Heavy Metal Nosh

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Perhaps the modern measure of a city's evolution, its maturity, its spastic lunges into sophistication, is the distinctiveness of its shopping mall food courts. Perhaps the days of greasy hung chow, fried chicken parts and bulletproof pizzas served in plastic baskets are waning. At least they are waning here, if the handsome The Shops at Willow Bend is any indication.

Not that some of the old food court material isn't flaunted. The mall has Sonic for fast food, Panda Express for greased Chinese lightning and Steak Escape. It even has a Chick-A-Fill or Chicka-Flicka or whatever the place that puts cows on its billboards is called. The Shops at Willow Bend also has a Tenaya Mexican Café & Grill, a runty sibling to the Native American-themed, New-American-cuisine-flinging Tenaya in Las Colinas and along the Dallas North Tollway in Plano. In The Shops at Willow Bend, Tenaya serves Tex-Mex, making it well-adapted for a mall food court.

But the jewel in this food court crown doesn't serve speedy victuals or fried rations (necessarily). Indeed, it doesn't even have a food court entrance. Instead, you have to sort and weave through the mall and go astray in the food court before you hobble up to a cafeteria line and ask one of the Panda Express slingers where The Mercury is.


The Mercury

6121 W. Park Blvd. in The Shops at Willow Bend, Plano

469-366-0107. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday; open for dinner 5:30-11 p.m. Monday-Saturday. $$-$$$

Yellow tomato salad: $8
Shrimp strudel: $12
House salad: $6
Artichoke soup: $6
Fried calamari: $9
Pan-roasted chicken breast: $20
Pepper-crusted tuna mignon: $26
Pan-seared salmon: $24
Raspberry Napoleon: $8
Grand Marnier souffl: $8

The Mercury is easily penetrable from the north parking lot, and a swanky penetration it is. The Mercury north is a contemporary brush of soft hues and hard surfaces that glimmer. This contrasts with the original Mercury (now The Mercury Grill) at Forest and Preston, with its chic darkness and cool decorative alcoves.

But the real deal in the new Mercury is not the décor. It's the food. Yet sometimes it's hard to pay attention to the plate in this environment; it's so tastefully done in every area that it's hard not to marvel between bites. Even our hostess looked as though an interior designer assembled her. Dressed in a sandy pantsuit and a mint-blue turtleneck, her attire perfectly matched the tan booth enclosures and the green-blue frosted glass that frames the clear glass viewing slits in front of the kitchen. Those slits reveal an avalanche of stainless steel. Good things go on in there, too.

The menu is the work of chef Chris Ward. Ward heads up Restaurant Life, an offshoot of Mico Rodriguez's M Crowd Restaurant Group, the company that runs Mi Cocina and Taco Diner. Restaurant Life is a flock of boutique restaurants designed to showcase Ward's culinary chops. The cluster includes The Mercury and The Mercury Grill; Citizen, an Asian mishmash in sleek surroundings; and the Chop House, a Fort Worth prime steak house that was formerly called Ellington's.

Ward's work at the new Mercury is not so much a conquest of new culinary territory as it is a refinement. His earlier inspirations seemed monotonous brush strokes of unrealized potential, of hype that never converged with heft. The dull fare at Ellington's was elevated to mediocrity following his touch. Citizen, that modernist Asian fusion den, served warm and limp sushi along with a few listless Pacific Rim-impaired dishes (happily, the food, especially the sushi, has improved markedly in the months following its opening). The original Mercury always seemed more pointless hyperventilating than well-founded excitement.

Whatever Ward's creative potential, it seems to have reached critical mass in the mall. Every dish--no, every bite--is a nearly flawless oral escapade. Simple afterthoughts--such as the ubiquitous house salad--become attention-getting flourishes in his mitts. Gripping in the mouth, the salad is just a fluffy patch of greens in herbed balsamic vinaigrette with a goat cheese crostini, but it serves its purpose by offering an impression of what's to come without fogging the view with a glut of complexity.

Rock shrimp strudel with sweet corn kernels and chanterelle mushrooms sounds funny when read aloud, but in the mouth it becomes a striking contrast of terrestrial and marine sensibilities. The sauce, no doubt a reduction, was tacky in the mouth, though the earthy flavor was distinct, and the kernels added some staccato to the stick. The briny shrimp provided the levity, and the strudel was flaky, offering an unexpected intermediary texture between the plump shrimp and the fungi.

Fried calamari is almost as ubiquitous as pretzel twists and peppermint candy in bars and restaurants. It's hard to imagine what new can be done to it to fracture the monotony of its too-oft turgid coat. But who would have thought of parking battered little tentacle blossoms and tender body rings on a bed of creamy risotto with a spicy tomato sauce? This is the kind of stuff that makes the best dining a bastion of perfect moments; when unexpected elements come together with such gentle seamlessness they seem genetically predisposed to couple. Beads of green olive tapenade added threads of intensity into the mix.

Yellow tomato and Roquefort salad with applewood bacon and basil vinaigrette was less successful, all on account of the pithiness of the bright gold wedges ringing a tight pinch of greens. It was a striking visual presentation, with the dots of bacon-mottled Roquefort infiltrating the spaces between the tomato wedges. If only those tomatoes didn't feel like little tongue sweaters.

Yet this is only a minor faux pas in this suburban world of liquid heavy metal.

The cream artichoke soup was a visually bland dirty ocher puddle pierced with slivers of cucumber and pepper. The soup held a cluster of asparagus stalks. The flavors revealed a provocative interplay between gusts of smokiness and the bitterness of the artichoke blossom, leaving a tannic grip on the finish.

While The Mercury's menu could be considered a subtle advancement of Ward's evolutionary cookbook, the décor is a giant step in maturity. The Mercury is loosely related to Citizen in its circa late-'60s, early-'70s version of decorative modernity. But while Citizen is cheeky, The Mercury is smooth and contemplative. The seats resemble plastic cafeteria butt ware (fake wood grain). Yet they're comfortable. The walls (white with vertical stretches of glass blocks on one end) and tables seem constructed and selected for how they fiddle with light. Center tables are a pure white substance (perhaps Corian), while the tables in the booths are a white composite imbued with mint tints. The floor is a mix of hardwood and carpet. White grilled speakers are perched up high, with every other one a black box with exposed speaker cones, absent the white grills. An intentional design cue?

Pan-seared salmon is a thick square of pink imbedded in a carpet of cannelloni beans. The meat flaked into firm moist sections with a good strong racy flavor and a crispy delicate outer layer.

As the entrée deliveries mounted, it became evident that the kitchen has a jones for vertical architecture, at least as far as the seafood is concerned. The salmon made like a fishy high-rise, as did the pepper-crusted tuna mignon in a chanterelle braise. The thick pad of meat was clean with rich marine flavors wrapped in a healthy pepper crust.

The cheapest entrée here is arguably the best. Chicken is a dull meat, one without many intrinsic flavors. It functions more as a flavor sponge sucking up the elements it is cooked with, a textural medium with which to transport those flavors. This is why The Mercury's pan-roasted chicken breast is so brilliant. It forces together herbs, generous dashes of salt, picholine olives and Moroccan lemons and delivers them on crisp golden brown chicken breasts. This was perhaps the best chicken composition I can remember having. You could stupefy throngs of people with this on the rubber-chicken circuit.

This touch carries over to the desserts, making the soufflés (Grand Marnier and raspberry) perfect, light puffs of silken egg. Raspberry Napoleon was another high-rise with three decks of delicate circular wafers perched on pillars of juicy berries sandwiching drools of crème anglaise in between.

If this is the shape of mall food courts to come, let them all be filled with heavy metal.

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