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Victory: That Gasoline Smell...

Smells like Victory: It's locals versus imported talent in the battle for your palate and wallet.
TOM JENKINS

Victory. It's the biggest Dallas dining story of 2007—maybe of the new century, until some wily engineer figures out how to transform the Trinity River project into a profitable floating sushi buffet. Victory has it all: the steak; the wonderfully convenient parking chaos; the Swiss chard; the crowds in designer labels; caviar in-the-round; boomeranging noise; big-screen TVs; and gnocchi that's a dead ringer for garden slugs in pesto. Las Vegas via Chicago-based N9NE Group has landed in Dallas, bringing everything but the slot machines and the pasties: Ghostbar, Nove Italiano and N9NE Steakhouse. Gotham adds Craft. Aspen/Austin enters Kenichi. It roiled the Dallas restaurant world with fear and loathing. Victory was the megawatt bulb of national chefs drawing all of the city's gnats and flies and upward-creeping credit card limits. We swarmed. We supped. We spent. We got burned. Or did we?

"Victory Park is the flash of '07," says Paul Pinnell, former general manager and founder of the upcoming Dali Wine Bar & Cellar in One Arts Plaza. "But it also showed the ugly side of what can happen when a lot of out-of-town restaurants with high prices collide with expectations." The great fear: Victory was going to supplant local restaurant talent. The great reality: These out-of-town culinary gorillas may be getting flayed, drawing mostly tourists and out-of-city residents streaming in for special occasions.

Food Fight

Of course, Pinnell has a vested interest in shooting grimy spit balls at Victory's gloss. His Dali, along with Teiichi Sakurai's Tei An and Café Italia owner Scott Jones' Screen Door (shepherded with help from former Melrose Hotel executive chef Joel Harloff), sets up a cross-town duel with Victory Park for Dallas' dining spoils. What does that mean for the vaunted downtown corridor?

"It's almost like a moat," says Matthew Mabel, president of Surrender, a Dallas management and hospitality firm. Who will win? Right now the money is on One Arts Plaza. Why? Developer Lucy Billingsley wisely courted local restaurateurs, front-loading her project with familiar talent instead of celebrity imports. That's what Dallas diners mostly crave over the long haul.

"They love seeing Dean Fearing come to their tables, smiling at them," Mabel says. "They like to know that Avner's in the back. Al Biernat is king of the front door. Meeting the guy who's just moved from Vegas or Aspen? Not so exciting."

Numbers bear Mabel out. N9NE Group's Ghostbar fireballed to the top of Texas bar sales, generating July 2006 sales of $942,231, according to Austin-based Virtue Group, a restaurant research firm. By September 2007, those numbers had slipped to $553,876, a fall-off of 41 percent. N9NE Steakhouse had a similar plunge in alcohol sales, from $265,329 in April 2007 (the steakhouse opened in mid-January), to $157,009 in September, while Nove Italiano went from $151,092 to $86,589 over the same time period, representing drops of 40 and 43 percent respectively. Aspen-based Kenichi had a less precipitous drop, going from $107,167 in May (the restaurant opened in April) to $97,413 in September, a 9 percent dip.

These numbers might simply reflect American Airlines Center's dormancy during the Stars and Mavericks off-season. Yet it might be more. Sources say Hillwood, Victory's development firm, is beginning to take an avid interest in local restaurant talent as it fills in the Victory gaps.

Stealth Dynamics

Victory's glare might be masking a more compelling narrative just below the surface. Far from being bled by the high-wattage Victory development populated mostly by outsiders, the Dallas restaurant industry is resurgent. "If you had somebody that moved out of Dallas five years ago and they came back now, they would be able to see what you can't see," Mabel says. "And that is steady growth and a mind-numbing, palate-pleasing array of choices."

That downtown moat is bubbling with dynamism. Dallas Fish Market opened in the Kirby Building's Jeroboam shell last July. Michael Bratcher and chef Blaine Staniford of Fuse fame launched Scene Restaurant and Lounge in the Mosaic, a 440-unit apartment complex on Akard Street. Charlie Palmer, founder of Aureole and Astra in New York and Charlie Palmer Steak in Las Vegas, among other venues, has opened Charlie Palmer at The Joule and the Next Vintage Wine Shop on Main Street in the hotel that was once the Joule Urban Resort and is now simply The Joule.

In raw numbers, Dallas hospitality health as reflected in alcohol sales ticked up some 6.2 percent from January through September 2007 compared with the same period last year. But more than that, the Dallas-Fort Worth metro zone is frothing with creativity, at least in terms of new concepts and the broadening of flavors. Mark Maguire of Maguire's Regional Cuisine teamed up with Antique Harvest founder Hedda Gioia Dowd to open a European soufflé and wine bar dubbed rise n°1 in Inwood Village. Soufflé in steak country is either a culinary loon or a cash cow.

 

Mark Brezinski, founding partner of the fast casual Pei Wei Asian Diner that has spread 150-plus units over 20 states, has put all of his marbles into Bengal Coast Spice Traders, a fast casual-full service hybrid focused on Indian cuisine.

Set to open in the Centrum building (across from Robert Colombo's new Italian steakhouse/speakeasy The Club) as you read this, Bengal Coast is Brezinski's hunch that Indian cuisine laced with Indonesian and Malaysian touches is about to go mainstream—the sushi of the new millennium, if you will. "It's more exotic, and I think people are branching out a little bit more," he says. "I definitely think there's a curiosity. Restaurateurs in general are taking more chances."

