Whit Meyers says the last thing he wanted was a shiny new penny, and he didn't get it. Jeroboam, the new dining spot he and his partners in the Entertainment Collaborative developed in the Kirby Building, is a little clumsy, a bold portrayal of frays. Yet this is perhaps the most appealing thing about this restaurant, spawned from the collective minds that rooted Trees and the Green Room. Because for all of its stately manner, Jeroboam is a thumb in the eye of Dallas posturing. It's riddled with flaws and age spots, mostly on the floor. Look just beyond your loafer tassles or your pump points, and you'll see a disjointed hardwood or marble floor pocked with pits, gouges, and patch marks covering what look to be holes from uprooted wall posts. But this is the beauty of Jeroboam, named for a 3-liter wine bottle. It is an august dining room that elegantly flaunts its blemishes; it makes no effort to mask them in architectural silicone, Propecia, or age-spot bleach.
Instead, it tightly dresses them with baubles, belts, and fine grooming. Tables draped in white tablecloths are surrounded by perforated chairs with beige leather seats or butted against banquettes upholstered in the same hue. The entire room is cleanly and spaciously demarcated. A raised section near the kitchen and opposite the front door is a "communal table," a place where the chef's feast is laid out. But it seems to function more as a staging area.
"In Dallas, they like to feel they're in the middle of something," Meyers says. "It's the city where people drive pretty cars and wear pretty clothes, and I think they like being center stage."
The amazing thing is that Jeroboam creates a comfort zone for prettiness, even though it is something of an urban mutt. The lounge area off to the side of the dining room is little more than a huge space filled with chairs and a pair of sofas--another little staging area for posturing. Beyond that is the bar, a long rectangular strip that reaches back into a narrow passage so that you can hide out from the crowds and still view the action. As the bar with its blotchy zinc top (commandeered from the Rusty Buffalo in Deep Ellum) reaches out into the lounge, it pops out with a curvaceous bulge whose base is covered in scalloped granite lifted from the Wilson building. It's a space that's set for scene setting and posing, without throwing the dynamic in your face with cheesy decorative touches.
Though Jeroboam doesn't mask its atmospheric blemishes, it still indulges in a little plastic surgery. Mirrors silk-screened with provocative images are planted in strategic locations (one is of a nude inserted into a jeroboam). But the majority of its cosmetics are strictly hand-me-downs. Most of the room facings are taken from other Dallas buildings: The woodwork and bathroom stalls were fashioned from old office doors from the circa-1913 Kirby building; the glass around the banquettes and the back bar came from the old power station in Deep Ellum; a series of octagon chandeliers in the dining room used to hang in the Sanger building (now El Centro College). Jeroboam is an urban Frankenstein.
Fortunately, the food isn't a patched monstrosity, though it does contain a few surmountable flaws and only dazzles here and there. Jeroboam's menu is a simple collection of dishes that are decidedly French. Virtually without exception, what is most striking at Jeroboam is the seafood. To flaunt this vitality, there are seafood grab bags known as supper tastings in both grand and petite versions. The petite tasting--pairs of blue crab claws, Jonah crab claws, and three different oyster varieties plus pickled rock shrimp, smoked salmon, tuna tartare, and clusters of snails and cockles (not a hint of grittiness)--was fresh, clean, and sweet. There were no muddled flavors or parched flesh, and the oysters were so cool and immaculate that it was easy to discern the variances in sweetness and brininess in each shell. Plus, the tartare, sown with dill and crowned with crème fraîche, was a provocative tug of war with the strength of the tuna flesh pestering the smokiness of the salmon.
After the tasting platter is exhausted, servers deliver little plates of steamed towels with lemon wedges for cleanup. Unfortunately, the towels are polyester instead of terrycloth, so rather than absorbing they smear the ocean detritus over your fingers and hands, creating an uncomfortable prelude to the next course.
Which can often be compelling. The arugula, spinach, and Parmesan salad, served with roasted sweet peppers and a generous littering of plump dry-cured olives, was exquisitely dressed and robust. Both soups were vigorous nail-head hitters as well. Curried cauliflower soup is a honey-mustard-hued puddle of sheer brilliance. The smooth, velvety fluid subtly and cleanly mingles the bulbous earthiness of cauliflower with the exotic scent and lithe sensuality of the curry. This choreographed equipoise is punctured with delicious viciousness by a scattering of smoky bacon fragments. This is the thinking diner's coziness, for those with lots more than comfort on their minds.
