City Café is one of those Dallas institutions that is perpetually in danger of laurel-resting, of desperately clinging to the vigor for which it was known in an earlier time. Back then, its reputation was established simply by serving up new American cuisine with the edges tweaked just a bit, by drafting an intelligently crafted wine list with names that must have seemed exotic 12 or so years ago (who ever heard of a pinot blanc from Oregon anyway?). This is when new wasnt so hard to come by. There was even a time when these little nips and tucks could get you a cadre of fierce followers.
Not so today. City Café has had its share of ups and downs. In existence for roughly 14 years, this restaurant managed to serve sublime fare when the kitchen was under the supervision of Katie Schma--near perfect execution at every juncture. But then she packed it in for Northern California, near the shore where the sea foam is really suds and the lights go black at unpredictable intervals. She left behind a City Café that became susceptible to dreary lows and a kitchen that frequently defaulted to uninspiring, pro forma cuisine.
But that seems to have changed recently, and the transformation can be summed up in two words: Jason Gorman. Chef Gorman has spent a lot of time in Dallas' more hallowed kitchens. He cut his Big D teeth at the Grape, the venerable Lower Greenville Avenue restaurant that is often voted Dallas' "most romantic" restaurant, seemingly only because it makes generous use of low-wattage lightbulbs. After the Grape, Gorman moved to the now defunct Stephan Pyles/Michael Cox upscale fish shack known as AquaKnox.
But Gorman found he didn't have the temperament for being part of the corporate scene at Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, which purchased AquaKnox. He left, and his timing seemed prescient. AquaKnox was later swallowed whole by the hungry jaws of Fishbowl, the restaurant's lounge, which spit the whole thing out as the overly clever Asian Fusion foray known as zen den.
Gorman's Carlson uprooting brought him to the Mercury, where he worked the line under the stern stare of Chris Ward. But he didn't find compatibility there either.
So he hiked down to City Café, and here he seems to have found his stride among the green carpet and lacy curtains. Here he not only crafts new entrants to monthly menus, his touch embraces old menu inhabitants as well, such as the warm cabbage salad with apple smoked bacon and blue cheese. This dish is a nice merging of subtle contrasts. Visually, the milky green remnants of the conventional cabbage head flirt almost menacingly with the deep purple hues of a red cabbage head, or maybe it's the other way around. And then there's the temperature. The warm (but very crisp) leaves seem to draw out the sharpness of the cool, blue cheese crumbles as perhaps no other flavor sensation could. This is comfort food with verve.
Fresh tomato soup was the work of indecisive execution, though it was still good. On one visit it was reddish and clear, save for the thick pulp suspended in its depths. Its flavors hinted faintly of cream, yet no milkiness was evident. On the second visit, the soup had the same pulp but was clouded by a thicker application of cream. Both versions were fresh and brimming with brusque tomato flavor, the kind that seems impossible to find in those waxy things sold on grocery store produce tables. But I preferred the raciness of the first version. It seemed to function more effectively as an appetizer; you could feel your mouth waking up after just a couple of spoonfuls.
Little has changed visually at City Café over the years. The walls are done up in nondescript shades, and there are a few antiques with white, chipping paint. The tables and chairs seem on the last legs of their wear-and-tear life span, a condition that is masked somewhat by white tablecloths. One chair on our first visit could actually be made to waver like a rocking chair with minimal pressure.
The tables are equipped with little cups of crudités (carrot, celery and kalamata olives) and wire baskets of toast and lahvosh that were sculpted into the shapes of cats and horses and other quadrupeds. It's all cozy and casually warm, the kind of place that seems to have been unwittingly crafted as a Dallas mainstay for loyal regulars.
Service reflects this philosophy. It is gracious, efficient and knowledgeable when it was there. But on one visit, we were left without attention for inordinately long periods, even though the dining room was only half-full. Sometimes it seems as though City Café has gotten a little too comfortable, a little too slow.
But maybe this is because these flaws were so striking when contrasted with the food, which showed few if any gaffes. The crab, shrimp and crawfish cakes were tiny but tall pucks of moist seafood meal covered in a crispy crust. They were gently pushed against a berm of cool avocado salad with tomato and a dab of saffron aioli. The cakes managed to avoid the mushiness that can sometimes infect this ubiquitous meal starter. Plus, the crawfish gave them a distinctive pungency that left them hovering above the ho and the hum.
The entrées were compelling, the best by far being the potato Stilton agnolotti (Piedmont-style ravioli) in herb truffle butter sauce. It's hard to overstate what a rich but balanced and focused culinary explosion this project is in the mouth. Arranged in a circle around the plate and topped with tiny cauliflower florets, baby carrots and crumbles of Stilton cheese, these smooth pillows were delicate (almost like a pastry in character) but forcefully flavored, merging deftly with the butter sauce. The dish comes with a choice of grilled chicken breast or grilled shrimp. We chose the latter, which were plump and juicy with a clean briny flavor. The best thing about this dish is that it is also among the least expensive entrées on the menu, coming in at just 18 bucks for the shrimp.
Steak au poivre, crusted with coarsely ground peppercorns, was a thick medallion of meat with just one edge kissing the dab of mustard cream sauce. The juicy, chewably tender meat resting on a bed of mashed potatoes was richly flavored, though it was perhaps cooked a bit under the requested medium hue.
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Green olive-rubbed whole baby chicken in walnut Romesco sauce (a classic Spanish dribbling made of tomato pepper, garlic and olive oil) was served split. The meat was succulent and light with a brined flavor imparted by the olives. But the sauce seemed superfluous. The chicken had so much moisture and alluring flavor on its own that there was little need to dredge forkfuls in the sauce, which was puddled at the edge of the plate instead of over the bird. Off to the other side was a saffron potato cake, moist, supple and exotic, that kept the flavor profile interesting.
Perhaps the weakest of the sampled entrées (if weak can be applied here) was the mint grilled lamb tenderloin. It looked like a trio of charred tongues, draped as it was over mounds of yogurt couscous sown with carrot shreds and cucumber dill salad. The raw salad next to the meat was a simple yet effective play in contrasts: brisk crispy vigor of the salad against the warm, fleshy texture of the lamb. The couscous was exuberantly light and separate, yet it was sturdy enough to stand up to the lamb, which was tender, juicy and sweet, though infected with a whisper of petrol-like flavor, perhaps absorbed from the grill.
Dessert was almost a letdown from this. Not because of the quality of the offerings, but because well-crafted savoriness often gets tarnished by the coarse thud of aggressive sweetness. Even so, the carrot cake with rich cream cheese frosting was good: a coarse, moist cake coarsened with carrot shreds. This rustic slab of cake played footsy with a dab of crème fraîche on the edge of the plate.
But footsy is most likely a pastime you wouldn't want to try here. Somehow I have a feeling my chair wasn't the only one that doubles as a rocker. And it would be a shame to enjoy the subtleties of the potato Stilton agnolotti with busted chair leg splinters up your rear end.