Restaurant Reviews

Wingless horsey

If you want to give a restaurant a stress test in basics, go to dinner with a bunch of computer geeks, ones drooling with fickleness. That's what I did, a trio of them, with clearly expressed systems specializations: hardware, software, and training. Never before did I realize that hoisting digits all day could plunge one into sheer ravenousness. But after hearing some of the day's highlights from the trainer, who had a hard time convincing a trainee that it was not necessary to drag the mouse across the monitor screen to move the cursor, I suppose I'd be famished too.

I decided the best place to acclimate the gizzards of these techies, who hailed from Miami, to metroplex food was The Pegasus, both because it was close to the firm that was employing their free-agent services and because I thought people who fly at cyberspeeds might feel some sort of bond with the pace of a flying horse.

Gad, was I wrong. It was 20 minutes before we were approached with menus. Another third of an hour passed before someone came by to take our orders, which wasn't so bad actually. The back of the menu was a glossary, providing brief definitions of menu ingredients such as quinoa (a high-protein grain "touted to be the new wonder food") and voodoo cheese sauce (rum, goat cheese, and exotic spices). I wondered aloud how many Pegasus menus get left in the bathroom each night, until the hardware guy pointed out that I was the only one reading it. The software guy continuously made note of the guests who were seated well after we were and were served food well before I was able to finish memorizing the menu glossary. He got so fed up (so to speak) that he excused himself, saying he was going to go inform waitstaff that a critic was at his table. He relented only after I threatened to ship a gift basket of spam to his e-mail address.

Then the trainer declared he was a "pescatarian," a word he said means he only eats things that swim, although he would never eat a duck. (Strict vegetarians are rarely found in the computing professions, since the entire high-tech sector is fueled by Chee-tos.) That's why it was up to me to order the seared wild-duck breast ($27). But after sampling it, I concluded that ducks perhaps were never meant to be seared. Cooked medium-rare and placed on a pad of puréed butternut squash with a dried fruit mole (an intense slurry of dried apricot, mango, papaya, golden raisins, and dates), the meat was tough and chewy. Plus, though the butternut squash was tasty, it was served cold and little runny.

But what really tripped this pescatarian was the mezze plate ($7 per person). The hummus was delicious, though a firmer burst of lemon and garlic would have elevated it considerably. Baba ghanoush (puréed egg plant) spilled over with creamy textures and full, engaging flavors. But the dolma (stuffed grape leaves), in a departure from most dolma I've sampled, was stuffed with basmati rice speckled with ground lamb, which made him recoil in terror. Lambs apparently exhibit less competency as swimmers than even ducks.

The Pegasus chef and co-owner Denise Paul Shavandy says her rendition is rooted in a Persian recipe that's finished off with turmeric. Yet the lamb was washed out and virtually tasteless, so it's hard to see what is added by it.

The Pegasus welds a variety of influences--Middle Eastern, Southwest, Latin, Asian--to its menu, seemingly without a unifying theme. "The idea here is to serve people an interesting variety of foods from around the world," Shavandy says. "I tried to keep the flavors separate."

Thai salmon soup ($5) is a relatively successful example. Its brisk, clean flavors, leached from salmon stock and laced with lemongrass, bitter orange, shiitake mushrooms, and a lime slice floating on the surface, was engaging in its assertiveness. The only flaw was in the flakes of pink salmon flesh, which were uninvitingly dry.

Probes into the Southwestern vein were a bit more successful. Crawfish shrimp tamale with spicy voodoo cheese sauce ($8) are sweet and rich, with the firm flesh, tucked in a tied-off corn husk and merged deftly with the delicately seasoned cheese sauce.

Sesame shrimp ($20), though well prepared, seemed pricey. Just 10 medium shrimp scaled with an array of greaseless seeds were scattered on the plate. A splash of ginger rémoulade mingled well with the shrimp, adding punch where more gentle flavors meandered. But the wasabi-lime vinaigrette dousing the greens lacked zip.

