A tentative seduction

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For several years, I have engaged in a one-way, anonymous (he knows my words, I know his food) correspondence with eccentric Dallas restaurateur Gene Street. That is, Gene, like my mother, mails me stuff he thinks I should read. For instance, a few months ago, I received a copy of a press biography of Pino Luongo. A sentence from Luongo's autobiographical cookbook, A Tuscan in the Kitchen was circled: "About the ritual of making risotto, 'the dish of romance,' he writes: 'It can be like seducing a woman. She doesn't know you and you need to work things out with her slowly--meeting, flirting, getting to know each other, and wanting each other. If you rush it's never good.'" On an accompanying post-it note, Gene had scrawled, "How will this fly in Dallas?"

Good question, Gene. A pair of Luongo's Coco Pazzo restaurants recently opened in Dallas in a pair of locations we've become accustomed to ignoring. But we sure don't seem to be rushing into this relationship.

Luongo began his career backwards--his first big hit was Sapore di Mare, a restaurant that became the darling of the Hamptons. Later he moved into Manhattan to open (the slightly gimmicky) Le Madri, Il Toscanaccio, and a couple of Coco Pazzos. Evidently the latter concept is the one he decided had "legs"--now there's a Coco Pazzo in Chicago and one in L.A. Luongo engaged in a bidding war with Dallasite Jack Knox (owner of Patrizio and Cafe Pacific) for the remains of the sinking Sfuzzi chain. Luongo won, and that accounts for our local Coco Pazzos, one on McKinney and one on a particularly difficult corner in Addison.

Coco Pazzo means "crazy cook" in Italian. I don't know what the Italian for "crazy restaurateur" is. And it's hard to say yet whether Coco Pazzo will "fly" in Dallas. Coco's style of cuisine could be described as idiosyncratic Tuscan, and supposedly, like Sfuzzi, each restaurant's menu will be the same--only different.

The basic menu features Luongo's variations of Tuscan classics and a few of each local chef de cucina's own inventions. This allows the diner to feel he is eating in a chef-run, gourmet establishment, and allows the owner the tighter control you must have when you're operating a chain. So Coco Pazzo's chefs may be crazy, but the food is not where it shows.

Inside, every Sfuzzi surface has been covered, lacquered, whitewashed, painted in shades of pale. There's a faint and inexplicable nautical expression to things--the crisp blue and yellow borders on the plates, the blue-legged chairs--and the overall effect is a contemporary coolness that's slick and elegant, but not exactly welcoming.

Service, though, was not as smooth as the decor. We met a parade of waiters--one had the menus, another took the wine order, several guys were bussing, another served and presented our food, and then we had a whole new relationship with the fellow who brought us dessert. And the pace was unpolished; we felt pressured to order food that took too long to arrive.

Bread--baked, of course, in wood-burning ovens--was promising: a salty foccacia rectangle, a chewy slice seasoned with piney rosemary, and a sesame-sprinkled soft loaf, served with little dishes of strong green olive oil for dipping. At dinner, we were presented with complimentary bruschetta, more like the real thing than the bread pizzas usually served by this name. The bread was actually grilled, then topped with a cool (but not cold) mixture of diced tomatoes and basil.

One antipasta plate alternated pie-shaped wedges of portabello mushroom with triangles of lovely creamy polenta, the polenta better than the portabello, all sauced with a too-salty reduction. Another ingenious appetizer--I think this is what Luongo means by "crazy"--is a twist on classic vitello tonnato, here a carpaccio of barely warm pale pink and gray veal slices, lapped with a sauce of pureed tuna served on wild greens, the smooth tuna lending the same aromatic piquancy to the greens that anchovies provide for Caesar. Dallas diners will recognize and welcome back the salad of shaved parmesan with slivered fresh artichokes they remember from Piccola Cucina. It's just as piquant and refreshing as you remember, but the mushroom salad, an unrecognizable dice of dark mushrooms on more greens, was disappointingly pedestrian.

Bistecca alla Fiorentina, one of the classic dishes of Florence, is actually no more than meat and potatoes, Italian style. Here it's a porterhouse, the most luxurious cut of steak, seldom seen because of its extravagance (unnecessary when most diners are content with a T-bone). Twenty-two ounces of meat, rubbed with "Italian herbs" and olive oil, grilled briefly then finished in the oven, it's the most expensive thing on the menu, recommended for two. It's hard to cook a cut like this, because the tenderloin cooks before the strip; but then, if you can't pull it off, don't put it on the menu. Ours, ordered for one, was mostly overcooked--there was enough meat for two, enough rare meat for one.

Potatoes, little turned and browned bullets, were absolute perfection; a grilled carrot strip, some artichoke, one spear of skinny asparagus, and a pinwheel of onion completed the plate. Seafood fettucine netted an oceanful of seafood and fin fish tangled in a vaguely tomatoey and undistinguished sauce. A pizza margherita, from that wood-burning oven, was flatly disappointing, underbaked and boring, and the outstandingly bland foccacia alla Coco Pazzo we had at lunch, sandwiching too-little robiola cheese with a mere mist of truffle oil, especially so.

