It's hard to know what to make of Via Real, a restaurant that's been around for roughly 15 years, including 10 years in Las Colinas. But it sure makes a lot of its "Mexican cuisine with Santa Fe style." Santa Fe is known for its fiery food, torched with lots of simple chili sauces that broil the mouth in ways that render water useless and tequila a magically effective elixir. But heat and vigor are exactly what is in short supply on the Via Reál menu.
Via Reál also makes a lot of the Zagat survey accolades thrown its way (best Mexican food in the metroplex in 1997, '98, and '99). And, of course, it's lately been trumpeting the acquisition of Felipe Gaytan, former sous chef at The Mansion on Turtle Creek.
So far, Gaytan, who consulted with the restaurant before taking on his executive chef role in August, hasn't made any dramatic changes to the menu. That, he promises, will come sometime within the next few weeks. He has mostly just pestered some of the old Via Reál standbys, fiddling around the edges, perking up the ingredients by, for example, making sure all of the sauces are based on a demi-glace rather than on a slurry of wine or some other fluid thickened with cornstarch.
Some of his planned menu creations sound intriguing. Gaytan says he's experimenting with Southwestern chutneys (purple pearl onion and jalapeño), exotic seafood tamales, and tequila-spiked sauces. These sound as promising as some of the specials he's drafted, including fennel-crusted red snapper with yellow tomato-lime sauce, and coriander-cured tenderloin with roasted tomato-cumin sauce.
But if the current menu contains tantalizing hints of something greater to come, there's no need to hold one's breath. The food isn't subpar by any means; it's just flat-footed in the particulars. Ceviche ($7), served in a half clam shell wedged into a bed of greens, was a clump of firm, tender shrimp and scallop fragments that never descended into the gelatinous mushiness that is all too common with this dish. To give his version a touch of distinction, Gaytan tucks a little mango into the juice to add a little fruit sweetness to play off the seafood sweetness as well as squelch the heat. What heat? The volume was muted. Eating it was like listening to someone make whoopee in the hotel room next door: You know something exciting is going on, but it's hard to get all worked up when your ear is mashed against the wall. I felt like I had to mash my tongue into this dish. There was little lime briskness or chili spark.
Tortilla soup ($4) suffered from the same lack of liveliness. It was flush with fresh ingredients: zucchini, tomato, onion, avocado, and tortilla strips tarred with two cheeses. It was smooth but not exhilarating. Neither was the fried calamari ($8), boring breaded squid rings that scuffed the mouth and left a chalky residue (did they come bagged and frozen?). These loops were paired with a ramekin of tomato dipping sauce that the menu alleged was spicy but was actually just a tame marinara.
Spinach enchiladas ($8) topped with tomatillo and sour cream sauce were tantamount to culinary drivel. Watery and flaccid, these rolls were salvaged only by a tomatillo sauce that burst with a good tangy surge, one of the few culinary rushes encountered here. A side of creamy Mexican corn was firm, smooth, and sweet.
Medallions de res con camarones ($19) were equally disappointing. The trio of small beef medallions was livery and washed-out, void of rich meat flavors. Still, there were a couple of noteworthy elements. Though the large gulf shrimp were slightly mushy, they were slathered with an astounding barbecue sauce. Gaytan creates it by simmering smoked chicken bones, onions, and shallots in Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, and brown sugar before the sauce is strained and enhanced with dribbles of honey. The result is a rich, piquantly smooth condiment with an engaging edge. A side of moist, supple wild rice pocked with black beans and kernels of corn was equally striking.
Which is what this restaurant is, if you don't spend too much time eating. Linen-draped tables, wrought-iron chairs with seashell backs, and a rippled brick "water wall" with fake foliage, artifacts, and a trio of urns, water spilling from one to the next, give it that kind of upscale-souvenir-shop tranquility. A raised bar partitioned from the dining area with rough-hewn wooden columns completes the aura.
Service is equally fantastic: gracious, warm, efficient, professional. Servers are constantly aware of their tables and stealthily take action.
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If only the kitchen would follow suit. Cancun ($17), a longtime menu mainstay with three large gulf shrimp and bacon-wrapped sea scallops, wavered in edibility. The firm shrimp were fine, topped with an engaging al ajo sauce consisting of onions and garlic blended into achiote paste. But the scallops, slathered in a white wine-cilantro cream sauce, elicited fierce grimaces. The firm but fishy medallions huffed with acrid sourness and were wound in slithering, virtually raw bacon strips. Cold though they were, a side of black beans proved delicious, while a bundle of carrot, zucchini, and squash sticks interlaced with broccoli florets was perfectly prepared.
The veggies accompanying the Pescado Veracruzana ($17) were equally well prepared, but it didn't matter. They absorbed the pronounced fishiness infecting the fillet of mahi mahi, which was hidden under a delicious veracruzana sauce made from sautéed poblano peppers and onions doused with sherry, and cluttered with capers, sliced green olives, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. But the noticeable odor of the fillet made the whole thing barely edible.
In sharp contrast, Via Reál's caramel cheesecake ($3.95) could easily become habit-forming. Girdled with clusters of plump, juicy berries, the cake was smooth, silky, and fluffy without the slightest bit of pastiness.
But overall, Via Reál doesn't even tempt habit. It has all of the trappings of a top-notch, cutting-edge Southwestern restaurant. It just needs to work on that edge so it cuts more than butter.