Amazing grace

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It's appropriate that Paul Draper based his design for Sevy's Grill, chef Jim Severson's new restaurant in Preston Center, on prairie style, the peculiarly American form of architecture associated with Frank Lloyd Wright. It has been said (was said to me in an art history class, if I remember correctly) that Wright's prairie-style buildings, with all those horizontal lines, low ceilings, and the womblike atmosphere of coziness and intimacy, represent man's search for security in the constantly shifting modern world.

A typically collegiate summing-up, but I translate it immediately into my own gusto-centric vocabulary: Prairie style was (is) the sophisticated architectural equivalent of American comfort food.

So naturally, in a Dallas-oriented (but then Wright was always site-specific) and definitely upscale way, Sevy's Grill is as thoroughly American as any restaurant in Dallas, serving the kind of food that centers you, comforts you, and presents you with security. On a plate.

My mother has always advised me that one (meaning me) should spend the night in one's guest room once a year to make sure it's really comfortable. Notice--are there reading lamps on both sides of the bed? Extra blankets and pillows handy? Does the ceiling fan have a sleep-shattering rattle? You'll never know if you don't try it out yourself.

Sevy's has the feel of a restaurant that has taken my mother's advice. Its design is not just a manifestation of Jim Severson's daydreams--it's a reflection of how people really use a restaurant. The prairie-style low, beamed ceiling is criss-crossed with panels of industrial glass and repeating right angles. The polished floor alternates dark and light wood. The single wall of flat, mortarless stones is ornamented only with a pair of remarkably beautiful black-and-white photographs of the Grand Canyon (by Dallasite David Gibson). All this creates a comfortable, gracious space equally welcoming to dark suits and tennis skirts. Sevy's is genuinely casual, but not sloppily so--the dress code calls for comfort, but it means comfortable for fine dining. Sevy's decor underscores America's recently achieved sophistication about food--good food doesn't require fancy dress. Good food shouldn't be for a special occasion, it should be a way of life.

Other details of the design are likewise user-friendly. The list of reasonably priced wines, for instance, is printed inside the menu because these days everyone at the table has--or wants to have--an opinion about wine. Rarely does a single host do the ordering, so it makes sense for everyone to have a chance to check out the selection. There's a brief description of varietal characteristics, too, so the list gently fulfills the mission of educating the wine drinker, a function that most of us appreciate.

Jim Severson, chef-owner of Sevy's, is best known in Dallas for his long tenure at Dakota's as chef and corporate chef. Like every other chef, his dream has been to own his own. Severson, who strolls the dining room at Sevy's several times a night, looks like a guy whose dream has come true. The baby blues are bright, the smile is wide. Sevy's opening party, a smash success that snarled traffic on Preston Road for blocks around, was proof of the good will that Severson has built up over the years. The typical chef's caricature paints a pot-throwing, temperamentally artistic tyrant--Severson instead seems the personification of even-tempered placidity, whose happy aim is simply to please. (Of course, only his wife, Amy, could tell us if this is just dining room demeanor.)

With Jim strolling--or trolling--the room, and Amy standing at the door greeting guests, there was no chance this would be an anonymous visit for me. In these situations, I try to gauge the true level of service by observing other tables. At Sevy's my looks became longing, because once Amy had said hello, the parade of introductions began. It wasn't long before we'd met both hosts, the chef, and even the wine consultant, the wine buyer for Centennial who acts as a sort of freelance sommelier at Sevy's, working an occasional weekend night. It became almost difficult to concentrate on the menu

(Here I'd like to register an objection to eager waiters who pour your wine whenever the level lowers. Savvy restaurant-goers regard this as a sell tactic, not real service, and would prefer to have the bottle opened by a server, then be left alone to pour and sip at their own pace.)

At the packed opening, we'd waited in long, loud lines to taste many of the appetizers on the menu, so it was a treat to have them presented on a plate, accompanied by hot rolls and butter. And as so many of the items on Severson's menu, the appetizers were examples of the expected made extraordinary. For instance, marinated and grilled portabello mushrooms (really just button mushrooms that have mushroomed) are now a staple on nine out of ten restaurant menus. But Severson says they're too "hydrated," so he dries them briefly in the oven before he marinates them, allowing them to absorb more flavor before grilling them. The technique is impressive not just because it exhibits the care taken in the kitchen, but because the waiter had been told about this and remembered to tell us.

