That little restaurant space with the burgundy awning near Lovers and Inwood has gone through some modest mutations over the years. In 1992, it was Le Caviste, a French wine bistro. Then in 1993, Guy and Martine Calluaud appropriated the space and created Calluaud's restaurant, a more informal version of their former spot on McKinney Avenue. Calluaud injected a light tapas menu into the bistro mix and, in a fit of imaginative word play, renamed it The Bistro.
By 1996, Jim Cantrell, former executive chef at the Barkley Hotel in Chicago, and his wife, Liz, had the place in their hands. They added a corner fireplace, some couches in the bar, and drenched it with amber lighting. The tapas menu was retained with some variations along with a mishmash of other Mediterranean dishes, everything from lobster fettuccini to Moroccan couscous. Then, last fall, Cantrell sold The Bistro to Dudley and Elaine Dancer. It's operated by Zenon Oprysk, former owner of the now shuttered Tiburon bar on Greenville Avenue, and his wife, Stephanie, (daughter of the Dancers).
They did some minor nipping and tucking, such as toning down the gauche color scheme of bright pinks, lavender woodwork, and blue-green carpet to earthy beiges and browns. They also dropped the tapas roster and redirected the menu toward genuine bistro fare, which brings with it a welcome emphasis on wine. Sure, there's the expected weight on California, but it's liberally sprinkled with wines from France, Italy, Chile, Spain--even Texas. Plus, there's a section called Bistro wines offering a stimulating slate of whites (like the delicious King Estates Pinot Gris) and a couple of roses (disastrously underappreciated drinks).
Since opening, the kitchen lineup has been shuffled. Opening executive chef Bryan Chambers, formerly of the Green Room, exited at the beginning of the year, and sous chef Ken Howell, former executive chef of the defunct Doolittle's, has taken charge. He's joined by former Yellow sous chef Kerry Kelly and onetime Cafe Pacific sous chef Adam Keith. The menu is a strong improvement over the often lax fare that plagued the previous incarnation, which was preoccupied with tapas. Yet it still doesn't uniformly sing as it should, considering the experience in the kitchen. Everything, from the service to the menu, suffers from a slight but noticeable awkwardness.
On one visit we had a server who admitted she was a spring-break reinforcement. She was pleasant enough, but the only wines and menu items she knew well were those she had chewed and sipped as a customer. On another visit, the service was stiff and impersonal. When I asked the server about the beef bourguignonne, he hesitated and halfheartedly endorsed it--a mistake, because the meat was dry and fibrous, and the side of diced carrot, parsnip, and rutabaga was oily.
A thing even more vexing is the cassoulet. Beans are the essential ingredients in this dish. But meat--pork loins or hams, sausages, goose, or duck--is what gives this creamy creation its backbone and rustic character. The Bistro created a veggie dish with that diced carrot, parsnip, and rutabaga mix, which is fine as an option. But why not offer a meat version? Without the meats, it's just a pot of flatus bullets.
Other things worked well. The páte plate had a velvety-smooth rendition and a slice of hearty, rich country páte. A clump of caramelized onions over lively dressed greens also was good, as was the assortment of cheeses (smoked Gouda, Stilton, Havarti with dill, and Brie). But a cluster of apple wedges was dry and wooly. Smoked venison sausage in wild mushroom risotto screamed with steady richness: The risotto, flush with Parmesan, was creamy and supple, the mushrooms firm and meaty with flavor just as resolute as the texture. The venison was chewy, tasty, and satisfying (this is the stuff they offered to toss in my cassoulet). Another example of immaculate cookery was the Champagne-roasted mussels with leeks and bits of roasted tomato. The mussels hit that rare bit of textural balance between chewy toughness and soft mushiness--the whole dish had an affluence of firmly clean flavors. Walnut-crusted sea bass on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes had crisp sheathing and firmly delicate edges, but the center was mushy, as if undercooked. Plus, a side of sun-dried tomatoes, morels, and asparagus didn't seamlessly mesh with the fish. The morels alone might provide a simpler touch. But this is perhaps a metaphor for The Bistro: It has solid conceptual foundations, but details slip through the cracks here and there. With a little work, this restaurant will kick some cassoulet.
