady can cook. The brunt of her efforts fall on Suze's desserts: Warm cranberry-apple crumble with a dab of peach ice cream ($6.00) was more than successful. Our table of five dubbed it the best dessert sampled in recent memory. Its remarkable confluence of sweetness, tang, crunch, pliability, and creaminess is a touch for balance Priore perhaps acquired after years of watching car repairs.
Which also, it seems, drove her to become a kitchen grunt shortly after Mediterraneo popped open in Plano in 1994. Working her way from prep cook through the salad station, Priore says she wanted to shove her mitts into the dynamics of an emerging restaurant. But the culinary boot-camp soirée proved premature. "I had to go back to my real life, where I made more than seven dollars an hour working 75 hours a week," she says. "I got out of it what I needed to know." The time wasn't right. Priore still had a young kid at home, and she didn't want to orphan her child so that she could mother a restaurant.
Finally, in March, Priore took over a spot with a BYOB policy called Going Gourmet, which she immediately renamed after herself. Most of the G.G. staff stayed on, except for the chef. And for those duties, Priore drafted Hodges, an old friend who worked his day job as director of Aims Culinary Academy before hitting Suze's kitchen at night.
Some things on the menu were leftovers from G.G., albeit with adjustments. And they should have been dispensed with rather than tweaked. Lemon shrimp risotto ($13.95) was a G.G. composition originally constructed with shrimp, spinach, mushrooms, and lemon zest in Uncle Ben's converted rice. But a few bites of this coarse pile of grainy paste leaves little doubt this is one leftover that should have been left out. Another G.G. hanger-on is the Modern Caesar ($4.95) topped with sun-dried tomatoes. And though the roasted garlic dressing is fairly good, the eggplant croutons were an oddity. I mean, what kind of mind drafts croutons out of coated and fried eggplant strips? Maybe the same kind of a mind that creates a hot dog from the stuff hot dogs are made of.
In July, former Toscana chef Gilbert Garza joined Priore at Suze while he puts together a restaurant he plans to launch in Dallas or Austin sometime next year. They met at Mediterraneo and became fast friends. He's already composed a lunch menu, a meal the restaurant began in August with things like salads and sandwiches and pizza. But the midday meal has met with dubious success, and Priore says she's giving it a month before she decides whether to scrap it. In the meantime, Garza is punching up the dinner menu.
One thing Garza might want to consider is a little heat in the plates and bowls. Holy Ravioli ($13.95), wild mushroom pasta pillows in a basil and red-wine broth, was loaded with lots of earthy flavor. And the shrimp were firm and tender with a good, briny sweetness. But the broth, served slightly warm, grew frigid before we realized there was no spoon from which to slurp it. And it was slurpable.
Heat loss also plagued the sage- and garlic-crusted venison in port-cherry glaze ($19.95). The sleekly smooth slices of ruby meat cooled before the fork could pierce it, coarsening its smooth convergence with the tangy, rich, yet skillfully restrained glaze.
Though modest, these quibbles can become mildly irritating, because dining at this restaurant, tastefully outfitted to resemble a sophisticated country café, isn't exactly cheap. The wine list is, though. A deliciously lively bottle of Hawkes Bay sauvignon blanc is $19 while a bottle of simply -- but smoothly -- structured Pepi Sangiovese is $25. Corkage, however, is 10 bucks, steep for a place that carved a niche with its BYOB supping.
Not surprisingly, Priore says she isn't raking in riches with Suze, and it was never her intent. "I didn't do this to make money as much as I did it to make sure that I could do this big dream that I had." She pauses. "But I sure would love it if it made a lot of money."
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