When the levee breaks

The eruption of diner fascination with Cool River Cafe is one of those cultural tremors that I just don't get. I don't understand how this concept was made flesh--or at least river stone and kitschy cowboy mural--and how it got to be the size of the south flank of a shopping mall. And I sure don't get why crowds are flocking to Cool River with such eagerness.

But there are countless other examples of cultural dynamism that leave me flummoxed. I'm perplexed by the throng of conscientious voters glued to the evening news to hear Dan Rather say "oral sex" with veteran Vietnam War journalist seriousness before they lapse into parental crisis when their kids chirp "What's that?"

I don't get why, after a 30-year tsunami of rock and roll debauchery, the Rolling Stones haven't yet been embalmed and forgotten--or at least why they don't scream loud enough to rattle the storm windows in Waxahachie every time they pee. I don't get the whole Michael Jackson-Lisa Marie Presley thing either. Not why their 18-month marriage didn't draw gut-wrenching laughter instead of mass fascination, but how--given the personal oddities of "The King"--there ever came to be a Lisa Marie.

And I don't get why every time I face a media outlet, Ally McBeal stares back at me. Who is this bundle of prime-time neurosis with a law degree? The depth of my failure to grasp this bit of cultural iconography struck me last football season when Pat Summerall urged me not to miss the show's next installment because it was so shocking, he couldn't even talk about it. This from a guy whose broadcast partner, John Madden, blathers endlessly about scrimmage snot and lineman butt cleavage.

I say all of this so you get a sense of my blindness to the potent dynamics driving markets and culture. Because despite the fact that Cool River is clean, roomy, and accented with some of the most crisply handsome decorative touches found in any restaurant, this sizzling $6 million adult-entertainment hypermart gives me the creeps.

This feeling first struck when I began my 20-minute dinner wait in Cool River's huge bar with its dizzyingly high ceilings. This watering crater is equipped with a large, shimmering glassed-in billiard room (Cool River founder Stephen Hartnett is an avid billiards player) and scads of big- and little-screen TVs positioned to interfere with every conceivable line of sight. Hartnett claims he intentionally made the thing cavernous because so many Dallas restaurants are saddled with uncomfortable, tight-fitting bars. Yet I had to elbow through knots of excited, beer-sloshing humanity before I could order the drink for which I so desperately thirsted after experiencing 15 chaotic minutes of Cool River's confused valet-parking service.

And what a crowd it was. I was sandwiched between hordes of middle-aged mid-level execs and professional types noisily preening and posturing before clusters of sinuous studs and primped young birds in full tight-fitting, spike-heeled mating regalia. Was I witnessing the furious release of pent-up claustrophobia from dwellers of Las Colinas' "planned residential villages"?

As I traveled to my table past the cigar and cognac lounge outfitted with chess tables, beyond the merchandise case with Cool River caps and T-shirts, through the foyer with a crackling fireplace below a sprawling deer-antler chandelier, it struck me that this pseudo-cozy entertainment warehouse cum residential lodge was not only bustling and energetic, it was completely without soul.

But you don't get the full force of this deficiency until you have a seat in the dining room, where the earsplitting ambiance and runway-sized cowboy mural provide a grating backdrop for spectacularly impersonal service. Soullessness also anchors a "Texas-eclectic" menu that seems nipped and tucked for a photo-op instead of created for an appetite.

On the first visit, our server pierced the Cool River din with the brisk, staccato delivery of a hyperactive auctioneer hopped-up on espresso. Every service step seemed choreographed with the fierce determination to reach one goal: turning tables. She delivered our salads promptly, and the house salad--lettuce, chopped egg, chewy bacon, tomato wedges, and homemade seasoned croutons splashed with lively citrus vinaigrette spiked with rosemary--was actually one of the best things on the menu. But the Caesar caliente, despite crisp lettuce, generous shavings of smoked Romano cheese, and a scattering of those same croutons, was clobbered by a too-powerful, over-salted ancho dressing.

Before we could nibble a second salad bite, however, our server was shoving our entrees--an 8-ounce filet mignon and a spiny lobster tail--under our noses. Is this menu prefab, or what? We protested, and our dinners were whisked away, no doubt to do some hard time under a warmer while we finished our salads.

Not that the suffering could have been compounded much. The filet, though visually perfect and moist, was thin and mealy, with very little flavor save bitter grill grit. The rear end of that lobster, though, was an utter disaster: chewy, fibrous, dry, and virtually void of flavor. Plus, it came with this cilantro-citrus butter dipper charged with Tabasco powder, a pairing that perhaps didn't spend enough time in the prototype stage. If it is assumed that Cool River does, on occasion, serve tails with flavor, any such traces would be instantly eradicated by this weapon of mass entree destruction. This is not to say the idea is a non-starter, just that some strenuous restraint might be in order.