The linchpin in the brood of Daddy Jack's restaurants is lobster insanity, a 1-pound lobster dinner for $10.95 on weekdays and $14.95 on weekends. Good stuff, this ocean-borne mental illness. The pre-cracked crawler is sweet and rich, if perhaps slightly mushy in the claws. Sharing the plate is an ear of corn that's as firm, juicy, and sweet as any you'll find, though the baked potato resembles a dehydrated cud. This dinner is fully equipped: There's the plastic lobster bib, the little fork, the crusher, and the side plate for discarding spent shells.
But this insanity has many dimensions. At a table at Daddy Jack's Lobster, Steaks and Seafood in Coppell, I observed a child looting her father's plate of discarded lobster remains, confiscating the crustacean's head. She spoke to it, scolded it with a stiff index finger, gave it a name (Larry, as I recall), and demanded that her parents put it in a "go" bag to bring home. A waiter silently took note, and a few minutes later, approached the table with a live lobster on a plate. The kid was terrified at first, but after a few minutes, she was talking to it, stroking its back, fingering the thick blue bands that bound its claws shut, and asking for a bag so she could sling this one home instead. With the kid distracted, another server snatched the remnants of the insanity, including the lobster head named Larry.
Chefs may hate this, but the dynamics of dining out often mean that good service tastes a hell of a lot better than great food. Gruel served with courtesy and unobtrusive pampering tastes like savory paella; provocative fare is like sour chum when accompanied by snotty indifference.
Not that the service here was polished by any means. It was just simple common courtesy and sense on steroids. I saw one server deliver a child a Sprite in a little tea set with the pot shaped like a country cottage, an apparatus that kept her far more entertained than those kids' menus with crayons ever could. One couple came in for dinner with a sleeping child draped over the father's shoulder. A server immediately helped set up a makeshift bed with two chairs then covered her with a fresh tablecloth.
So even if the food here isn't exemplary overall, which it isn't, that's not to say this isn't a damn good restaurant. The pound of king crab legs wasn't as uniformly rich and lush as you might expect, especially at $28. There were far too many fibrous stretches of meat. Smoked grilled prime rib was a bit dry and chewy (it got better toward the center), though the flavor was robust. But the massive heap of seafood pasta with lobster, mussels, and shrimp over of bed of linguini in a tangy marinara sauce was replete with tasty, robust marine life.
New England clam chowder was creamy and sweet and crammed with potato and generous chunks of clam. A filet with apple-smoked bacon and Roquefort butter was tender, if afflicted with a slight livery taste. But the Roquefort butter shellacked the meat, fortifying it with richness it didn't intrinsically possess.
A chocolate box dessert, shaped like a lunch sack and filled with small, moist squares of pound cake and juicy strawberries and cream, was good and rich, save for the chocolate itself, which was fairly waxy.
This northern Daddy Jack's opened last June. It joins the other restaurants owned by Jack Chaplin and chef Victor Orms, including the Original Daddy Jack's Wood Grill in Deep Ellum, Daddy Jack's Lobster and Chowder House on Greenville Avenue, and Daddy Jack's Lobster and Chowder House on Royal Lane. This edition was launched in the space that was once Gaspar's. In fact, the divider between the open kitchen in the dining room still has the Gaspar's name etched in glass. Steel garden gates serve as an entrance to the dining room, and arbor-like slats jut out of the ceiling and the walls. It's all covered with fake greenery. There's a pump organ in one corner. The place is filled with smoke aromas, and causal green and white cloths cover the tables--all and all, a good place for marine insanity.
The Bistro, 5405 West Lovers Lane, (214) 352-1997. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; open for dinner 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday; Sunday brunch, 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. $$-$$$
Daddy Jack's Lobster, Steaks and Seafood, 150 S. Denton Tapp Road, #101, Coppell, (972) 393-5152. Open for dinner 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday $$-$$$