Every waiter in a fine establishment should have this kind of understanding of food preparation. After all, he is the salesman for the menu. The nearly black mushroom nuggets were piled on a plate with lightly dressed baby greens, making a meadowy first course that flirted with substance, but didn't weigh you down. On the other hand, there have been times when the wood-fired sampler plate could easily have been supper for me. Fanned slices of grilled pheasant and smoked venison sausage rayed out from sticky-sauced barbecued shrimp. Smoked shrimp cakes were the only dish that didn't completely satisfy--the texture was a little too soft, and their saute time had not solidified the crust, so you could hardly pick the thing up, and the mouthfuls lacked texture, though they tasted overwhelmingly of smoke.

Severson's notion of cooking is centered in American food. This is not one of those melting-pot places where four different cuisines battle it out on your plate. But there are occasional imaginative cultural accents--crunchy pork dumplings, on the appetizer list, are obviously oriental, the triangle-folded wonton wrappers deep fried and served with a gingery mustard. Inside is no thrifty Eastern cabbage-based, meat-flavored filling, but real little chunks of tender pork lightly nested in shredded cabbage, making each turnover a meaty, high-protein morsel.

At the party, we also tasted the crostini, toasted slices of airy bread spread with Dallas goat cheese and ruby-red chopped tomatoes with basil chiffonade--a formerly seasonal dish that, like strawberry shortcake and oysters, has transcended nature's quadratic rule to become a menu staple year-round. Chop salad, a valiant attempt to deflect some attention from Caesar's greens, is a version of that Midwestern curiosity, where all the ingredients--iceberg lettuce, leaf lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, cucumbers, and perhaps other garden goods unidentifiable in the centimeter-square format are chopped together and dressed--almost marinated--in dressing. (As I recall, an Ohio--of course--aunt used to let hers sit overnight before serving it, but I could be exaggerating.)

The main courses we tried were excellent without exception. A thick filet was, as the menu described, only subtly scented with hickory smoke, a relief when this cut is so often over-marinated and seasoned to compensate for its natural blandness. On the other hand, the full flavor of a dry-aged New York strip was left pristine, to season as you wished with dips from twin ramekins of Sevy's steak sauce (not that different from A1) and "three-onion marmalade," a jammy mixture with all the sweetness and none of the bite of onion.

The girth of a mammoth pork rib chop was increased by the ample stuffing of prosciutto, mozzarella, and sage, the ham infusing the pork with salty savor and the cheese lending some fat to the lean meat. A deep sauce of porcini mushrooms and sweet-tart roasted Roma tomatoes was a perfect complement to a dish that, though the ingredients all had Italian accents, seemed somehow to be purely American. Another visit's entrees had slightly more global touches--the salmon fillet was rubbed with red chili and served with a wonderful stacked tostada of creamy avocado and sweet crab, a garnish that perhaps ought to graduate to the appetizer list. And the roasted duck, served on the bone with plum sauce and moo shi pancakes, was strictly derivative, if delicious.

Desserts, all but one made in-house, featured the same simple approach as the meal--three-citrus pie was a gussied-up version of the old-fashioned key lime recipe, a quivering wedge of condensed milk congealed with orange, lime, and lemon juice. Vanilla-bean cheesecake was creamy and perfectly plain, as cheesecake should be. And the white chocolate caramel sundae was simply a lacework of chewy caramel strands over the white chocolate ice cream.

The restaurant business certainly fits into the shifting modern world model. It's a business that's come to rely more and more on trendy glitz and glamour, where artifice is substituted for art so often that most of us have forgotten there's a difference. In this fickle business, Sevy's Grill is an anomaly, offering service without pretense, style with subtlety, food without flash. So far, dining at Sevy's has been not just delicious, but a solid, reassuring experience.

Sevy's Grill, Preston Rd., (214) 265-7389. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Saturday 11:30 a.m.-3:00 p.m.; for dinner Monday-Thursday 5 p.m.- 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5 p.m.-11 p.m.

Sevy's Grill:
Wood-Fired Sampler $6.95
Crunchy Pork Dumplings $5.95
Grilled Portabello Mushrooms $5.75
Chop Salad $4.95
Smoke House Beef Tenderloin Filet $16.95
Stuffed Pork Rib Chop $14.50
Five-Spice Rotisserie Duck $13.95
Three-Citrus Pie $4.50
Vanilla-Bean Cheesecake $4.95
Mandarin Orange Sorbet $3.50

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