A side of intensely garlicky Mercedes spinach with pecans in a cilantro Gorgonzola sauce perked things up a bit. The wilted leaves were tender and delicately crisp, while a scattering of resilient poached pear chunks added a sweet tartness and a provocative texture.

A second visit demonstrated Cool River's soul enervation beyond any doubt. Service was terse and desperately insincere. Like a glaze-eyed automaton, our server mumbled "excellent choice" after virtually every order. And while he would ask us, throughout the meal, if we were finished with various dishes, he would sweep away our plates before we had a chance to answer, or ignore us when we did. That table-turning drive was getting annoying.

At one point, a manager stopped by just as our entrees arrived. "Are you enjoying everything? Steak done to your liking? Is the chicken good? Is the venison satisfactory?" he asked. The only remark from our table was that we hadn't yet had a chance to taste anything. "Very good. I'm glad you're enjoying everything," he replied. Is there a Stepford Wife hospitality training program in the metroplex?

Not that he would have gotten overwhelmingly glowing reviews if he had caught us in mid-bite. The Shiner Bock ribeye, a tender, moist steak with gobs of extraneous fat, was out of whack. Marinated for a few days in a formula of beer, sweet soy sauce, and cilantro, the steak is glazed with additional sweet soy during preparation. It creates a tangy sweetness rich in caramel and butterscotch flavors. But the treatment seemed to cancel the meat's own sweet richness. Plus, the steak was too thin, barely three-quarters of an inch, if that. Grilling is pointless for a cut of this thickness because the meat cooks before it has a chance to develop a deep grilled flavor.

But perhaps the most perplexing menu item was the chicken-fried venison steak. Chicken-frying was originally created to make cheaper cuts of beef more palatable. So why in God's name would you pound a cut of lean, velvety venison and annihilate its mild, sweet nuttiness with this clumsy culinary treatment? The results were predictable. Crusted with a spicy, crunchy coating sparked with mustard and layered with portobello, shitake, and button mushroom cream gravy, the dish was eviscerated of any venison character. In fact, it had no meat flavor at all. Though moist, the flesh was mealy and chewy--like chicken-fried mystery meat from a school cafeteria.

Chipotle chicken, a breast marinated in orange juice with chipotle pepper, cilantro, onion, garlic, white wine, and olive oil and brushed with a hickory sauce, was by far the best entree tried. Perfectly grilled, it was tender, plump, and juicy with a sweet tang and an elusive spice kick. A side of smashed potatoes, however, had a good spicy spark but was plagued by gumminess.

Smoked salmon quesadillas were another highlight. Chunks of flavorful fish in a creamy Texas goat cheese were sandwiched between light, flaky tortillas. A side of creamy pecan tartar sauce with caper, dill, lemon, and a touch of anchovy, rounded out the flavors beautifully.

Another piece of this dining puzzle infused with thoughtfulness is the wine list, a deep, extensive selection of wines from most global corners including California, Australia, and France. Plus, it has a rudimentary flavor classification demarcated by wines of light, medium, and full body.

According to Hartnett--a hugely successful money-manager who, along with his firm, the Hartnett Group, has majority interest in the restaurant--Cool River represents "the best of all concepts that I've seen rolled into one." He has taken design cues--the rich wood paneling and trim, the 100-foot faux river with boulders and waterfalls in front, and the heavy use of smooth river stones--from his homes in Colleyville and Carmel, California.

The owner of Fox & Hound English Pub and Grille in North Dallas, Hartnett launched and operated restaurants in Lubbock, College Station, and Austin before he got into money-management. He calls Cool River "the last evolutionary step" in his development of restaurant concepts.

Just before breaking ground on Cool River, he hooked up with Gene Street of Black-Eyed Pea and Good Eats Restaurants fame to guide implementation of the venture in exchange for 12.5 percent interest. He also brought on Tristan Simon, who had been discussing a possible venture with Street, as managing partner. "They kind of almost came as a package," Hartnett says. While Simon has no restaurant experience, Hartnett says he possesses extraordinary people and team-building skills. He's got his work cut out for him.

It's hard not to be awed by the business acumen of the likes of Hartnett, or the uncanny restaurant industry shrewdness of Street. The proof is in the crowds that, for now, pack this upscale, 22,000-square-foot institutional feedery-amusement park for the high-performance mutual-fund set. But for my money, the best place to admire the prodigious talents of these gentlemen is from the business pages, not from a table in one of their restaurants.

Cool River Cafe. 1045 Hidden Ridge Road and MacArthur Blvd., Las Colinas; (972) 871-8881. Open 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Thursday-Friday, 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday, and 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Sunday.

E-mail Dish at markstz@juno.com.

Cool River Cafe:
Caesar caliente $5.95
Smoked salmon quesadillas $7.95
Eight-ounce filet mignon $20.95
Lobster tail $29.95
Shiner Bock ribeye $18.95
Chicken-fried venison steak $12.95
Chipotle chicken $9.95


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