But the humble-sounding plates of pasta we tried gave us hope for this relationship. Farfalle, pretty little butterflies of pasta, were perfectly matched with a sauce made of ground veal, topped with tiny little strings of zucchini and carrot. The delicacy of the meat, so much sweeter and gentler than beef, was supported by a winey sauce with the occasional burst of fresh herbs.

Desserts were all surprisingly good and original--a stylish semifreddo, a half-frozen berry mousse whose splinters of cream crystals melted into the tongue like snow, and a soft polenta cake ring, the coarse corn's natural sweetness matched by the sweet raspberries and blackberries that sauced it. Chocolate mousse-centered dark cake laced with caramel and vanilla-specked panna cotta--a lighter-than-flan custard based, Bavarian-like, on gelatin--was glossy white and quivering, cool as Coco Pazzo's decor.

It's not that the food isn't good. Almost everything we've eaten at Luongo's restaurants in New York has been excellent, and Piccola Cucina was always a favorite of mine, so I had high expectations for Coco Pazzo, which it may still reach. Maybe that's just not a good way to start a romance. I'm not in love with Coco Pazzo yet, Gene.

The problem is those chandeliers. They're gilded, vaguely Italian, and absolutely enormous--of mother-ship dimensions. A chandelier of any size has a certain pretension about it--multiply that by 100, and you'll get the picture. These chandeliers were intended as a humorous reference by the former (Italian) tenant, but in the latest location of Matt Martinez's Rancho Martinez, the Tex-Mex darling of Dallas, they aren't funny ha-ha; they're funny peculiar. Disconcerting.

Yes, Matt has moved. And surrendered, it seems, to his identity, because the green neon sign outside simply says "Matt's," which is what all regulars call his place anyway and have always called it.

These are the same regulars who look askance at these light fixtures, questioning the intrusion of giant gilded chandeliers where Christmas lights, murals and sombreros are de rigueur. Matt has tried to mitigate their elegance by screwing in colored light bulbs, but there's something about those chandeliers that calls for a curving staircase with a carved newel post, for miter-folded napkins and silver-plated forks. Instead, the rest of Matt's "decor" is frankly utilitarian, a bare backdrop for what's on your plate.

Rancho Martinez is that most rare of restaurants, one where what you eat is actually the most important thing, the main attraction. Wherever he is, you don't go to Matt's to see or be seen. You go to eat.

There is more room in the new Matt's, plus the space comes with one of the city's best patios. Having tracked this chile relleno from one side of First Street in Austin to another, and then to South Lamar, from Plaza of the Americas in Dallas to Ferguson Road and then to Lakewood, I'm not likely to abandon it now just because of a pair of overbearing light fixtures.

I'm sure that eventually this place will accrue more ambiance, will acquire that lived-in look. Meanwhile, I just wanted to make sure nothing else had changed. I'll concentrate on my food. I mean, if you close your eyes, you know where you are, anyway. Who else in town tops delicately fried, savory beef-stuffed peppers with nuggets of pecan and raisin? Where else are the flautas, filled with white chicken, griddled, not fried? The waiter asks if I want red or green sauce, and happily I give the ritual response, "a little bit of both"; when the extravagant plate arrives, it tastes as it always has. Yes, the cheese is processed--what would this plate of enchiladas be without the smoothness of that plastic dairy product?

And despite the Christmas-like delight of constancy that Matt's always provides me, the kitchen does allow for some idiosyncrasy. Recently one erudite dining companion ordered the monster chicken-fried steak, a plate-sized patty of tenderized, battered beef ladled with chili and cheese, accompanied with French fries. Another friend actually prefers the tortilla soup, the big pale bowl coming with two rolled quesadillas. And I suppose there are those who actually order the frog legs and the shrimp Martinez with the same faithfulness as I do the relleno, happily knowing exactly what to expect and happily cleaning their plates.

Plate-cleaning means that a visit to Matt's is often the alpha and omega of an evening. And as usual, we left the restaurant groaning, wishing that we, and Matt, actually lived up to those fancy chandeliers, wishing that, instead of hiking across the parking lot and navigating the drive home, we could simply loosen our ties, say something like, "Consuelo, bring the car around," and succumb to the chile relleno.

Coco Pazzo, 2504 McKinney Ave., (214) 871-2606, and 15101 Addison Rd., (972) 960-2606. Open for lunch Monday-Sunday 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., for dinner Sunday-Wednesday 5 p.m.-11 p.m., Thursday-Saturday 5 p.m.-midnight.

Matt's Rancho Martinez, 6332 La Vista, (214) 823-5517. Open Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m, Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Coco Pazzo:
Portabello Grigliati e Crostoni di Polenta $6.75
Carpaccio Tiepico di vitello ed intingolo al Tartufo Nero $8.00
Carciofini all'Olio Limone e Misticanze $6.75
Pizza Margherita $11.00
Bistecca alla Fiorentina $42.00

Rancho Martinez:
Chile Relleno $8.95
Flautas $7.95
Tortilla Soup $3.95
Chicken-Fried Steak $8.95

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