Tre Wilcox shrugs off the name recognition gained through appearances on some of television's most popular cooking shows. "My window has passed," he insists. "I don't say 'I'm Tre from Top Chef'—I'm just here at Loft 610."
But the waitstaff is almost giddy over the restaurant's new hire. Before launching into the usual spiel, our server on my first visit mentioned Wilcox's stints on Top Chef and Iron Chef, then babbled about having to adjust to Wilcox's big-time persona. At the next table, another waiter practically swooned as he ticked off Wilcox's celebrity achievements for an interested couple. And that reputation still carries some weight at the bar: Two women I met there while I was waiting for my friend to arrive came solely to bask in his Top Chef afterglow.
"Did you know he was at Abacus for something like seven years?" I asked.
Braised pork belly $9
Crab cakes $12
Cucumber roll $14
Wood-grilled salmon $22
Short ribs $24
Pork chop $27
Bread pudding $7
More photos of LOFT 610 and its food here in our slideshow.
"What's Abacus?" one of them replied.
Funny that Kent Rathbun, chef and owner of Abacus, actually won the American version of Iron Chef. Guess he doesn't have the same level of charisma as his protégé. Yet in many ways, Rathbun's Knox-Henderson area destination shaped Wilcox far more than his time on the Food Network—a fact Wilcox readily admits. "I owe that restaurant and Kent my career," he says of the man who first hired then promoted him to chef de cuisine. "That's the hardest gig I've ever walked away from."
Yet walk he did, at the end of 2007 when his television fame was in ascendance. Wilcox walked right into that netherworld populated by those who attempt to cash in on their celebrity, bounding around between working as a personal chef and making festival appearances. Out of the limelight for more than a year, it seemed as though he might fade into the night. But he never really stopped working—or looking for that next opportunity, which came when chef Marcos Rodriguez left Loft 610 in September.
Suddenly it didn't seem as though the "celebrity" chef had left at all, as he stepped right into the Plano kitchen, bringing with him all his Rathbun-esque aspirations. First, Wilcox played around with smaller portions. "My background was Abacus," he says, "where you leave people wanting more.
"I got tore up that first week."
By that, he means he was inundated with complaints about portion size. Seems that in the northern 'burbs, they value quantity with their quality—so he increased the former while maintaining the high standards of the latter.
Taking a cucumber roll starter consisting of kefir lime-cured tuna wrapped in thin sheaths of vegetable, he began cold-smoking the fish over a 50-50 mix of mesquite and oak. The results are fresh, crisp bites from which the subtle savor of the yellowtail strolls slowly, from background to forefront, aided along the way by just a touch of peppery spice. Unless you really concentrate, you glean none of the distinct wood smoke notes. You just notice the taste of the fish is ramped up.
The chef follows another barely trodden path when preparing his pork belly appetizer, braising one small, thick slab of meat until a veneer of burnished sweetness develops. Then he quickly pulls it from the heat before any drop of gossamer fat—and flavor—melts away. For a counterstroke, he settles this streaky piece of bacon on pureed fennel fronds, which provide enough acid to soothe the fat while layering in an herbal undertone.
It's a clever presentation which, he says, very few guests appreciate. "It's not one of my hot items. We sell maybe six a night."
For some reason, pork belly draws love-it-or-hate-it reactions from people. A year ago, a group of us went to Nana's for one of its multi-course dinners. The pork belly arrived to a chorus of groans—and mind you, chef Anthony Bombaci's treatment of the cut is brilliant. Even after finishing, guests announced an "it was good, but" verdict.
If pork belly seems iffy to some, Wilcox has taken another risk by not offering bread to diners as they wait. My friend on one visit even called the waiter over and pointedly asked, "No bread?"
"No," he answered, suddenly less verbose when not bragging up the chef's celebrity.
It's just that there is no bread for now. Wilcox is anxiously awaiting the arrival of a new pastry chef hire. He already added Jermaine Brown, who left Abacus to become the sous chef at Loft 610. "Our goal is to turn the restaurant around and make it a dining destination," Wilcox says.
Wood-grilled salmon and bone-free braised ribs might not get him there. The salmon—judging only from my piece—suffered from an amateurish hand, at least when it came to seasoning. Salt blasted away some bites while barely touching others, although the fish was gentle and fatty, a rich piece of salmon grilled to near perfection. Meanwhile, the ribs depend on a side of savory bread pudding for interest. The meat itself is rugged, stringy, sculpted in fat, but hardly distinguishable from ordinary pot roast.
On the other hand, Wilcox and his team turn out a "bone in" pork chop (that's how the menu describes it) cut thick—in response to portion-size complaints—and grilled with so much gusto a bittersweet, smoky char crisscrosses the surface without fazing the delicate meat underneath. It tastes like backyard grills, pit barbecues and campfire meals, all rolled into one. He places this on a mound of polenta sharpened by cheese and studded with mushrooms, so you experience spires of tangy flavor underscored by earthy tones. But there's so much of it.
If not a destination dish, this is a "gotta come back and try that again" entrée, a stick-to-your-ribs basic. But are there destination draws? Well, there's the cucumber roll, the pork belly (for those who appreciate it), oh, and two simple crab cakes, made purely of meat and herbs, with a citrusy background, plated with a truffled Champagne sauce. It's awfully good—sour, grounded and very rich in character.
And, adds the chef, "it feeds the ego."
There's a certain amount of trickery in a destination place. It's never enough to present perfect crab cakes. You must separate yourself from other restaurants by adding perceived value. Wilcox does this wisely with his crab cakes, using fancy ingredients, but not tossing them in thoughtlessly. The tart wine reduction plays with citrus in the meat patties while bits of truffle lend a "wow" factor without disrupting the overarching flavors.
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He has learned quite a bit from his time at Abacus. And maybe he picked up some showmanship from his television appearances as well—given that the menu included a listing for Top Chef Failure Banana Bread Pudding.
It may have failed on TV, but I happily finished the dish.
So the chef can now make light of his time in the public eye. The service crew will eventually calm down. Some of the dishes are really quite memorable, their shortcomings minor and few. And it appears that, one month in, Wilcox is on the verge of crafting the restaurant's celebrity and is less concerned with his own.
Loft 610 5760 State Highway 121, Plano, 972-377-2500. Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 5-10 p.m. Saturday. Lounge open late. $$$