Wolfgang Puck soars high with Five-Sixty
Dallas loves celebrity chefs.
Hell, Guy what's-his-name, the one with the hair, from Food Network, drops by a restaurant or two and people practically wet themselves. The arrival of Nobu Matsuhisa, Charlie Palmer, Tom Colicchio or any famous name from either coast for a brief visit to their kitchens sends locals into a near fugue state. For some reason, we think their presence confirms legitimacy on the city's dining scene. Either that or we view them as saviors, expecting one to rescue a dying space inside the Crescent, another to help revive downtown or Victory Park.
For the most famous culinary name of all—Wolfgang Puck—we reserved the tallest challenge: saving the glittering 560-foot erection called Reunion Tower from cultural insignificance. The concrete and glass phallus once housed Antares, whose rotating dining room became sadly dated. The tower overlooks a formerly hallowed sports hall, soon to be torn down. When the shell of Reunion Arena is finally demolished, the tall ball will stand castrated, like some architectural Ken doll.
One wonders whether Puck is up for it with his latest incarnation—the tower-topping Five-Sixty (a reference to the tower's height). He conquered Hollywood long ago, opening the now famous Spago way back in 1982. Of course, Californians are pushovers for Austrian superstars. He took his fine-dining act to Vegas and became an instant sensation.
But this isn't Sunset Strip. Puck's crew stripped away vestiges of Antares' dreary past, replacing all with sleek, low-slung, lounge-style fixtures that fit his Asian-New American fusion menu, and its rock and roll attitude—loud music and focal points like the bar or wine rack are theatrically illuminated. The definite draw at Five-Sixty (apart from it being Puck's Place) is still that unobstructed, 360-degree view of the city. But after dark, aside from some brief excitement as the bright lights of downtown roll past, diner conversation turns to a Mapsco-esque recitation.
"Irving is that way, I think."
"Right, that's Stemmons down there."
"So if that is 30, then we're looking at Arlington."
Geez, you know it's bad when someone blurts, "Ooh, look, it's the Mixmaster." If only there was a signature bridge, or something—even if it went to nowhere, even if it weakens the levees—just to break the monotony. Figure that if Five-Sixty is to succeed, Puck's cooking better match his reputation and exceed its location.
Puck did well in transferring young Sarah Johannes, a standout protégé from 2021, his Minneapolis restaurant, to run the Dallas show. Her interpretation of Puck's Asian-inspired flavors are impressively low-key. An amuse bouche of seasoned green beans, for instance, carries a creeping sensation of chili—one that loiters awhile before deciding to step into the wake of other flavors. Her Arctic char appetizer features earthy spice, seared into the skin but laid on with such delicacy it seems like a tawny feather. And the seasoning marries beautifully to a light, chirpy sauce tasting of cucumbers and fruit.
Johannes shows tremendous sensitivity to Indian flavors. Prawns rest in densely spiced curry—not spicy as in three-alarm blaze but in the more authentic sense of developing a series of impressions on your palate. Some are intense, some fleeting, but all are noticeable. This is how Indian sauces should work. The heat many associate with curry thanks to British bastardizations waits in reserve, kicking in after grounded, smoky, bitter fenugreek-y flavors have their say. And then the little rush of chili is sapped by cool, soothing coconut milk.
If I have any qualms with this dish, it's that Johannes dumps the shellfish into a background role. Were they sweet or musty, cooked right or left a little too long in the pot? An hour after dinner, when I began to scribble notes on the meal, her prawns seemed unmemorable.
But it's a minor strike on the minus side against so many pluses.
While many menu offerings showcase her incredible sense of reserve, the chef does appreciate bold flavors. Crispy suckling pig, for instance, is shellacked with a sauce that sticks you with rich, sugary syrup that has a zing similar to candied citrus peel. The concoction then takes a harsh acrid turn, which counters the initial sweetness. It's fascinating to contemplate, especially since the dish consists of three small squares sitting in all that sauce. The skin crackles and snaps perfectly, a strata of fat melts almost instantly on your tongue. The teaser of meat is just what it should be: tender and mild. If you're not adept at deconstructing culinary delights, I hope you're a quick study. It takes only a few bites to get through the serving, which should be eaten slowly, enjoyed, even reflected upon.
When you think about it, Five-Sixty's location is hardly convenient. I'm told they couldn't squeeze a walk-in freezer into the main kitchen. The rest rooms are the same size as what you find at the Texaco, just dressed up a bit. Whoever planned Reunion forgot about little details such as accessibility and safety. Parking is somewhat remote, and walking from downtown through the tunnel of death is probably not the best idea.
To turn this into destination dining, the chef will need a whimsical side, which she appears to be expressing in her General Tso's quail, a smart fusion of Puck's Asian shtick with a mix of Texana. Partially deboned breast pieces are wrapped in a thick yet brittle cocoon of dough and slathered in a thick orange sauce. The bird seems a bit lost in all this, but the sauce and particularly the crust are just so right. And they defuse any impression of heaviness by using a warmly dressed salad as a centerpiece.
The previous occupant failed because dated décor and mediocre cooking couldn't distract you from the great void outside. You'd go once, for the hell of it—and perhaps a second time if visiting relatives couldn't be bought off with a fashionable steak at Al Biernat's or Bob's Steak & Chop House (pre-indictment). Puck now has you walking into a room that screams "Cool!"
When you enter the ground floor of the tower, a massive portrait of the man greets you. Puck brought in a chef who knows her stuff—well, his stuff, really. Johannes runs a spectacular kitchen, but only the brightness of Puck's star can solve the problem of location and perhaps make people forget that, at night, Dallas is just a flat expanse of light bulbs and highways.
Johannes may be doing all the work, but Puck's name is the key to Reunion Tower's salvation.
Five-Sixty 300 Reunion Blvd. E. (Reunion Tower), 214-741-5560. Open 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday. $$$
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