Restaurant Reviews

Dallas' culinary organ donor

What can you say about Watel's? After 10 years in Dallas--defying the restaurant laws of the universe by getting better instead of lazier and crankier--the one thing above all others that you can say about Watel's is that it's a great place to eat an organ. In fact, in many instances it's the only place. This whole fuss over Watel's organ meats--calf brains with capers, veal kidneys with mushrooms, and sweetbreads (thymus glands or the pancreas) with dried figs--has owner Rene Peeters mildly amused. "Every time somebody writes, they love to write about the organs," he says. "As a matter of fact...[after a review] people call up and say, 'Do you serve anything besides organ meats?'"

Fortunately, there's much more to Watel's than the deep thoughts of a young calf scattered among a plate of capers. It has had its share of character-building struggles over the years, most of which have to do with a location on McKinney on the outskirts of civilization. "You know, the world ends at the Crescent," sneers Peeters. "In pre-Columbian times, the Earth used to drop off right there." He says people used to call and tell him they just realized there was a restaurant in that location after driving by it every day for years on their way to work.

In a sense, Watel's was suffering from the same affliction that affects so many Dallas restaurants, which is attempting to shoehorn a dining establishment into a space more appropriate for a plumbing supply house or a dry cleaner (witness The Centrum). When original owners Damien and Gwen Watel discovered the space that later became the home of this downtown bistro more than 10 years ago, it was boarded up and scheduled for demolition. The structure once housed a biker's club as well as the offices for a company called Firm-O whose slogan was "for firm, healthy teeth and gums."

Nevertheless, the character-building got to be too much for Peeters--who purchased the restaurant in 1993 from the Watels--and he packed-up and moved the bistro a few blocks farther up McKinney in the space formerly occupied by Yellow. "I moved by choice," he says. "There's construction all around down there, and I would have had loss of parking, dust in the air." While the old space was somewhat charming, with a bright, glassed-in patio, its bistro-stuffed-into-a-bad-'60s-rec-room motif was a bit jarring. No such problems afflict the new digs. After warming Yellow's harsh, contemporary atmospherics by refinishing the wood plank floors and adding curtains and area rugs, a rusty gold rag-paint treatment on the lower walls, and bright, contemporary paintings, Watel's feels more bistro-like than any bistro in Dallas.

It tastes more bistro-like too. The menu is hearty and rustic, yet exacting and lucid. Part of the reason for this is Peeters' intentionally light touch. He uses butter and cream as seasonings rather than cooking media, and he avoids thickeners such as flour and cornstarch. Instead, he uses light sauces and imparts body with purees. In this way, his cooking leaves you satiated without feeling as though you've been pummeled by a herd of brainless calves.

His simple technique is evident in dishes such as quail marinated in herbs and garlic, an occasional appetizer. The bird is seasoned with lavender, a bit of garlic, savory, thyme, and rosemary, which open up the meat, giving it breath. The light, veal-based demi-glace marries superbly with the tender, chewy bits of fowl, transparently dispersing and mingling the flavors rather than choking the bird in ooze.

Roasted eggplant tomato soup, a soup of the day, is tangy with a hearty fullness and an implication of sweetness rendered from the oven-roasted eggplant. Made from chicken stock and pureed ingredients, the soup's fresh pepper, garlic, and touch of cream smoothly round out the flavors.

But perhaps nothing showcases Peeters' style more fluently than the cassoulet. A well-harmonized conglomeration of flavors, Watel's version of this Languedoc stew incorporates tender white beans, racy sausage, slices of Canadian bacon sauteed with onions, and moist, viscid duck confit (confit is one of the oldest forms of meat preservation, whereby the flesh is cooked and stored in its own fat, retaining rich flavors). Sauteed vegetables--broccoli, carrots, summer squash, and zucchini--were precisely prepared, retaining crispness while adding tenderness without the mush. The only drawback was the retention of the bacon which, seemly added as a flavor enhancement, got gooey in the mix as if it had been overcooked in broth. But this is simply a minor bit of static. This dish is rustic, yet refined--true comfort food for the thoughtful.

