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Weathered Wrangler

Reata is a retreat for wranglers, even those without calf fries.
Stephen Karlisch

A tornado abruptly changed the course for Reata, the popular Fort Worth "cowboy cuisine" restaurant. In March 2000, the furious whirl ripped through Fort Worth, popping the windows out of the restaurant perched on the 35th floor of the Bank One Tower and flinging its furniture more than a mile from its rustic dining room. The restaurant reopened six weeks and $800,000 later, only to close again in February 2001 so the building could be sold and slated for demolition. (Replacement of the tower's blown-out windows with plywood earned it the handle "plank one tower," though the façade is slowly being transformed with metal panels, as the planks were deemed a fire hazard.)

Then in August 2001, the restaurant's owners, Mike Evans and Al Micallef, struck a deal with Sundance Square Management to lease the 22,000 square feet of space that was once the nightclub Caravan of Dreams. The new Reata weirdly borrows from its former life as a skyscraper summit dining room, re-creating the exact Fort Worth skyline views from its Bank One perch through the use of large digital photographs--in a basement dining room no less.

Reata's twisted plot line is legend in the making, a tale of dogged survival, a die-hard story of toughness. This is a tale that could only be poetically concluded by the successful implosive demolition of the troubled tower. But now even that finale is in question. The skyscraper is stuffed to the rafters with asbestos, and regulations may make demolition more costly than a remodel, which may in turn be more costly than letting it seed into luxury condos for pigeons. Which only goes to show you: Mother Nature may be a bitch, but bureaucratic edicts are a real mother.

Given all of this bad weather and the rattling misfortunes of closing then opening then closing only to open again (teasing out a silver lining, Reata co-owner Mike Evans says the last few months were a particularly good time to be closed if you're in the restaurant business), it's amazing Reata landed with such grace, much less kept its menu intact. But it has, keeping a tight cowboy timbre with entrants like calf fries.

Wince-inducing things, those fries. In actuality this snack is bovine family jewels, the rite-of-passage price male calves must pay to enter steer-hood. This makes this unique cowboy finger food a culinary departure that even the French--with their brain, thymus gland and kidney creations--hadn't considered. Or is it simply there are some organs that even the French won't coat with beurre blanc?

These come piddled in a little cream gravy, and they're swathed in a light, greaseless batter. The pearly meat is satiny and juicy, which, when considering the source, is a little disconcerting. So don't consider it.

Also potentially disconcerting is the smoked quail in molasses barbecue glaze. Sluicing meat in sweetness is a culinary occupation fraught with peril, as it can deaden the palate. But this chewy, moist fowl was judiciously slathered, allowing the smoke flavors (without the distressingly common livery aftertaste) to mingle with the slim layer of gaminess. The bird was bedded on a mattress of creamy-smooth jalapeño grits that were so tasty and satisfying, they could have easily constituted a whole meal.

Other entrants from the starter quadrant of the menu performed equally well. Tortilla soup was thin, savory and musky, with fibers of tender pulled chicken strewn throughout. Bacon-wrapped shrimp were swaddled with wide, crispy rigid strips of pork meat leaching an intense cured flavor that did provocative battle with the marine lushness.

But the topper of this starting-line fare is the tenderloin tamale with pecan mash, a supple meshing of flaky masa, beef, chopped pecan and cream wrapped in a shuck. The balance is exquisite; the textures are sublime, with only a bit of spice heat to dislodge it from a potential descent into the doldrums.

Not surprisingly, this menu is heavily trampled with hoofs; it would take calf fries of brass to brave a significant deviation (though the Martha's vegetable plate entrée certainly took some brass to include). There's a rib eye, a pork chop, featured game and beef tenderloin, which is pan-seared and armored in pepper. The meat is silky and lush, though the side flood of port wine sauce was intensely sweet, to the extent we found ourselves studiously sidestepping this dark lagoon so as not to pollute the deliciously rich meat flavors.

Buffalo rib eye, a featured game item, was washed in a thin, tomato-based sauce, which played well to the meat flavors. Buffalo, more times than not, is dry, mealy and boring. This slab deftly escaped these hazards, proffering lushness sown with a simple wisp of gaminess.

Fire-roasted Texas T-bone with marinated tomatoes was a flaming mishap. The steak was thin and gray, not cooked at all to the requested medium rare, even near the bone. It was pulpy and livery, effortlessly striking a breakfast-steak posture. And those vinegar-soaked tomatoes, though rich and juicy, were bewildering. Vinegar on steak cancels out all of that manly "fired" and "boned" carnivore-aciousness. While I don't mind strips of rosy rib eye on a salad splashed with dressing, the treatment here seemed mildly weird on a steak blasted with fiery sizzle and ostensibly drooling with beef juice.

The transition from hoofs to beaks can be awe-inspiring. Chicken chile rellenos topped with roasted corn chowder and Mexican cheese was fitted with tender young corn kernels and juicy chicken. The pepper was smoky and firm without being stringy or mushy. A racy patch of greens broadened the flavors by kicking in some sass.

But perhaps the most impressive stock to come out of Reata's pens were the desserts, imaginative flourishes bursting with freshness and flavor. Dessert tacos were designed to look like the street versions, with diced strawberry and mint leaf shreds standing in for tomato and cilantro. With caramelized banana, vanilla-nut ice cream and shaved white chocolate anchored by a tuile cookie tortilla, the taco was as flavorful as it was deft.

Though the service was half-hearted, featuring scant menu knowledge and uneven pacing, it wasn't enough to thwart the experience. (The wine list could benefit from a less California-centric bent and include more "cowboy" regions in South America, or Texas for that matter, from where it had just three entrants.)

Décor is a museum of wrangler ventures and vestments. The walls are caked with cowboy murals and studded with buffalo, deer and antelope noggins. Boots are sequestered into display cases. All of these knickknacks come from Micallef's western trappings collection. But it's when you ascend upstairs to the patio garden that the Texas drench really sloshes you. This expansive piazza is rich in Texas flora, all meticulously labeled. A waterfall dribbles trickles over rock facings. Like the gazebo in the dining room below, a climate-controlled dining dome serves as the outdoor centerpiece, a kind of Sundance Square "Buckyball," or maybe an architectural calf fry.

With locations in Alpine, Texas, and an upcoming unit set to open in Woodland Hills north of Los Angeles (a Beverly Hills location on Rodeo Drive was shuttered June 2001 after little more than a year in operation), Reata and its cowboy luster have always been objects slated for dispersion. Currently, co-owners Evans and Micallef are eyeing locations in St. Louis, Sacramento and Baltimore.

If these scions hold together anything like the battered Fort Worth version, they should grace these cities with an engaging slice of cowboy culture. Floods, mudslides and power grid ruptures be damned.

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Reata Restaurant

310 Houston St.
Fort Worth, TX 76102

817-336-1009

www.reata.net


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