Leslie Does Dallas, Or The Perils Of Popularity

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Leslie Brenner's assessment of dining in Dallas appeared over the weekend--a comprehensive and provocative piece both casting the city in culinary shadows and under a gleaming ray of promise.

You may disagree with her assignment of stars for particular restaurants. But the Dallas Morning News critic has hit us with some stunners that--like it or not--keep those of us interested in the local dining scene awake and buzzing. And when she speaks her mind on larger food-related issues, she's generally spot on.

Anyway, Brenner's essay hit on several topics of interest, of which one of the more intriguing was her assertion that restaurants represent another form of entertainment, of theater.

I've heard this before, even from those in the industry. In her words, "cooking is absolutely a form of art, and so is dining. In a restaurant, the two come together, not just as creativity expressed on the plate, but also as expressed in interior design and in the art of hospitality."

True enough. Pushing the art has introduced us to global flavors, produced notable fusion restaurants and margarita lists as long as your arm. As the pace of innovation picks up, however, we find chefs looking for new things to attempt and conquer, diners with the attention span of teenagers quickly growing weary of whatever was hip two weeks ago, also looking for something different. In other words, it's given us form over function theatrics: foam, green tea or pomegranate everything, sommeliers who ride suspended on wires...

Of course, that last one was in Vegas. Kinda works there.

Granted, you need two or three chefs stretching to--or even beyond--the edge. They generate excitement, bring attention and, as Brenner points out, lead a city and its restaurants into the national spotlight. If that's what people want, constant innovation is an absolute necessity.

But please, let's not get there through tall foods, foam or whatever comes next. How about the slow, clever fusion of techniques and flavors instead?

Yeah, yeah--been going on for awhile. Boring, I know.

I remember, however, my first bite of escargot at Soley! Driving by the place nowadays I'm never sure if it's still open. The restaurant's fitting combination of classic and modern French with classic and modern Mexican--best expressed in their simple starter of snails in pureed tomatillo or their poblano stuffed with confit duck--generated the sort of understated 'wow' factor I appreciate.

If I'm right, this is what Brenner is getting at when she urged Dallas chefs to travel more, pick up on trends elsewhere. Daniele Puleo (chef/owner of Daniele Osteria) complained to me once about local diners being stuck in the 50s, at least in terms of Italian cuisine. While Italy's flashy new chefs were experimenting with kiwi fruit and other uniquely non-Italian flavors, we continued to satisfy ourselves with old school classics. His point: Michelin stars (and the hip crowds) were flocking to innovative chefs, not mom and pop joints turning out a good Bolognese.

You know, as I've been writing this it occurs to me that we all want to see innovation, though many of us despise the trendy atmosphere it creates. Most of us perk up at the thought of some strange new twist on the familiar, yet come back, time and again, to the comfort of tradition. As she points out in the DMN column, crème brulee lost its cachet many years ago. But, damn it, I like a good crème brulee.

Which means the most significant question raised by Brenner's piece may be this: do we really care if Dallas is considered a world class dining destination?

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