Tramontana: A Restaurant Made for Grandma
This ain't your mother's bistro. No, it's your grandmother's. And if you visit Tramontana of an evening, though not too long past the witching hour of 8, you'll likely see a few other people's grannies here too. They'll be accompanied by nicely dressed adult grandchildren and, if some have been bribed to come along, a younger great-grandkid or two, urged to stifle yawns during Meemaw's birthday dinner or risk being cut out of the will.
There's the slightest scent of Estee Lauder's Youth Dew, the faintest squeak of titanium hip-joints as guests make their way, slowly and carefully, to favorite corners of this cozy 20-table lunch and dinner spot on the outer edge of Preston Center. Tramontana is beloved by a loyal pack of Park Cities and Preston Hollow patrons of a certain age who like starched white tablecloths and a simple, static menu at reasonable prices. Special events are celebrated here—golden anniversaries—and the mink-and-cufflink set fill the joint at monthly $50 wine dinners.
The regulars seem oblivious to the flaws. The harried, uneven service. The mismatched sauces. All that salt in the potatoes au gratin, in the risotto and even in the dessert soufflé serves to wake up taste buds numbed by prescription meds, so perhaps nobody minds it. This is their place, by cracky, where they can count on the veal osso bucco and rack of lamb being in the same spot on the menu as they were a decade ago.
Look, there is nothing wrong with serving the needs of the well-heeled representatives of the Greatest Generation. Catering to that segment of the dining public has kept plenty a fusty restaurant (cough, Old Warsaw, cough) in business. But just like your grand-mère's living room, Tramontana is stuck in the past. Stubbornly, deliberately mired in nostalgia. Just look around at the clash of clutter in the Italo-Franco-fleamarket-influenced main dining room: Paneled ceiling, dark velvet curtains (with ghostly white sheers) in the two front windows, a tacky mural depicting a gondola-filled canal next to one of a faux Lautrec Parisian scene. Dusty plastic grapes dangle from a high shelf crammed with dried flower arrangements and wine bottles. A fake ficus tree in a sagging wicker basket sits plopped near a framed photo print of a fat baby wearing a chef's toque. In the smaller back room, a wall painted to resemble rustic stone could be a remnant of scenery from a high school production of Camelot.
To newcomers, it all begs for a facelift. But to Le Cordon Bleu-trained Chef James Neel, who bought Tramontana in 1999 after his stints at the Adolphus' French Room and Al Biernat's, it's all part of his plan.
"I take more of an Old World approach to what I do," Neel, 42, says by phone after our anonymous visits for lunch and dinner. "I love going to restaurants in Europe that haven't changed in 50 years, not even the decor. It's not quite what the Dallas restaurant scene is into. I just do what makes me happy."
That goes for his menu too. Neel has kept 75 percent of Tramontana's old school traditional dishes the same since day one. There are few daily specials, and he's quick to nix anything new that the regulars, which he says account for 80 percent of his business, deem too edgy or too little value for the money.
We wonder, though, if he's tasted his own food lately. Neel admits to being in the kitchen for only a few weekday lunches and every other weekend. He does take charge of the monthly wine dinners, and he'll cook for the occasional chef's table event in the kitchen (10 or so courses for $100 per diner, not counting the costs of wine). But does he really know what's going on the plates?
Our dinner here was a hit-and-miss affair. The warm beet salad dotted with chèvre and toasty walnuts, tossed with mesclun, was fine, even with a dressing heavy on the balsamic. My dining companion ordered the four-course tasting menu (at $55, it is slightly higher than the price listed on the bistro's Web site, which Neel admits is rife with outdated information). My friend's starter, a salad of grilled pears, buttered walnuts, apple-smoked bacon and gorgonzola, again tossed with mixed greens, delivered a sweet, smoky blend of flavors enhanced by a rich but mild port wine vinaigrette.
He got a fish course too, a generous slab of roasted red snapper atop a lobster risotto. "Beyond fabulous," my friend declared, offering a forkful. He was right. The fish was moist with a delicate, crispy crust. The risotto was creamy, not cloying, and filled with chunks of pink lobster. The sauce on the fish was a heavenly, creamy haze with a tang of citrus.
And then came the entrees. My grilled scallops—just three and very small—were full of grit and so salty they were nearly inedible. My risotto was a brine-fest too. His Chateaubriand, served in a Cabernet demi-glace, was a sniggly cut, anemic and gamy.
Desserts, another letdown. His coconut soufflé came out so eggy (and with not a hint of coconut), in a blind taste test, the best guess would have been omelet. My salt-caramel soufflé was like spooning up a sticky bite of the Dead Sea.
The solution to the saline would have been another glass of wine. Tramontana has a nice variety of California whites and Spanish and Italian reds, all in the $30 to $90 per bottle range. Even another glass (or four) of water would have helped. But our waiter this night was also the maître d' and occasionally the busser of tables. When he wasn't taking orders, serving them or seating people, he was answering the reservation line that rang loudly at the bar. (Neel says one way he makes a profit is by keeping only six employees—three in the kitchen, three servers, not all of whom work nightly—on the payroll.)
Our tongues salt-swollen, we stumbled home and gulped directly from the kitchen tap.
A few days later, we do late lunch at Tramontana. A nearby table of dentists, all men, is offered the "special," made-from-scratch chicken and dumplings. When it's our turn to order, we're told the only special is seafood crepes. While the tooth jockeys tuck into their comfort food, we stare down at a plate of soggy pancakes wrapped around a gray mush of indistinguishable provenance (surely not the lobster and crab we were promised). The mess is swimming in a shiny pool of meunière sauce. Over that is a brown Amazon of cold balsamic vinegar. One bite and that's all she wrote. "I've been selling these all day, and everyone else loves it," says the waiter-maître-d'-phone-wrangler, jerking the plate off the table.
The replacement, a bowl of mushroom bisque, has the consistency of warm flannel but not as much flavor. The cold seafood salad—spring mix under a commercially prepared chili-mayo sauce—offers some satisfactory nibbles of lobster, crab and shrimp, but too many unpleasant intrusions by bits of shell. Like biting into fingernail clippings.
Promptly at 2 p.m., when lunch service ends and roughly 20 minutes into our meal, we are handed our check with no offer of dessert or coffee. We decide to find cupcakes and java at a nearby pastry shop, and we head out into the brisk winter breeze.
Tramontana, named for a north wind that blows into Italy, could use a breath of fresh air too.
Tramontana 8220 Westchester Drive, 214-368-4188 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday (no lunch Saturdays), 5:30-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday. $$$$
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Dallas dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.