Tuna surprise

A column appeared recently in The Wall Street Journal about the increasing tendency among writers and journalists to make full disclosures about themselves. These disclosures, which often appear parenthetically, are ostensibly made so readers won't think the writer has a hidden agenda. The interesting thing is that they invariably confess exactly those things least likely to corrupt the story. They're little more than great pious globs of ostentatious integrity flung at the reader. They also broadcast how well connected the writer is. What is never confessed are the effects of peer pressure (commit certain things to print and watch those Beanie Baby swap party invites dry up) or the puffy, gushing profiles constructed as "beat sweeteners" so certain sources will return phone calls. Let me just say right here, in the interest of full disclosure, that I've never written positive prose to spark returned phone calls. No one ever returns my calls anyway.

Let me also say, in the spirit of the professional confessional, that I have the personal mobile phone number of David Holben, corporate executive chef of FoodStar Restaurant Group and one of the most highly acclaimed chefs ever to spank a Dallas grill with a spatula. And in the continued interest of slapping all prejudices and biases onto the cutting board, I must also confess that I passionately hate tuna fish sandwiches. You know what I'm talking about. The musty, mildewed particle-board-like constructions bulked up with tins of Bumble Bee filler coarsened by dull green rings of Spanish olive and tiny insect larvae-like half curls of diced celery held together with a knock-off mayo adhesive frocked in crumbles of hard-boiled egg. I don't know why the environmental battle to save the dolphins from tuna fishing nets didn't use tuna sandwiches instead of alarmist propaganda as campaign ammunition.

That's why it's peculiar that I can't get PoPoLos' albacore tuna and artichoke sandwich out of my mind. It's a simple thing, really: chunks of tuna sequestered in a lemon-caper aioli crowded by large sections of grilled artichoke heart, lettuce, and tomato between two pieces of French bread smeared with a dry-cured olive tapenade. But it's striking nonetheless. Hearty and compellingly lively and packed with assertive flavors that never got out of hand, this memorable sandwich had a subtle smokiness that layered its forwardness with grace. So simple and unassuming, yet so infused with culinary energy and approachable complexity. The thing had only one drawback: bread that collapsed into soggy limpness after just a few minutes on the plate. Perhaps a denser, stiffer bread or roll would work better. The accompanying gauzy, vellum-thin housemade potato chips were as delicate as fine pastry. But a clump of bland cole slaw proved a real letdown after nibbling the other occupants of this lunch plate.

The sandwich is one of the creations on PoPoLos' new menu, which was recently revamped by David Holben and chef de cuisine Britton McIntyre, formerly of Sipango. And it just goes to show that the mark of great kitchen work lies not in hunks of protein fussily dressed in coulis exotica, but in the core components of a sack lunch. When FoodStar Restaurant Group Inc., the company that operates Mediterraneo and Toscana, purchased PoPoLos last December, it had a low-fat menu stripped of cream and butter. Holben and McKintyre modified this roster to include items not restrained by fat-consciousness.

"We wanted to tighten the Mediterranean feel and round out the menu to offer a variety of preparation choices and make the spectrum a little bit larger for anyone coming in," says Holben. Traditional PoPoLos "no cream, no butter" preparations are marked with a little heart on the menu. And a few of the old items are retained, such as the smoked chicken lasagna and the turkey-black bean chili. The latter may seem an odd member in a cast of selections inspired by the Mediterranean. But it was a popular part of the old lineup, and its lithe heartiness--set off with cumin, cilantro, sweet and resilient kernels of corn, and generous chunks of ground turkey (slightly dry though they were)--squeezes well into the new menu.

