Going back to the well

Our server says that in the summertime waiters strip and dive in--plunge 35 or so feet into that dark, stagnant water hole that seems a portal to Hades. I cringe. "Oh, it's 60 feet deep," he says. (Actually, the well at Newport's Seafood is 50 feet deep and holds some 35 feet of water, according to the press release.)

"But the look of it," says my companion. "It's dark, and you don't know what's in there...or where it's been."

Strange how this comment looped through my head during my time at Newport's. I never expected that the famous waterhole in the middle of the dining-room floor would become a metaphor for my experience, but it did.

That brick-lined puncture in the earth was once an artesian well feeding a brewery. The building dates to the late 1880s, when it was constructed as the Dallas Brewery and Bottling Works, the first such operation in the area. In 1918, the building was converted into the Grain Juice Co., which produced a non-alcoholic beer substitute called Graino during Prohibition. The company went broke in 1926, which raises a question: Who was buying Graino in sufficient quantities to keep the company afloat for eight years?

It wasn't until 1983, during renovation of the old brewery, that the well was discovered beneath the concrete floor. Divers were dispatched. They found smooth brick walls and another 12-foot well in the center of the hole. There was seemingly no current and no source for the fresh water. Later it was discovered that the well was fed by a spring, once very active. Today, the well allows only seepage of water in and out, with the level varying roughly six feet per year, corresponding to the Dallas water table.

And this is what those waiters were diving into in the midst of Dallas' summer swelter. Our server says that if you look close at the railings, you can see the abrasions in the paint where ropes were slung and then dropped into the hole to fish out the service personnel. So we did, and we found a few scuffs on the railing behind the wooden platform near the back of the well that holds an old model ship. The ship came from Copenhagen, from a seamen's chapel where seafarers prayed for safety before setting sail.

Some praying would have been in order for those diving servers. The water is black and covered with what looked like a film of some kind. Maybe it was just how the light swept across, but who knows? You don't know where that seepage has been, or what's been in it.

At the start of my first visit, I didn't let my companion's comment worry me or reinforce some frightening metaphor, because the service was so good. Our server was crisp, professional, and thoughtful, and he noticed potential inconveniences before we did. Here's another reason: The tri-level dining room, with its old brick walls, roughened wood-plank floors, the thick scent of smoke--not to mention the oddity of that huge hole in the ground--was so inviting.

And the menu, while it wasn't startling, seemed fine. OK, maybe a little lazy. Lobster-crawfish bisque was adequate, not strikingly clean and harmonious with a sea-washed surge, but the flavor was good--just not what it could have been. But crawfish-spinach spring rolls with a housemade barbecue sauce lumbered. Cut in four pieces, the cakey, deep-fried rolls had a coating that was corn-dog thick and reminiscent of a hushpuppy. A dry one. This thick coating and the sweetly pungent, viscous barbecue sauce made the rolls seem clumsy. Spring rolls connote lightness, freshness, and agility. This preparation was the opposite, though the side of spicy cucumber relish sparked and stimulated the palate in a way those rolls could only hope to.

Herb-crusted Dover sole over mashed potatoes had the same problem. The delicate flavor and texture of the sole were choked in a stultifying, mushy crumb veneer that seemed to have been constructed to camouflage inferior product. Seared sesame-crusted tuna, served over mashed potatoes and swamped in a puddle of cilantro-soy vinaigrette, was better. A little. Ordered rare, the fish was mostly gray and stiff without any silkiness or clean richness. Not bad, but there are far better examples of seared tuna in town, and a heavy dose of vinaigrette turned those creamy mashed potatoes into watery mush after just a few minutes. Dessert barely reached adequacy. The roasted apple crisp was a bit flat, and the topping was soggy and doughy instead of crumbly and crisp.

Things went into a marked free-fall on the next visit. The service was slow and indifferent. The conversation was dark. The food was scrub and worse. A small Greek salad with sweet peppers, feta crumbles, and kalamata olives was the best thing tried; everything was fresh and tasty, though it took great effort to locate the lone pair of runt kalamatas buried beneath the greens. But New England clam chowder, a "rich house specialty," as the menu describes it, tasted like a Campbell's cream soup cut with half-and-half--a style of richness I could pass on. Plus, the surface of the soup was rippled and topped with skim, as if the pottage had been sitting for a long time without attention--even after it was ladled. Small curry-and-corn crab cakes were dry and cool, and other than having the pronounced flavor of curry, bland.