Which is what the grilled salmon fillet ($22) had plenty of. A section of moist, flaky fish was served in a smooth but assertive Champagne-dijon sauce with a gentle mustard grittiness injecting contrast. Leaves of spinach, fluffed around the fish like a foliage boa, were crisp, tender, and assertively seasoned.

The pescatarian trainer reveled in his pepper- and coriander-seed-crusted tuna mignon ($26), which was tender and silky with a center that glistened and glowed with the hue of a 1950s lipstick smear. A papaya-ginger relish injected the cool flesh with flavor, broadening the snap of the crust.

Desserts were successful enough to gum up any geek gizzard grumble. Chocolate-cappuccino mousse torte ($6) in a chocolate-rum and raspberry sauce was moist and spiced with nutmeg. Baklava ice cream sandwich ($6), drenched in caramel sauce, was satisfyingly chewy with the rich phyllo-nut composition deftly diluted with a scoop of house-made ice cream.

The Pegasus is the second restaurant for Shavandy and her husband Majid, a former manager of the defunct Le Chardonnay, whose space The Pegasus currently occupies. Their first is the Crazy Horse Café, set in an old Waxahachie hotel. Shavandy says she picked the name Pegasus to keep with their restaurateuring horse theme. And it works, even if it lacks the fleeting bandwidth to service the digitally endowed.

Restaurateur Frank Calderon opened Olé Spanish Mexican Grill some two and one half years ago. But around the beginning of this year, he decided to broaden the fare at his Arlington restaurant by adding tapas. "It's such a big deal in Spain. It's a must," Calderon says. "It's such a part of normal life in Spain, I thought why not introduce it to Tarrant County?" So he constructed an eclectic tapas menu (apart from his Mexican menu) with an ample array of Spanish wines and sherries to help wash it down.

Yet Calderon's tapas menu is not exclusively Spanish. There are a host of other Mediterranean influences infiltrating Olé's little plates. Cypress delight ($8.95), by far the most delicious dish sampled, features little omelet-like patties of grilled halloumi, a cheese from that east Mediterranean island, made from equal parts sheep and goat's milk. The delicately chewy cheese puffs are served on a brisk blanket of rich diced tomatoes, brisk mint, and garlic doused in balsamic-olive oil vinaigrette.

The Mexican menu also has some unexpected touches such as a Peruvian version of seviche, a simple blending of sea bass flash marinated (soaked for minutes instead of hours) in lime juice and garlic.

Settled in a stand-alone structure in what was once a Pizza Inn location, Olé has an outside mural featuring a huge rendition of Van Gogh's "The Café Terrace" injected with a couple locked in the tango. The interior walls are washed in bold colors brushed with line drawings of bullfighters and tango dancers.

But these touches represent the pinnacle of the Olé experience. The rest is forgettable. Ensaladilla Olé ($8.95), a meat-and-cheese medley over a bed of browning romaine lettuce, was filled with brittle, oily manchego cheese slices sown with strips of stale serrano ham and salami.

Pulpo a la oliva ($7.95), chopped octopus limbs with sautéed garlic and olive oil, had the texture of rubberized fish bait with a fishy scent for authenticity. Camarones a la crema de ajo ($6.95), shrimp sautéed in a garlic cream sauce with tomato, had firm shrimp with a slightly soapy taste, and the sauce weighed them down with gummy stickiness.

The Mexican dishes weren't any better. Chicken quesadillas ($7.95)--plump, greasy triangles filled with cheese and chicken--were accompanied with a blob of guacamole riddled with far too much salt. Enchiladas, one chicken and one beef, were limp, loose, and watery and filled with dry, overcooked meat. The only thing on the plate that had flavor hovering above the bland was the chili con carne spread over the top. A cup of tortilla-black bean soup with chicken, tender beans, and crisp vegetables was deliciously rich, though it, too, was hobbled with a preponderance of salt.

Calderon's quest to bring Spanish tapas to the suburban stretches of Arlington is laudable. But if he fails to consistently ply his efforts with fresh ingredients, Arlington will go tapasless.