White onion soup mimicked this fall heartiness, but it embraced little provocative details as well. An assertive bitter-tangy bite spoke through the broth--which wasn't overwhelmed by saltiness--and countered the onion sweetness; all was tempered with a throw rug of gooey Gruyère.
To moderate this culinary tension is a service protocol that is casual, perceptive, and graciously attentive. If there is anything on which to pick, it is the servers' dress. They seemed incongruent to the cause here. Instead of smartly crisp uniforms, the servers flaunt short-sleeved shirts that seemed more fitting of a gas station attendant or a plumber. You half expect to see the names Ned or Tex sewn onto the breast pocket. Such Green Room-esque idiosyncrasies (where servers wear T-shirts) don't seem to work in this urban brasserie. On one visit, a server's shirt was wrinkled and soiled, and this was early in the shift, so it's hard to imagine that it was the result of trench warfare. Bow ties or vests might tighten it up a bit and would reflect the crisp, uncontrived decorum of the room.
Which is exactly what the menu reflects. It is crafted with resolute honesty--sometimes too much honesty. Breton cotriade, an ample mix of brilliantly lush shellfish wading in a clean broth with leeks, tomatoes, and thyme, was saddled with wedges of hard, near-raw potato.
The pork could have used a bit of this undercooking. Though ordered medium, the tournedos of pork loin, seared and planted on a ragout of beluga black lentils swimming in a sauce of dried figs and pearl onions, was gray instead of pink, and the flesh was a little dry. Yet when taken in its totality, the confluence worked well, even if it didn't dazzle.
One thing that does dazzle at Jeroboam is the wine list, a crafty compilation of exclusively French wines from virtually every region. What sets this list apart from other skillfully assembled lists, which often resemble phone books, is that it is appended with 56 pages of colorful maps, regional descriptions, and tasting notes.
Yet while this list is no doubt a brilliant stroke, the wine enthusiasm seems to drop off precipitously from the edge of the pages. There are no color or regional suggestions or wine list cross-references of any kind incorporated into menu. Plus, there is little evidence of an aggressive wine education program in force here, and one server even admitted to us that he didn't particularly like the stuff. In addition, the bar seems utterly detached from the list, offering no tasting flights. Such a strategic move could broaden the utility of the list while introducing nascent wine aficionados to regions they may not be aware of. In defense, Meyers says he's proceeding incrementally with his wine program, seeking first to lay a solid foundation (among the most solid in the city) before he branches out into little wine-geek forays.
The hope is that this will soon come, because the menu offers lots of pairing opportunities, such as conventional red wine mates like beef tenderloin Madagascar. The flesh on this dish was moist, but the flavor was feeble, and the texture was a bit stringy and tough. Plus, the peppercorn demi application was stingy. But a side of cinnamon potatoes and butternut squash was replete with clean, nutty flavors laced with spice, adding zip to the smooth texture.
Trout with almonds, however, was about as perfect as food gets. This herb-stuffed fish swimming in a lusciously subtle almond beurre blanc was so flaky, dank, and sweet that it toiled around the tongue like a pad of butter, melting and carpeting the mouth with delicate decadence. There must be something to the way this kitchen handles freshwater fish, because the horseradish-crusted trout works with as much aplomb as its herb-stuffed sibling. A thin piece of skin-on flesh is breaded and deep-fried, and the result is a strip of greaseless crispness enveloping a core of pearly white sweetness. The smoothly clean béarnaise with healthy gusts of tarragon added a rich but aromatic vivaciousness to the dish, while a side of cold vinaigrette-laced egg noodles with roasted pepper and fresh parsley brilliantly punctuated the deep-fried centerpiece with cool, piquant zest.
Served in a basket, Jeroboam's pommes frites are perhaps the best bar/lounge food ever crafted. These potato chip-like strips freckled with kosher salt were crisp and delicately meaty, though in addition to ketchup an imaginative dipper or two would go miles.
Desserts come through too. Served in a martini glass, the strawberry sabayon, poached strawberries with Grand Marnier and cream, was delicious. And despite a singed sugar lid that was cool instead of warm, the crème brûlée was rich, firm, and fully flavored.
Jeroboam is the restaurant for which Dallas has been yearning (even if it doesn't know it) for years. It's clean, mysterious, and insightful without decorous pretension or annoying pedantry. It's suffused with a delicious level of urban grittiness and crooked architectural teeth. With a little time, this restaurant will settle into its historic duds and emerge as the Big D's crown jewel. Those old tarnished pennies are worth a hell of a lot more than the shiny ones anyway.
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