Another item retained in a slightly modified form is the PoPoLos VIP platter, which includes smoky, succulent grilled shrimp; smoked salmon with grilled red onions; toast points and sour cream; and mozzarella-tomato bruschetta that had fresh, well-rounded flavors plopped on bread too thick and doughy to successfully carry it off. The real surprise on this platter, however, was the wood-fired-oven-roasted portobello mushrooms. Marinated in molasses, honey, garlic, olive oil, and soy, the mushrooms were stripped of the plodding earthiness sometimes apparent when this fungi isn't skillfully prepared. They were roasted into a smooth, almost buttery set of concentrated flavors sparked, heightened, and drawn out by the marinade.

Also from the wood-fired oven, the Toscana pizza with wild mushrooms, mozzarella, parmesan, marinated tomatoes, Italian parsley, and roasted garlic had a flaky, thin crust and flavors that blended well. It just--perhaps because of seasoning restraint and a skimpy mozzarella application--lacked pizzazz.

Grilled striped sea bass, lightly seasoned with parsley, tarragon, and chives, with grilled leeks and a roasted red pepper sauce, was hearty rather than delicately flaky and buttery. But the flesh was moist, and the flavors were round and well orchestrated. A side of perfectly steamed spinach proved a good counterpoint.

Showing that the culinary high-rise is alive and well, the grilled lobster & marinated sirloin steak dish was a vertical structure girded with a thick slab of meat sitting in a small puddle of red wine reduction mingling with beef juices. The thing was crowned with curled strips of singed crustacean. Sweetly rich and moist, the lobster had a smoky edge, and the steak, marinated in olive oil, crushed garlic, rosemary, and thyme, was juicy with a good, husky beef flavor. A sprinkling of firm, resilient cannelloni beans and a side of spinach and rosemary tomatoes gave this twist on surf-and-turf a welcome Mediterranean tone.

PoPoLos' wine list is divided into Mediterranean whites and reds classified by country (Italy, France, Spain), and American reds and whites classified by variety (an orphaned New Zealand sauvignon blanc is slipped into the American section). There's also a handful of sparklers showcasing primarily French Champagnes. It's a casual, fairly well focused list that meshes easily with the menu.

A dessert of triple-chocolate mousse cake was smooth, rich, and flavorful with a crisp yet tender and moist cookie layer, a flourless chocolate cake layer, and a velvety light and smooth cream topping.

Service was fairly attentive, but loose. On one visit, a member of my party checked in at the host stand, left her name, and indicated that she was meeting someone. When I arrived, I did the same. Yet they were never able to link us. On that same visit, dessert was never offered, and it was several minutes after the check arrived before we could track down our server and place an order.

During a dinner visit in the enclosed garden room, a setting sun glaring through the shadeless glass made dining almost unbearable. To remedy this, bus boys haphazardly taped pieces of white paper to the windows. It was sloppy, though effective, touch to an otherwise crisply assembled dining area.

In addition to menu modifications, FoodStar has made some minor decor changes. The concrete floor has been painted in large black and white checks, spot lighting has been added, and the bar has opened up. They've also erected a much-needed outdoor sign so the restaurant, shrouded behind a bank since it opened in 1993, can be located by others besides neighborhood inhabitants. The company also plans to hire a pastry chef and reopen the bakery.

PoPoLos is one of the concepts FoodStar plans to replicate as it expands nationwide over the next few years. Formed last summer by Holben, Michael Caolo Jr., and Franco Bertolasi--the trio behind The Riviera-- the company plans to open as many as 40 PoPoLos, Mediterraneo, and Toscana restaurants with initial plans targeting Scottsdale, Arizona; Birmingham, Alabama; or New Orleans. And they should do well, especially with the crisply cozy cafe-like PoPoLos. Holben has a way of creating dishes that are as superficially unassuming as they are compelling once stabbed with a fork. Time and a few more turns of the screw are all that is needed to ripple this dynamic throughout the entire menu.

And good food, unlike writing, needs no confessions or disclosures to carry it through.

PoPoLos. 777 Preston Royal Shopping Center. (214) 750-4848. Open seven days for lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; open for dinner Saturday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday & Saturday 5-11 p.m. $$$

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