Restaurant Reviews

Curing Rubaphobia

Why is Continental cuisine so hard to kill off? Like badly cropped sideburns, it's ugly. It tastes like an overachieving Swanson TV dinner might if it had loads of self-esteem. And it generally comes with music delivered by people who didn't get over purple velour the first time around.

Loosely defined, Continental cuisine is classic European fare from France, Germany, Italy, even Hungary and Russia (almost never Britain). In rare moments, it can be effective. But traditionally, Continental fare is little more than faux elegance set in heavy cream; or set on fire. It's mostly lodged in the hinterlands in cities and townships clogged with diners, pizza and Dairy Queen braziers. Shrimp cocktails, escargot, chicken parmigiano, chicken cordon bleu and veal marsala are often staples.

Twenty-five years ago, columnist Calvin Trillin attributed the rise of Continental restaurants in much of America to "rubaphobia," or the fear gripping certain civic leaders in middle America that they might be thought of as rubes.

"A rubaphobiac will walk right past a superior fried-chicken restaurant or a splendid barbecue joint to take a visitor to one of those fancy 'continental cuisine' palaces that all American cities have spinning around the top of a bank building," Trillin said in a 1978 U.S. News & World Report interview. "Rubaphobiacs want people to think of their city as 'a sophisticated place in which to dine.' The name of the spinning restaurant is always something like 'La Maison de la Casa House, Continental cuisine.' About its only distinction is a fine view of other restaurants spinning around on top of other bank buildings."

Lazlo's Cuisine does not do-si-do while basking in the glow of mortgage interest rates flashing from above, but it wouldn't be out of place if it did. Lazlo's has all the goods: snails, mozzarella caprese, French onion soup, beef Wellington, lamb with mint jelly, veal Oscar. You get the drill. Each dish is competently prepared, if ultimately unmoving.

But that doesn't mean this place isn't packed to the gills with ardor (it has huge fish tanks teeming with cichlids). Lazlo's was launched by Lazlo Toth, a chef who cut his teeth behind the Iron Curtain, slogging through culinary school and toiling in fine hotels in Budapest under Communist rule. He's practiced his craft in Rome, New York and Carmel, California, among other locales. He's been working at Ruggeri's since it opened in the mid-1980s, and when Tom Ruggeri decided to shutter his Dallas and Addison restaurants, Toth jumped in to resuscitate the Addison locale with his own flair.

What hath God wrought? "I said Jesus Lord, what am I going to do?" Toth says. "I'm going to be able to compete with the huge multimillion-dollar steak houses around me? I don't have money to put 500 wines on the wine list." He does have a few, though, including a swell Luigi Righetti Amarone.

But how do those few bottles couple with Continental? Many of the dishes have little roses resting on the plates, sculpted from long strips of tomato skin. No paprika dustings or infused oil squirts here. In fact, the paprika is inexplicably in the food instead of on the plate. Imagine that.

"We cook with paprika day and night," Toth says. He uses Hungarian paprika. "This American or Spanish paprika has no flavor. It might have the red color, but it has no flavor." And it makes frequent appearances, like in the cucumber salad, a Spartan Hungarian hash of flaccid but delicious marinated cucumber slices. The brisk, salty cucumbers are topped with sour cream and a dusting of paprika, adding a little richness to the leanness.

Toth says in Hungary this salad is almost never eaten in isolation as an appetizer. No, it is supped with paprikash, chicken or veal topped with a sauce of pan drippings blended with sour cream and paprika. The pairing aids digestion, he insists.

What falls flatter than these cucumber slices is the soft-shell crab sautéed in garlic and olive oil. The crab is mushy, with water blisters bulging in pockets under the exoskeleton, bursting unexpectedly in the mouth, spurting their seafood dilution between the cheeks.

French onion soup, thick with a cheese-goo tarp and loaded with onion, was serviceable, but the flavor skidded down the middle of the road, arousing little curiosity as it laid its patches on the tongue.

Carpaccio was similarly inelegant. Great sheets of thick and pounded rosy steer musculature pelted with capers and littered with parmesan shreds were draped over the plate with baby corn cobs laid on the edge like longhorns. Beef was slightly gristly, not drawn into silken lacey slices.

These same textures throttled the English roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. The meat was red. The meat was gristly. The meat was fatty. The meat was good, a bloody pedestrian toss to the masses. The gravy was clean and deft; the Yorkshire pudding gravy mop, a cross between a popover and a soufflé, immaculate.

Yet the best thing about Lazlo's is its infectious spirit. Sure, the forest-green paneling, the dangling potted plants, the sea foam-green tablecloths and the one-man band spitting polyester airport-bar schmaltz are dated and hokey, leaving you gripping your chair in anticipation of a bank tower spin. But, though it is slightly green, the service is amazing: prompt, genuine, smooth, affable, even self-deprecating.

After I swirled the Amarone and blurted "awesome," our server smiled. "My manager won't let me use that word," he says. "He says I sound like I'm in a skate park or something."

But the infection gets worse. I was generally unimpressed with the Brassoi pork, a Romanian version of chicken fingers with fries. Sautéed orange strips of pork soak in a red sauce of blended V-8 vegetable juice, meat drippings, garlic and paprika. The sauce is good, though shy on power, and the pork is juicy and tender. But the meat flaunted an off taste, as if it had already slid from its peak of freshness. Next to it is a pile of tiny, slightly crisp but dry potato cubes.

"Oh, man. Oh, it is my all-time favorite," Toth says, evangelizing on the preparation. "I wanted to put it on the menu because it is so delicious. It's very thinly sliced pork tenderloin. Very tender, very lean. You put a little crispy potato with that, you mix it up and it creates a fantastic meal." After talking to Toth, I suddenly realized I was in love with this dish, even if I had more than my share of Amarone to help it along.

Other dishes, without the oratorical fanfare, come across better. Veal marsala is tender, juicy and full of flavor. Portobello ravioli, supple pasta sleeves stuffed with portobello mushrooms and bathed in a smooth, tangy sun-dried tomato sauce, was delicious, though it leaned too close to the mild side.

But the star of this rubaphobia was the stuffed cabbage: crisp head leaves packed with "spicy" sausage, ground meat and rice served on a bed of sauerkraut stained orange with paprika. Instead of drooled with tomato sauce, the rolls are covered with melted sour cream and paprika sauce.

Gundel palacsinta, sweet crepes stuffed with honey-crushed walnut topped with chocolate, capped this Le Maison deftly. Its sweetness is restrained, allowing the nutty flavors and the floral essence of the honey to work through the dinner blubber.

If Toth really wanted to give those steak huts a run for their flanks, he might consider yanking a few of the old Ruggeri's staples--fettuccine Alfredo, manicotti, chicken parmigiano, fried calamari--and giving the menu a Hungarian critical mass. He sure would set himself apart, and maybe carve himself a following outside Dallas, which would

5348 Belt Line Road, 972-661-2222. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; open for dinner 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. $$-$$$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz