Old Hickory sommelier Darryl Beeson, a pro who has carved an impressive vine furrow through greater Dallas with stops at The French Room, The Mansion, Voltaire and Steel, says that 60 percent of the checks winding through the steak house's coffers spring from locals. Given that Old Hickory is embedded deep inside the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center, this tickles them, he says.
But is the tickle returned?
The Gaylord is a Texas Oz, paved with munchkin-worthy winding roads and a glass roof pinnacled in a gold star. It has a massive courtyard, essentially a huge green space harboring ficus and magnolia trees, assorted foliage and faux rock bluffs and crags. Fountains gurgle; falls splash. Squirrels' gabble and the buzz of mosquitoes are the only missing elements. Wait, that's not entirely true. Signage is AWOL as well, at least if your goal is to dine.
The main Gaylord Texan entrance is a massive portal, with cars shuffling up in chaos and boys in shorts weaving, standing and darting between bumpers in systematic aimlessness: adolescent valet. But once you've shed your keys, there is still that massive green space to navigate; a space that is blind to the restaurants buried deep within. A check at the front desk offers a few tentative rights and lefts at this fountain and that bridge. But this quickly unravels into confusion. The bluffs, shoals and terraces are littered with conventioneer hospitality wards. But the bartenders either have never heard of the Old Hickory or they have no idea where it is. One official-looking woman behind a desk tossed out a fascinating set of directions: "Say the Alamo is at 12 o'clock. The Old Hickory is at 1 o'clock, down the path, across the bridge."
What's the Alamo?
It was a gift-shop clerk who gave the most succinct directions: Continue straight, and on your left, just past the fountain, you'll find the doors. The doors are iron and glass. The host/hostess podium sits at the bottom of a curvaceous wind of stairs.
The difficulty of discovering this dark steak house filled with wood, archways and grapevine chandeliers with dangling crystal grape bunches must be legend in this fledgling restaurant. The hostess remarks that most people need a stiff drink once they find Old Hickory. Another suggests we cop a roll and peel off a trail of crumbs on the way out, so that we might find our way back. This is a viable suggestion since there are no birds in the Gaylord green space. Yet.
Two stiff drinks are the actual price, though. An attempt to make dinner reservations (and you will need them) vapor-locked us in an automated telecommunications cesspool for more than 10 minutes before we reached a human being who possessed the necessary skills to make a reservation.
If 60 percent of the checks at the Old Hickory are generated from the local populace, indigenous Dallas-Fort Worth folks are forgiving. But does their forgiveness pay off?
Yes, with reservations. Sure, service ranged from slow and somewhat indifferent (when they didn't know who the guest was) to attentive, sharp and effusive (when the discovery spread like male-enhancement spam). The fortune is that the food surpasses everything, not surprising as it comes from the fingers of Tom Fleming. While Gaylord is about meeting, Old Hickory is about meat--most of it good.
Take it raw: the Texan. Despite the name, it isn't leathery and blunt, but delicate and lacy. New York strip carpaccio shares the plate with a tartare tower composed of coarsely ground filet mignon. The tower is partially secluded in a spray of watercress and arugula plus two long, thin shingles of Parmesan cheese. Thin, perfectly matched sheets of strip are patched together in a grid across one side of the plate; bright rose with fat tributaries coursing through the fibers. Chive flecks pebble the surface. Salt grains heavily dust the spaces between the flecks, defining and intensifying the whispered richness. In the mouth the meat is a surrendering mesh, shredding into tatters as it passes the lips, dissolving over the tongue. Tartare is even better: Chopped into coarse grains, with little else to fill the spaces so that the meat stands mostly on its own, it's fleshy instead of pasty, clean instead of swamped by the glue of raw egg.
But what the kitchen knows about carpaccio and tartare, it forgets when it comes to the foie gras. The lobes are served on a triangular plate, which is placed in front of you with an angle point driving its luxury directly into the belly. The seared liver sections are gently draped over forelle pear slivers and blots of cipollini (bittersweet onion-like bulbs) jam. The liver is firm, yet smooth, flaunting its nutty richness through war tugs of acid and sweet, fruit and meat, pith and cream. It works, except that all of these delicious little conflicts would be tightened into pleasing focus with a little kosher salt, just as the grains blitzed up the flavor of the raw beef.
Two things to say at this point: Foie gras isn't very Texan, and grilling lettuce is a hideous thing. Yet at the same time, grilling lettuce is a beautiful thing--so Texas. It's called a romaine wedge, but it's really more of a sheaf: leafy and tight, like a bud. Ribs are scorched; the leaves are curled and shriveled. This seems to create a completely different salad dynamic. The leaves seem to drink the oregano vinaigrette, instead of just hosting it on the surface. Maybe the heat burns away a bit of the cellulose, permitting the dressing to seep in.
But the best thing is the feta cheese. It's tumbled into a valley between the leaves, like a spine of runny white. Melted feta is truly a wonderful thing--tangy cream, its cured bite made just a bit more vicious. Kalamatas, sweet and sour red onions, cherry tomatoes and yellow pear tomatoes punch and broaden the leaves with their acids and brine and fleshy textures.
Other "dressings" include béarnaise, port, cognac peppercorn and black truffle. These are the à la carte sauces you most likely will want to keep away from your steaks and chops. This is not because the sauces are flawed or cumbersome--the black truffle sauce was smooth and deftly rich--but because they are superfluous. Muddying the dining bass line played by a lavish slab of steer is rude, even felonious. And this meat has more than enough smooth lust and silk to groove on its own. Bone-in strip steak doesn't have much of a bone to speak of. It's more of a splinter than an actual skeletal strut. But the flesh is a rich juicy drool, if a little loose. As the blade carves near the bone, the meat grows slightly richer, more rambunctious.
Roasted chicken is rambunctious, too, distressingly so. Clinging to it is a crisp, well-herbed skin, but ultimately it doesn't wear well. Plunge below the sheath near the thigh and the meat slips from creamy wheat, to pale pink, to a slimy blush.
Spinach--one of a flock of typical steak house sides that includes asparagus, mushrooms and potatoes in many incarnations, along with the atypical artichokes gratin--flowed in the same vein as the chicken. The dark green leaves, pebbled with bits of tomato and striped with wide strips of cheese melted across the spine of the heap, were watery, even slimy.
But that may be because these two things veered from Old Hickory basics: meat. Roasted lamb chops are lush and firm with a satiny finish. They burp up a little sweetness, but not too much, not too racy--chops a conventioneer could love.
Careen from this road middle, though, and again the going gets rougher. Sautéed scallops are shriveled and desiccated. Sure, they flaunt a potent sweetness tightly bound by a noose of bitterness--the expected flavor profile--but these buttons were coarse, waxy, overcooked perhaps. They flake in stiff shingles instead of breaking away in moist layers and nearly scuffed the roof of the mouth.
Which is why the lemon cannoli is such a delicious finish to stellar steak-and-chop gnawing, an experience stubbled by only a couple of weird blips. (Swerve from the steady parade of hoof entrées that top loads this menu with caution.) Crisp, whisper-thin scrolls are filled with a smooth cream that sweeps over the tongue with a luxurious, cleansing tang. Plus the crisp pastry crumbles easily into large flakes, making for swell tracking crumbs around the Alamo, wherever that is.
1501 Gaylord Trail, Grapevine, 817-778-1000. Open for dinner 5-10 p.m. daily. $$$-$$$$
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