Everyone knows how different Fort Worth and Dallas are: Fort Worth is open, Dallas is closed; Dallas looks to the east, Fort Worth to the west; Dallas is uptight, Fort Worth is laid-back; Fort Worth goes to Dallas to eat out, Dallasites take visitors to Fort Worth to see the real Texas, knowing they're not. No wonder businesses and restaurants rarely make a successful leap from one to the other.
Michel Baudauin has been Fort Worth's French fixture for a decade. His restaurant, Michel's, was the talk of the town in the '80s, and Le Chardonnay has been a Fort Worth favorite since it opened. No doubt he knows his business.
Still, Le Chardonnay's recent opening in Dallas is an act of faith and bravery, a cross-cultural venture. It's in the ritzy Crescent, formerly home to austere Actuelle, one of Dallas' most elegant and accomplished restaurants. Patrons expecting anything like Victor Gielisse's palace of perfection are going to be disappointed, though, so please don't expect it. Prepare to be delighted and relaxed rather than impressed.
The layout of the space hasn't changed--two levels with a separate bar and an open kitchen--but Actuelle's chilly elegance has been warmed several degrees by creamy-gold washed walls, bronze sconces, and torchieres. Soon the black chairs will be replaced by warm oak, and the change from black-tie to bolo attitude will be complete.
Cooking is undoubtedly an art--an ensemble art. Every writer writes for a reader, every actor performs for an audience, and a chef is nothing without a diner. So why do so many chefs seem to cook for themselves and arrange their restaurants without the diner in mind? Le Chardonnay is user-friendly: everything is designed to make this an easy place to be, a place you could return to time and again--for lunch and dinner on the same day, even--and not be bored. Prices are easy (lunches from about $7 to $12 and dinners only $4 or $5 more), as are hours; you can eat at Le Chardonnay every day of the week, and service is continuous from opening to closing.
Le Chardonnay Dallas is a lovable restaurant, an approachable restaurant. It's not a perfect restaurant. There's no arrogance at Le Chardonnay; if anything, they err in the opposite extreme, bending over so far backwards to please that they lose their balance. You wish they'd lose the plastic menu covers instead. The too-cute color-coded wine suggestions could go, too, although the wine list is exciting and extremely well-priced. And a different typeface for each variety of wine seems a little much. (But now my snootiness is showing.)
More importantly, the gee-whiz, aw-shucks friendliness of the service staff can be overwhelmingly cozy and a little careless at times, and the kitchen could balance its enthusiasm with more attention to detail.
Some dishes were disappointing: a thin, not-quite-fresh fish fillet may have been cooked correctly once but had been frizzled to death on a hot plate, and the same was true of leathery haricots verts--and the sauce was a kind of thousand island-looking puree of red peppers and tomatoes. Butter was stale; the grainy bread was good.
More dishes were heart-warmingly satisfying. The menu features several sections--it's full of nooks and crannies, so to speak, which invite you to explore and tempt you to return. I can't wait to try the duck in the "rotisserie" section, or to go back for Tuesday's daily special of duck confit, which hardly anyone else in town makes, much less regularly. The menu is irreverent, too, with a refreshing sense of humor-- how about "haricots noir" soup or a burrito in phyllo? And it ranges from a simple list of grilled meat and fish in a sauce of your own choosing to more complex dishes like coq au vin, and lunch and dinner specials.
Daily specials are French home-style dishes like roast leg of lamb, pot au feu, dishes that reflect the everyday French appreciation of good cooking more than the show-off hotel chef's tricks. There's also a "bistro" menu at lunch and dinner, with casual specialties like a Parisian combination plate of moules, frites, and salade, as well as bouillabaisse and even lasagna.
Our first course, a triangle of apple-onion tart (from the section of the menu titled "dishes that have made Le Chardonnay popular"), was filled with diced apples and onions--two of nature's interpretations of sweet and tart together--with a ketchup-like sauce (Fog City Diner would do well to get the recipe). Escargots with lots of garlic, parsley, and butter (isn't that the point of eating snails?) came in a little ceramic dish capped with buttery brown pastry. Unfortunately, our waiter brought us the wrong dish first--tournedos Rossini--so we had to eat in shifts. The rack of lamb, each chop topped with a round of white, ash-rimmed Montrachet, with piney rosemary sauce, was delicious when it did come, and dessert was apologetically complimentary.
It's hard to imagine why anyone would or how anyone could possibly eat this unlikely lunch, a butcher's--not a chef's--salad, but I did. The bizarrely hefty combination of meats over greens was somehow undaunted by the weight of a juicy fillet of salmon, a rosy lamb chop, smoky slices of tender chicken breast (white as wings against the greens), three curled red shrimp, a whole thick slice of house pat (rimmed with white fat, crunchy with green pistachios), big crumbles of snowy goat cheese crumbled over all. Somehow the greens were still resilient, their strong (it had to be) dressing enriched by the close association of meat juices and smoky aromas leaking into the vinaigrette.
The daily bistro-style special of roast leg of lamb Provencal, slices of rare lamb over floury little beans floating in a rosemary jus, gave us the same feeling of post-prandial mellowness that dinner at grandmother's did. Too bad it was lunch and we had to go back to work.
Finally, all the desserts were wonderful, and French desserts hardly ever are. We actually heard ooohs and aaahs from every table as the sweets were tasted. A rich warm brownie, crunchy without, melting within, was topped with pistachio ice cream and a foamy vanilla sauce. The "African Queen"--a large turnover of phyllo leaves filled with banana cooked to buttery gold in a deep caramel sauce with a scoop of "crocantine" (live and learn--I've never heard of "crocantine" before--it means hazelnut) ice cream.
Le Chardonnay is trying hard to overcome the stereotype of snooty French attitude, which here is so often exacerbated by the even snootier Dallas attitude. This is Fort Worth French--full of enthusiasm, definitely wide-open and frontier-friendly.
We could use 20 more restaurants like Le Chardonnay. I'm thankful for just this one.
Le Chardonnay, 500 Crescent Court, Ste. 165, 922-4555. Fax 922-4557. Open Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday 11 a.m.-10 or 11 p.m.
La Tarte a L'Oignons aux Pommes $4.95
Les Cotes d'Agneau Montrachet $19.95
Rotisserie Duck $14.95
Thursday Lunch Special (Rotisserie Leg of Lamb) $13.95