Restaurant Reviews

Just because

We've got a Green Room, we've got a Blue Mesa. Of course we're curious. Why Yellow?

"It's the word, the color--I don't know, it just felt right," says Yellow's chef-owner Avner Samuel.

In other words, the only reason is why not? A refreshing reason--it opens your expectations. When every business has a plan, and every restaurant plans on filling a niche, it's kind of nice to hear that arrogant question offered as a raison d'etre. After all, gastronomy is an art, too. Why ask the artist why he paints what he paints? Ask the art critic. He'll come up with something.

We visited Yellow before the official grand opening last Tuesday, expecting that the professionals involved--Avner in the kitchen, Louis Bougazelli out front--would be ready for us.

Avner's been driving around for months with the idea and plans for Yellow in his head. (Even, one supposes, during the faster-than-light-speed opening and closing of Da Spot, where Samuel was consultant-chef, in Deep Ellum earlier this year.) It took just three weeks to pick out that yellow paint, polish the floors, demolish the shingled sea shanty effect left by Jozef's, the previous tenant, and generally make the little place on McKinney as light, bright, and sleek as Avner always likes things.

There's no "theme"; it's very abstract. It's all about style. Food style, room style, Avner style. After three restaurants in Dallas, we know what Avner likes, but Yellow says it best. He designed the restaurant, he designed the logo, he chose the china, and of course, the menu is pure Avner.

Louis Bougazelli, last seen as general manager of Mediterraneo and a familiar face to frequenters of fine restaurants, is now Yellow's manager. Louis has been around the block and works the room with ease and friendliness--almost too much familiarity--leaving Avner free to cook.

You do expect the food to be fabulous, nothing less; nobody ever said Avner couldn't cook. He can cook with his eyes closed and that's part of the problem. In my review, I called Samuel's food at Da Spot "professional, not personable"; sometimes his food is so professional, it's lost its soul in the polish.

So the only surprise at Yellow is how good it is. Take the appetizer of sesame-crusted tuna. We've met these ingredients before: at Da Spot, he served tuna sashimi sprinkled with sesame seeds. It was delicious but derivative; not unexpected, but well-executed. At Yellow, the fish is presented as thick little squares, nearly cubes, seared to taupe around the edges, with a bullseye center of just jelled rare meat, the whole outside crusted with black and white seeds crunching against the melting tenderness of the beefy fish, and finished with a clear glaze of balsamic vinegar that provides a sweet tang. It's from an imagination that thinks in flavors.

From Samuel, a chef who believes in taste--hang the political correctness--we expect the luxurious foie gras, a favorite at Avner's (the restaurant Samuel once owned just down the street) and at Da Spot, and still only $8. Here it's nearly liquid in the mouth and set surprisingly against the homey crunch of al dente mung beans, of all things. And then take squid ink. We know from experience that Samuel likes squid ink--not just for flavor, but because of its looks.

For Avner, who's inspired as much by presentation as taste, black is a great possibility in the culinary palette. At Da Spot, he dyed pasta dark; at Yellow, pallid potato gnocchi, usually a dish as bland-looking as English royalty, is given the glamour treatment with squid ink. The little bullets of slippery black potato dumplings are mingled with coins of spicy-sweet and slightly chewy Chinese sausage, making elegance of earthy ingredients, elevating peasant stuff to aristocracy. These are lessons Samuel learned during his tenure in the Far East, to combine the decadent tastes of Europe with the Oriental genius for texture.

Samuel was determined, he says, "not to do dishes from the past" at Yellow. After Avner's closed, he traveled, he spent several months in Israel, and finally returned to Dallas to work at Da Spot, though it wasn't exactly what he had in mind.

"Da Spot was so big--it had such a club atmosphere for the kind of food I want to serve. I had to get back to the neighborhood," he says. "I woke up one morning and all these dishes appeared in my mind."

And this food is more spontaneous, more inspired, warmer. Yellow is altogether "more European," says Avner, "more like Paris, maybe." I think he means warmer--the wood floors, the angel art, the vibrant color, the surprising food--more personal.

The entrees are more subdued than the starters: a thick snowy fillet of snapper is crusted with roasted cracked corn, a step toward taste from traditional cornmeal-coated fish, which is crunchy but that's all, then enriched with butter and the perfume of lemon grass. Lamb chops, their bare little bones sticking up from the knobs of sweet meat--Australian chops, not the New Zealand meat we've become almost used to. And of course chicken, stuffed under the skin with calamata olives, parsley, and goat cheese with rosemary. And rich duck, the juices running red, with near-acrid tamarind balancing sweet plum in the sauce.

There are even mistakes here--a pile of fluffy, flavorless couscous, unmolded in a dusty pile; the chicken's skin just shy of the rendered crackling you'd want most; a fruit beignet that lacked the character of the anonymous fruit. The desserts missed--chocolate brulee as runny as chocolate milk, peanut butter tart and thick as cement. But somehow the mistakes are indicative of the effort and the effect of Yellow. Avner's lightened up. He's having fun. The thing about expectations is that if they're merely satisfied, you're disappointed. To be happy, you want some surprises.

"Just what I expected" doesn't mean stars in the eyes. Yellow rates stars.

Yellow, 2719 McKinney Ave., 871-1772. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; open for dinner Monday-Saturday 6 p.m.-11:30 p.m.

Sesame Crusted Ahi Tuna $7.25
Grilled Aussie Rack of Lamb with Vegetable Couscous and Mint Sauce $19.25