Born in the Congo, Peeters laid the foundations for his style through world travel and classical training under various chefs. He settled in Dallas in 1976 and worked in all of the city's hot French spots at the time before he opened the Monte Carlo in the Grand Kempinski, later becoming the hotel's executive chef. He had intermittently worked with Watel before taking over the bistro in 1993, so he had a feel for the place before he entered.

His distinctive stamp crops up again in the duck broth, a rich, savory stock borne of duck wings, necks, and other bones floating diced carrots, onion, white beans, and tomato seasoned with flecks of basil. While this cleanly robust soup contains lots of restrained, balanced flavors, it suffers from stinginess with the duck meat. This is a soup you desperately want to chew as well as savor.

An appetizer of peppercorn-encrusted, seared, rare tuna and lentil salad quickly neutralized any minor slivers of discouragement. A simple creation from a family recipe with onion, chopped garlic, red-wine vinegar, olive oil, and a little salt and pepper, this measuring-cup scoop of buttery-tasting lentil salad was firm, chewy, lively, and thoroughly addictive. Consuming vats of this stuff is not too difficult to imagine. The silky tuna was equally compelling with a potent, crunchy peppercorn crust.

Registered as a favorite among Watel's groupies over the years, the lasagna with snow crab is one of the not-so-French bistro offerings here. Elegant almost to a fault, this dish consists of sweet crab threaded through ribbons of lasagna in a very simple sauce of chunky tomatoes, white wine, basil, and a surge of pepper. The shrewdness of this dish lies in the carefully restrained use of cheese, which allows the crab, in all its sweet richness, to vivaciously strut in the open like the visiting lasagna inhabitant that it is.

Elegance continues with the peppered lamb loin in a cognac sauce opulently toned with a hint of cream. Fashioned after steak au poivre--thick sirloin or rump steak coated in coarsely ground black pepper before it's sealed in hot clarified butter and saturated in a sauce borne of cooking juices and wine or brandy---this menu entry features generous portions of mild, silken lamb with a smooth, consistent grain. As in the tuna appetizer, the peppercorn bite and crunch sparked the flesh with contrasts.

One of the striking things about Watel's entrees is the presence of the clumps of veggies accompanying the center pieces. Cauliflower, serrated carrots, zucchini, and summer squash were all perfectly perched between crisp and tender with nary a hint of mushiness. This is a rare occurrence in restaurants--getting a selection of steamed, grilled, or sauteed vegetables with every component cooked to an appropriate level.

Desserts maintained this same pitch. The creme brulee, crusted with a perfectly singed sugar lid, was firm and rich with a buttery-nut flavor and a burst of sweet tang from a plate puddle of raspberry sauce. Perhaps the perfect bistro dessert--the cheese plate consisting of blue, Brie, and goat cheese (with poppy seeds), plus a slice of mozzarella in a mild pesto--was tanged with slices of juicy strawberries, apples, and oranges.

The wine list is modest and appropriate, though not as round as perhaps it could be. The addition of a few roses from California and France plus a few cru Beaujolais and rich Hermitage whites would do wonders to finish out the bistro feel.

There's virtually nothing unappealing about Watel's. But then cutting a swath of inoffensiveness is a pretty wimpy excuse for a restaurant. So let me just say that virtually everything about Watel's is engaging, and vigorously so. From humbly rancid biker-club roots, this Dallas restaurant has, like a Japanese car company, fastidiously subjected itself to a program of disciplined incremental improvement to the point where, after 10 years, it is in the top tier of metroplex restaurants and most assuredly occupies the pinnacle of its ilk. Feed your lust for culinary spectacle at one of Dallas' celebrity chef hovels. Feed your culinary soul at Watel's--organ cravings and all.

Watel's. 2719 McKinney at Worthington, (214) 720-0323. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Dinner Sunday-Thursday 6 p.m.-8:30 p.m., Friday & Saturday 6 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday Brunch 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.

Roasted eggplant tomato soup $5
Peppered rare tuna and lentil salad $11
Quail marinated in herbs $7
Cassoulet $12
Lasagna with snow crab meat $16
Peppered lamb loin with cognac sauce $19.50