What a difference a hostess, a knowledgeable waiter and a month can make.
I first visited Asador almost two months after it had opened, and I left that evening concerned for its future. After all, there were high hopes. The Renaissance Hotel had undergone a $3-million renovation and much of it was invested in the Dean James Max-conceptualized restaurant.
Asador Kansas City steak $36 Granja chopped salad $11 Hamburger $12 Pressed pork sandwich $10 Tortilla soup $7 Cr�me br�l�e $8 Crispy Brussels sprouts $6 Watermelon salad $10 French fries $4 Cassava frita $4
Admittedly, before my first sojourn, I had to ask, "Who is Dean James Max? Why has the Renaissance brought in a Floridian 'celebrity' restaurateur when there are so many ripe local chefs from which to choose? Why should diners in Dallas care?"
Aside from curiosity, the restaurant's auspicious "modern farm to fire" concept of using locally grown organic produce and grilling meats on a mesquite fire seemed worthy of exploration. The hotel's renovation alone was cause for being inquisitive, seeing as how the Renaissance isn't exactly considered the sexiest hotel in Dallas but has long been prominent in the city's skyline.
Being a self-proclaimed "casual-chic bistro" inside of a four-star hotel has its benefits, as free parking outside the Renaissance is plentiful and a valet is unneeded. Despite the casualness of the parking situation, the updated lobby—cool with marble and warm with candlelight—is striking and sophisticated, and aside from the absence of the famous chandelier, stays true to the nearly three decades old hotel.
In keeping with the casual theme, Asador's open dining room creates a feel of the restaurant being an extension of the hotel lobby. The high ceilings and contemporary furnishings lend the dining room elegance, but the exposure to the lobby definitely reminds diners they're eating in a hotel.
The restaurant was barren on a Saturday evening, and our reservation wasn't necessary. The night started off uneasily, as there was no host to greet us at the entrance. There isn't even a host stand. It took several awkward minutes amongst staff to decide who was going to seat our party.
It was a foreshadowing of Asador's identity crisis. Entrée prices run in the $20 to $38 range, yet waiters are in jeans. No embankments separate the bar section of plasmas beaming ESPN from the rest of the dining room. Tourist-heavy groups of diners adorned in jean shorts and baseball caps made up most of the clientele. The atmosphere was reminiscent of a Vegas casino restaurant minus the noisy slot machines. The cacophony, rather, was reserved for the food.
The self-described American cuisine menu veers toward Latin and Southwestern influences, and true to its organic intentions, ingredients for every dish we sampled were indeed beautiful and fresh. The problem wasn't ingredients, but execution.
A salad of seared rare tuna, celery root puree and braised artichoke was flavorless and lacked any clear direction. I wasn't surprised to find it struck from the menu upon my next visit. A gorgeous plate of greens, tomato, cucumber, olives, feta, beans, radish, egg and bacon comprised the granja chopped salad, but it was curiously undressed. I assumed the intent was to showcase the vegetables until I studied the menu and discovered the kitchen had forgotten the dressing. Making the lack of dressing more conspicuous was the separation of all the ingredients on the plate, à la Nicoise.
Similarly, a rather bland and thick tortilla soup promised crispy pork, yet lacked any of the much-needed meat. It was frustrating to read such decorative descriptions on the menu only to be disillusioned with the product.
The wild mushrooms on a monochromatic veal Milanese boasted some of the evening's best flavors. The veal itself was fried well, but was inedible because of too much salt. The restaurant has since taken the entrée off the menu and replaced it with an open-face wild mushroom sandwich, highlighting what was the best part of the former dish. Ironically, "asador" translated to English is "grill," yet the restaurant struggles mainly when it comes to meat.
A Kansas City steak ordered medium rare arrived overcooked. The seasoning was fine, but Asador's bovine offering isn't unique in a city where steak is the civic dish. The sunny-side-up egg on the steak and a wonderful olive tapenade-smothered crispy potato tart were pleasant touches, however. Similarly, a grass-fed burger came out overcooked, wasting the marbling of the Wagyu beef. The burger's side of crunchy cucumbers, cauliflower, carrots and radishes pickled in Asador's sweet and tangy habanero vinegar, however, was a dream. That inconsistency is what is most frustrating about Asador. There are several glimpses of promise, as was exemplified in the desserts.
A vanilla bean crème brûlée and a toffee pudding cake were both wonderful on their own, but should have been kept simple. The crème brûlée was accompanied by superfluous and cavity-inducing caramelized bananas. Likewise, the toffee pudding cake—moist and airy, yet possessed with deeply rich flavor—was splendid alone, but it was accompanied by a glaringly small spoonful of ice cream. I couldn't decide whether more was needed or if it belonged there at all.
After my disheartening dinner, I couldn't help but think of Asador as tourist food from a tourist chef. To be fair, chef Max isn't completely to blame as the restaurant chef, David Trubenbach, oversees the day-to-day operation. What seemed egregious was the Latin slant of the menu, because the food on my first visit reflected none of that flavor. Even Asador's impressive 85-plus tequila list couldn't correct the mislabeling.
Nevertheless, the bar's specialty drinks are worthy of praise, not only because of their generous size but also because they played a significant role on the shift I saw in Asador between my initial and subsequent stops.
Ordering the pomegranate margarita on my first visit, I was disconcerted when the $12 drink arrived in what looked like budget glassware. The Milagro Silver and a tasty salt chipotle honey rim couldn't save the bad impression. Upon my second outing a month later, the replacement of those glasses was one out of numerous other noticeable changes made at Asador.
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"Power lunch" was the tone of my second visit, as the patronage consisted mainly of various suits and traveling businessmen. This time my lunch companion and I were greeted by a smiling hostess and delivered to the hands of our capable server, Gonzalo. Having a well-informed and perceptive waiter the second time around made a world of difference. For instance, noticing that I had barely touched a pineapple margarita, our server asked if he could have it remade. When the replacement returned, the pineapple-infused Herradura Reposado that had been a faint aftertaste in my first drink was now front and center, making the margarita pop with bright flavor.
Our server's positive influence went beyond beverages. His suggested pressed pork sandwich was a success. Salty serrano ham, tender smoked pork, manchego, coarse-grain mustard, red pepper spread and spicy arugula married delectably between two pieces of crusty warm bread. Seeing as vegetables are the highlight at Asador, Gonzalo directed us to the "Garden" section, suggesting we try the crispy Brussels sprouts. Roasted with canola oil, agave nectar, thick bacon and a splash of lemon, the caramelized sprouts were sensationally addictive. Asador's salads redeemed themselves as well, as a perfectly dressed watermelon and feta salad with mint vinaigrette was light and refreshing.
The improvements continued, extending to a side of beef-fat french fries. Undeniably bland my first visit, they were crispy and evenly salted at lunch. Gonzalo's recommendation of cassava frita—yucca fries boiled in milk, then fried and seasoned with sea salt, garlic and parsley—were even better.
Lunch was encouraging if only because it confirmed my suspicion that Asador has plenty to offer, if only certain issues with execution can be resolved. The obstacle for Asador in becoming a legitimate player in the Dallas food milieu is its location, as it is now destined for hotel-guest Siberia during dinner hours. If the improvements continue, it'd be a shame for such fine ingredients to go unnoticed.