It's hard to not think of Arthur's as an icon of perseverance amid the unforgiving brutality of the Dallas restaurant scene. Owner Mohsen Heidari, in addition to grappling with the constant and typical tortures of employee turnover, spoilage, government inspectors, taxes and critics, has had to deal with asbestos, bad planning, and...God. Yes, God. And it was God, or more accurately, one of his acts, that almost did Heidari in.
But the deity didn't prevail, or maybe as with Job, he was just testing Heidari's endurance.
Heidari was baptized in the restaurant business in the early '70s when he waited tables at Chateaubriand on McKinney Avenue. From there he moved to Il Sorrento before he joined his brother Al (current owner of the Old Warsaw) to work at a restaurant called the Magic Flute. In 1983 he purchased the Farmer's Grill, a restaurant that still slings its stuff on Park Avenue in Dallas. That lasted until 1988, when Heidari's mouth watered for something more glamorous. He turned to Arthur's, a restaurant that had been searing steaks in Dallas since Arthur Bates opened it in 1948. "It was always my dream to get involved with a restaurant of that caliber," Heidari says. So he sold Farmer's Grill and used the proceeds to pick up the restaurant at North Central Expressway and Northwest Highway.
A decade later, Arthur's drove Heidari into fits when it turned out the building had asbestos problems. The building's owner bought all of the tenants out of their lease obligations, says Heidari, and with that bit of loot, he sought a new home for Arthur's.
He found it in the Bombay Cricket Club, a quaint two-story Victorian house on Maple Avenue. Heidari embarked on a six-month renovation project only to discover he just couldn't fit his ambitions into space. The kitchen was too small, and the restaurant could only reasonably accommodate between 40 and 50 people. "I'm glad I didn't go for it," he says. "But I lost a lot of money in that building."
Not enough to spook him, though. Those terrors were yet to come, after Heidari came upon what he thought was the perfect spot for Arthur's reincarnation. It was a stand-alone building in Addison, one that most recently had housed Mel Hollen's Bar & Fine Dining. Though it had been vacant for more than a year, Heidari thought it was the perfect home for Arthur's. So sure was Heidari that he bought the place instead of leasing it. He began renovating in April 2000. Arthur's opened on October 11 that year.
Five days later at around 3 a.m., Heidari got a call. His restaurant was in flames. "That was devastating," he says. "I watched the whole thing burn for almost eight hours. I was devastated for almost a week. I didn't know which way to turn. I had to start all over again. All that was left for me was four walls. Everything was gone." Heidari says the cause of the blaze was a lightning strike (his act of God) that blew out a transformer in the bar area.
Heidari found himself rebuilding yet again. This time, though, he had the blueprints from Hollen's restaurant, and he set about to copy them wholesale, shoehorning his Arthur's into Mel's "old San Francisco" look.
Which is why walking into Arthur's ignites a strain of Addison déjà vu. It has the same clubby atmosphere, the same dark wood paneling, the same private enclosed booths with deep red velvet draperies providing concealment, the same piano music in the bar (although sometimes there's a flute, too).
What isn't the same is the array of fish tanks, a 48-foot-long bank of seven forming a buffer between the bar and the dining room. Each of the seven tanks slogs 150 gallons (there's a stand-alone tank in one of the private dining areas). In the tanks are tiny cichlids, fish that are literally "swimming" in their oversized living quarters.
Fish swim on the menu, too, in various incarnations of dubious quality. But even if they don't taste good all of the time, they sure do look good, just like the little cichlids in the tanks. Salmon tartare arrived as a blunted cylindrical mound of chopped salmon crowned with a dab of golden caviar. This mound was off center on the plate, set back close to one edge. Stripes of chopped onion, capers and minced egg streaked over the plate like sunrays emanating from the mound. Everything was fresh, except for the salmon, a fleshy grind plagued with a strong, fishy taste.
This unabashed flavor was even more brutally apparent in the crusted Atlantic salmon, a sliver of fish in a champagne saffron beurre blanc with a mustard-seed crust. The ensemble was beautiful to look at, with its saturated yellows buffered with paler hues here and there. But the meat had a strong fishy taste that made it hard to see the entrée through to a clean plate.
The fish we really wanted to hang with was the pan-seared Chilean sea bass, an astounding bit of gastro levity hovering from a bed of couscous moistened with a cilantro lime sauce. The seared crust was delicate but thick, making for interesting textural contrasts. The fish itself was firm with clean supple flakes that fanned out under fork pressure. The flavor was dominated by a buttery richness that found common ground on that bed of butter-saturated semolina.
Meat, too, is a big Arthur's staple, maybe bigger than those fish that seem to be everywhere. A long time ago, when Arthur's was owned by Bates, the restaurant was dubbed a fine-dining steak house, and Arthur's seems most at home with this lineup. The bone-in rib eye, a prime cut drenched in a shallot bordelaise sauce, was like butter, each bite brimming with the kind of richness that can only spring from a well-managed feedlot.
Mixed grill lived up to its name. It was three things: quail, rack of lamb and venison in a raspberry demi-glace. Venison was the best of the trio--tender and juicy with a slightly racy subtext. Quail was plump and juicy, but it had a slight trace of beef liver on the finish. Lamb was tender and perfectly done, rosy to the eye and silken to the tongue, but it had a slightly off flavor, one that was hard to pin down, though it carried a sweetish edge with it.
This is the thing about Arthur's. Its shortfalls are not about clashing flavors or dubious workmanship. They're about flavors that betray a lack of freshness. Sometimes trouble bedevils the textures, too. Hudson Valley foie gras with golden tomato, mushrooms and greens, was runny. Once forked, it flowed into a puddle, forming a pool of slimy grayish-amber. The flavor was good, though, as was that of the mushrooms, buttons that were marinated in balsamic vinegar, giving them the texture and flavor of pickled beets.
Soups worked well. On one visit, marsala wine mingled with pureed squash was like a bowl of silk. The flavor was mild and understated, very smooth. Five-onion gratinée was a tangle of onions in a perfectly balanced broth draped over with a gooey cheese cloak. This onion ensemble was well-balanced without strains of sweetness or saltiness clamoring for dominance.
Dessert finished well, too. The assorted berries contained fresh juicy blackberries, firm strawberries and, though technically not a berry, slices of kiwi spilling from a delicate pastry shell into a puddle of smooth Grand Marnier Sabayon.
Still, it's those meat flaws that give me pause. Yet once those are licked, this restaurant will go places. It's got the style and the pedigree. And Heidari, who operates St. Martins and San Francisco Rose on Greenville Avenue, has sure paid some dues.