Indeed, whether it's Taco Borga of La Duni fame bringing his Peru-centric Alo Cenaduria and Piqueos Latin tapas to the Knox-Henderson shopping district or Tei Tei Robata Bar founder Teiichi Sakurai devoting an entire restaurant to the disciplined art of soba noodles with Tei An, or Dean Fearing's stunning $6 million, seven-room shit-eating grin that seems stuck in a 1990s global fusion time warp with spurs, Dallas restaurateurs are holding their breath and betting the bank.

Stone Cold Sobering

Nipping at the ankles of this dynamism is an array of forces, from the sub-prime meltdown, to the high cost of filling up the Beemer, to the ethanol-fueled spike in commodities prices that's exerting upward price pressure on everything from farm-raised tilapia to chickens to steak and, hence, menu prices.

According to Mabel, the restaurant business is thriving at the extremes—both at the top end and at the bottom end. It's the middle that's sagging. Growth in the mid-priced casual dining segment has slowed or is flattening, a condition that precipitated Lone Star Funds' $629 million private equity buy-out last year of Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon. Lone Star announced its plans to spin off its Del Frisco's Double Eagle and Sullivan's steakhouses in a move that will include a $100 million initial public offering sometime next year, ostensibly to keep Lone Star's sagging midlevel feeders from dragging down its more profitable upscale steakhouses.

Yet some are bucking the casual dining sag with personality and flawless execution. Witness Consilient Restaurants' The Porch.

That sets up an interesting market niche for the crafty. Dallas loves its celebrity chefs, its home-grown stars trekking through dining rooms with glad hands and high-wattage smiles. As the costs of producing chef-driven restaurants escalate and the cadre of frequent diners to keep them aloft remains limited, the market is ripe for modest chef-driven neighborhood venues. Oak Cliff's Bishop Arts District now hosts Zen Sushi (by chef Michelle Carpenter), the reanimation of Tillman's Corner as Tillman's Roadhouse with Stephan Pyles alum Dan Landsburg in the kitchen and a Café Madrid outpost. Watch for Dallas versions of the gastro-pub, chef-driven watering holes reminiscent of Lakewood's Cock & Bull when Pyles alum Lisa Balliet turns it into a haute sudsery (now former Jeroboam chef Hugh Stewart is doing the haute part).

Stephan Pyles is rumored to be close to a deal on a downtown location that would serve as a more modest sibling to his restaurant. Olenjack's Grille in Arlington, founded by former Reata chef Brian Olenjack, wrings fine-dining quality from moderate prices. Then there's acclaimed chef Tim Love of Lonesome Dove Western Bistro. Love's newly launched Love Shack specializes in freshly ground burgers sourced from top-notch steers, plus hot dogs, venison and buffalo sausages and hand-cut fries. "These chefs want to sell some shit that they can really get some volume out of, get it out there and show their stuff," says Jeffrey Yarbrough, president of Big Ink PR and Marketing. "They can make a hamburger taste just as good as they can a $50 plate."

Yarbrough yearns to see this casual chef-driven template applied to steakhouses; he envisions humble neighborhood joints with a couple of well-chosen cuts, a bird, a fish and a handful of sides to create an economical alternative to the opulent special-effects steakhouses that breed like timber 'shrooms along Dallas' highways and byways.

"Steak is not going away," Mabel says. "It is a staple of the diet...a perceived luxury. It's here. Once something gets into the American diet, it's hard to shake." Yet we shook New York's Smith & Wollensky at the end of 2006. An omen? Hardly.

Bob's Steak & Chop House is now in Grapevine. Laurent Tourondel's BLT Steak, another New York import with a casual setting and $92 American Wagyu rib eyes, just opened aft the Galleria. Ounce Prime Steak House, opened by San Antonio restaurateur and Fleming's alum Danny Schertzer, hit Addison in the former La Valentina spot with Akaushi beef ($100 for a 14-ounce New York strip), a "genetically controlled" breed of Japanese Wagyu cattle. The fifth Silver Fox Steakhouse resides where Star Canyon once kicked the kitsch out of Southwestern.

 

The year also saw the reanimation of Tiki culture at the Hotel Palomar with Trader Vic's, the demise of Luqa and Petrus Lounge downtown, an event that sent chef wunderkind David Gilbert into the arms of Jack Baum and Mort Meyerson, who feature his work at Meyerson's in the Rosewood Court Development; the regrettable replacement of Susie Priore's Iris with a Campisi's; and the exit of founders Kathy McDaniel and Charlotte Parker from The Grape after 35 years and the entrance of chef Brian Luscher as new owner; and the sad passing of chef Annie Wong, the mother of Dallas Thai food (Thai Lanna, Star of Siam, Liberty Noodles) at the age of 71 because of complications from a stroke. Avner Samuel's Urban Bistro perished (two locations), and Fireside Pies expanded to Plano, Grapevine and in the former Urban Bistro location at Lovers and Inwood.

Kent Rathbun restructured his restaurant group, parent of Abacus and Jasper's restaurants in Plano, Austin and The Woodlands, by teaming up with former Ruth's Chris Steak House CEO Bill Hyde. Hyde operates the Zea Woodfire Grill franchise in Plano. Plus Abacus chef de cuisine Tre Wilcox, buoyed by his appearance as a contestant on the Bravo TV hit Top Chef, has vacated the Abacus kitchen to pursue TV studio klieg lights. Now that's napalm.


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