But the most striking dish on this whole visit was the sake-steamed mussels over angel-hair pasta (actually, the pasta tangle was linguini). When it hit our table, it struck with a slight gust of sour fume, which I dismissed as an aromatic twist between the mollusks and the sake. What's interesting is that this dish arrived just as our conversation was getting sour and morose.

Our chat was about an article I had read about time, about how this time, the one you and I live in, is awfully good. Embarrassingly so, the easiest ride in human history. It's strange to think that not so long ago people struggled and sweat pulling food from the ground and suffered incomprehensibly from the most mundane knocks and pings of daily life. In the 1920s, President Calvin Coolidge's 16-year-old son got a blister on his foot after a round of tennis on the White House lawn. He was playing the game without socks, as I remember, and the blister became infected. Antibiotics didn't come onto the scene widely until around World War II. Coolidge's son died of blood poisoning.

Think of common historical events that for us in the here and now seem impossible to comprehend: collapsing economic sectors, wars that steal whole generations, dying from a blister. With that in mind, the author of the piece says our cushy, plush, yet harried ride is about to come to an abrupt end. Dues will be paid. There's going to be a big, terrible thing. She feels the tremors in the Zeitgeist, especially in Hollywood, where movies about asteroid-earth collisions, urban volcanoes, and aliens blowing up the White House have hit regularly throughout the '90s. Too many in this hive of global humanity think America is the great Satan. Too many dark genies have been released from whatever box Pandora once had locked-up: nuclear material, nasty germs, noxious chemicals. We'll be like Coolidge's son on the White House lawn, caught in a carefree bout of tennis when he suddenly gets a blister that sends him to the embalmer.

Now, I don't know what all this has to do with seafood, but I don't think it's a coincidence that my companion and I were in the depths of this gloom when that pasta arrived. The first bite stopped me in mid-sentence. My thought train was violently derailed. A single mussel, a shellfish that was turning, caused the drama. "You look a little peaked," my companion said. I stuck my fork into the dish and stirred the mix of mussels, pasta, cooked tomato mush, and soft segments of asparagus stalk. That sour gust turned into a windstorm of hurtful stink. My companion scrunched his face. "Good God. What is that?" he sneered.

And that was it. We stopped everything. Ceased the conversation. Brought the chewing to an end and pushed our dishes off to the side. Still steaming. Still stinking.

And you know what? Our server stopped by and asked us whether we were finished, and he took our plates virtually unchanged from when they first arrived and said not a word. He acted as though taking away full plates, with barely an element missing or upturned, was typical, was not outside the norm. Maybe here it isn't. Yet it's still odd if the place isn't planning to go the way of Graino.

Founded in 1984 by Jack Baum, Newport's Seafood was the first upscale restaurant in the West End. Then, in 1989, Baum purchased Sam's Cafe and took his eye off this seafood ball. As the press release states, "the restaurant subsisted for a few years primarily as a tourist and convention destination." In 1996, Baum offered to sell the "floundering restaurant" to Steve Laham, who was previously the restaurant's general manager. Laham sought to turn the thing around, and there is evidence of an effort. The wine list, for example, is skillfully crafted, with the white section far heavier in wines like sauvignon blanc, pinot gris, gewYrztraminer and Riesling than Chardonnay--as it should be for a seafood restaurant. The red list has more softer varietals and styles than bolder ones--again, appropriate.

But the food suffers miserably. I kept asking myself, Don't the people on the line ever taste the food to be sure it's being prepared properly? Don't they at least look at it? (The skim on the clam chowder was painfully obvious upon delivery.) Can't they smell the stuff they're sending out into the dining room?

Something is not right here. Newport's needs to go back to the well.

Newport's Seafood. 703 McKinney Ave., (214) 954-0220. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, open daily for dinner

5 p.m.-10:30 p.m.

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