Restaurant Reviews

Big Death

In August, Voltaire closed. And that pretty much sums up the Dallas restaurant complexion for 2002. Voltaire's death rattle served as a worn metaphor, a symbol of what was expected to happen but didn't--the big bang that rattled the windows and agitated the lava lamp but left the infrastructure unfazed.

No one can say Dallas mega-millionaire and Voltaire founder Scott Ginsburg isn't tuned into the cultural pulse. After all, he collected his insider-trading allegation from the SEC more than two years before Martha Stewart started testing recipes for "perp walk" cakes.

But what of this shuttering of the critically acclaimed Voltaire (whose namesake famously said, "Illusion is the first of all pleasures"), Ginsburg's summit of all fine-dining indulgences? It seems Ginsburg--purveyor of Porsches and Audis and enthusiast of that most basic of all transportation, the Gulfstream IV--decided that Voltaire and its preciously edgy cuisine were no longer hip. What is? Asian fusion, a concept that has suspiciously eluded the Dallas dining radar screen if you don't count Steel (and the new Steel II-the Drálion), Abacus, Citizen, Tom Tom Noodle House, Chow Thai Pacific Rim, Liberty and Big Bowl. To that end, Voltaire reopened as a casual Asian restaurant with the moniker Bamboo Bamboo, whose repetitive name also is groundbreaking in the Asian restaurant lexicon--if you don't count Tei Tei, Mei Mei, Tom Tom and Pei Wei. To illustrate how much of a has-been Voltaire was, and how hip Bamboo Bamboo is, Ginsburg and company sent out a written statement with the old "What's out" "What's in" duality to illustrate. "What's out" items included fine dining, inch-thick wine lists, captains and waiters, high prices and foie gras. "What's in" included chopsticks and bowls, flavored sakes, simple dishes and bamboo trees (the latter a replacement for Ginsburg's passé Dale Chihuly glass sculpture collection).

Flashy, monied gormandizing in the presence of artwork costing more than a fully loaded Graceland replica is démodé. Witness the shuttering of the critically acclaimed Salve! Ristorante, Phil and Janet Cobb's upscale Tuscan indulgence with crisp Milanese design touches. The restaurant was put down in July after Texas Capital Bank moved to foreclose on two pieces of property the Cobbs had used to secure a $375,000 letter of credit required by Salve!'s landlord. In March, Enigma, the chichi pricey art hovel that predated Voltaire by some seven years, drew its last gaudy gasp. Enigma, operated by the elusive Bob Bablu, a scion of rich London-based Indian industrialists--or so the rumors went--was an anarchy of nude sculptures and reliefs by artist Bill Mack. It was famous for its table settings, little more than chaotic collisions of expensive tableware pieces by Erte, Faberge, Versace, Baccarat and Lalique costing as much as $1,500 each, all shuffled and assembled with an achingly eccentric eye. The food was an eclectic mix of game and seafood bearing stratospheric prices ($45-plus) well before Voltaire was even thought of.

It is said that the rich and the famous die in threes. So perhaps it's fitting that the crème fraîche of this Dallas crop passed in triplicate during a year of parched expense accounts and anemic tourist trade. "I want to be a sustenance provider," declared Shannon Wynne at the start of 2002, getting a prescient whiff of the corpses and vultures that were soon to infiltrate Dallas' posh dinner plates. Wynne, who founded the 8.0, Flying Saucer Draught Emporiums and Flying Fish fast-casual seafood spots, vowed to squelch any voice that might creep into his psyche urging him to venture into the mid- to upper crust of Dallas noshing. Instead, he focused his energy on the "eat to live and drink to live" segments of the market; the shredded wheat and Ovaltine sector you might say.

The indulgent hoity-toity slice of Dallas dining has burned itself out on too much refracted glitter. Or has it?

Myths and MeatBefore the onset of 2002, the Dallas dining scene was a virtual dead pool with insiders placing bets on which restaurants wouldn't live to see the Times Square ball plop. But it appears Salve!, Voltaire and Enigma were more aberration than rule--isolated instances of management foibles perhaps. "This year's been pretty rosy," says a sheepish Gene Street, chairman of Consolidated Restaurant Cos. Inc., commenting on the surprising cash flurry blowing into III Forks. "I don't think it's back to the basics." Indeed Street, whose company operates Cool River Café, Silver Fox, Spaghetti Warehouse, Cantina Laredo and El Chico as well as III Forks, says Consolidated is in expansion mode, planning a Cool River Café at Highway 121 and the Tollway and a Dallas location for a Silver Fox steak house.

It could even be said the upper segment of the feeding market is pulsing with vitality, subdued though it might be. Dragonfly, the "world class" restaurant in Hotel ZaZa created under the guidance of Dallas celebrity super chef Stephan Pyles, opened December 20 while the uptown boutique hotel itself grabbed accolades from, the online site for Forbes magazine, which named ZaZa one of the best new business hotels of 2002--quite a feat for a property that's been open barely a month. The Oceanaire Seafood Room, a tiny Minneapolis-based upper-crust "power steak house with a seafood center," opened its fourth unit this fall in the Westin Galleria. And the steak-house segment, a culinary Energizer bunny in recession-proof armor, is poised to pump up the posh even more. New York City-based Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group, "the Tiffany of steak houses," will convert the former Humperdink's Chophouse on the Dallas North Tollway to a Smith & Wollensky steak house in spring 2003. S&W, which operates 15 restaurants around the country, has become the top-grossing restaurant in New York and the third-largest grosser in the nation.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz