Marquee Grill's Seasonal Affective Disorder

On a brisk December evening, Highland Park Village is awash in light. Tiny white bulbs blanket every branch and every twig of every tree along the sidewalks, illuminating the high-end shops and storefronts in their golden glow. The scene's almost akin to the Griswolds' family Christmas, there are so many bulbs ablaze — if only Rusty's camper replaced the shiny black sedan parked out front of Marquee Grill.

Inside the posh restaurant, helmed by Top Chef All-Star Tre Wilcox, the scene is less Christmas dinner, more Highland Park holiday party, as a polished crowd that looks older but feels younger gathers to welcome another weekend at the upstairs bar. Men swoop in like hawks, landing on tables where single ladies mingle. The women flirt but with eyes scanning the room, searching for better suitors.

It's an impressive space, built of dark wood, drapery and lush black carpet that mimics a hotel bar, but the cocktails are why you'll linger here. They're Dallas' best when they're mixed consistently, and still fine when the hurried staff gets uneven, as it sometimes does. Order three Autumn Sonatas and you'll get three different drinks, one heavy with spiced wine, the next a little sweet with pear purée, a third somewhere in between. Bartenders taste drinks with the tip of a cocktail straw but don't adjust them much after. It's an empty gesture.


Marquee Grill Shrimp and Grits

Marquee Grill
Shrimp and Grits $14
Oysters $16
Lobster Stuffed Scallops $18
Oxtail Tamale $10
Seared Monkfish $29
New York Strip $3

The drinks still impress, though, and the crowd will garner lingering eyes, but the bar isn't the place to eat if you're hungry. While some guests give dining a chance at cocktail tables and the bar (perhaps for the people watching, or perhaps because of an hour-plus wait for a table downstairs), it's far too crowded on a weekend to enjoyably dine here. It's a space pushed to the brink of its capacity. Waitresses jockey and people collide and, on one recent visit, a cocktail glass shattered, though the staff swooped in and the mess disappeared in a flash.

The downstairs dining room is the bar's polar opposite. White and beige replace dark, comparatively sinister tones, and sound treatments and soft brown leather in the booths keeps the collective din to a murmur. No singles cruising tables here — no clanking glassware or boisterous laughter, either. Just a quiet, relaxed space built for mindful eating, with a kitchen set like a stage at the end of the room.

It's worth it to request a seat close to the action. Here, you can watch the orange flames of a Jade range lap the sides of blue steel pans, blackened with the patina of hundreds of dinner services. Squeeze bottles swirl sauces, ladles spoon stocks and glazes, and an open grill belches smoke from a pair of searing steaks. A large marble altar anchors the space where plates receive finishing touches — a lip wiped clean, a scallop positioned just so — before runners whisk them away to linen-clad tables, each marked with a single yellow tulip.

Just like the drinks upstairs, plates downstairs impress — some of the time. Oysters served on the half-shell elate, embellished with a small disk of citrus gelée and a powder of lemony butter. The garnishes hide in the background at first bite, then slowly present to highlight the finish of the clean and briny bivalves.

An oxtail tamale, a beautiful plate, is painted with spicy habanero tomato sauce and drizzled with an artful zigzag of crème frîache. The masa is light, the braised and shredded meat is rich — it's a mystery this plate isn't more popular here. (A waitress claimed tuna tartare, shrimp and grits and a lamb lollipop — less adventurous dishes — are the fan favorites.)

Those shrimp and grits, while not the byproduct of cooking dangerously, do successfully spin low-country comfort. Flavorful crustaceans packed in an herbal marinade take a solid sear but aren't overcooked, and the cornmeal porridge is sharpened with chipotle and rich.

Scallops work too, sliced to open on a hinge like a tiny Chinese steamed bun, stuffed with lobster and vegetables, cut in a diminutive and near perfect dice.

But like the drinks upstairs, there are flaws and inconsistencies down here, too. Not enough to trash your evening as the food is mostly great, but enough to give you pause when the menu asks $27 for an over-seasoned pork chop. And while the grits that anchor the bone-in chop satisfy, the collards that share the plate lack brightness. Add a little lemon or vinegar to the pot and those greens would make any country momma proud.

A pork belly appetizer served with a sweet potato purée should melt in the mouth. Instead a dry and tough crust requires deliberate disassembly with a fork and knife.

Speaking of crusts, avoid the blue cheese number the menu offers for their steaks. The kitchen cooks grilled meats carefully, but "crust" brings a savory seared exterior to mind. Instead, a wet blanket of liquefied Point Reyes smothers a New York strip steak. Sparing breadcrumbs, toasted under a salamander, cap the cut, but not in anything that resembles a crust, and the blue cheese completely overpowers the dish. Unless you're a penicillium fetishist, pass on this extra — it wears like a tacky Christmas sweater. Although at least sweaters are in season this time of year.

Everything that's holding the Marquee Grill back from being one of Dallas' best restaurants can be explained through a single dish, described with detail on the menu as vine-ripe tomatoes and marinated mozzarella, cornbread croutons, basil gel and balsamic foam.

Like an extension of the dining room, the plate arrives like a work of art. The yellow cornbread croutons were light, sweet and heated with a bite of chili. The basil gel was intensely herbal, dotting the plate with forest green. The mozzarella was rich, and the balsamic foam complemented the plate like all good foams should — draping the dish with an airy suspension like a vinegary summer breeze.

It's not summer, though, it's December — a fact that becomes instantly apparent as I sunk my teeth into bland, soft tomatoes that tasted of wet cotton. The disappointment is aggravating: What's a caprese salad doing on a menu this time of year, anyway?

It's not just tomatoes. The same error recurs throughout, as peas, asparagus and yellow squash — vegetables and legumes that peak in spring and summer — share menu space with fall and winter staples like pumpkin seeds, butternut squash and sweet potato purées. What's worse is that the in-season ingredients get manhandled in sweet preparations that don't work as well as they could. A pumpkin soup is heavy, a meal, not a first course, and butternut squash grits taste of a winter spice blend not that far from a Starbucks latte.

Fine, yes, locavorism is a difficult tenant to embrace in Texas, where expense and availability are driven by a difficult climate and landscape. But seasonal cooking? That requires a mere conscious choice to follow the simple mantra that governs all great cooking: Source high-quality ingredients at the peak of their season, and treat them with respect and a quiet hand. The results will follow.

The counter argument suggests that the Dallas palate wants what it wants; a caprese salad lover craves tomatoes and mozz no matter what the current orientation is between the sun and the earth. But to acquiesce to this demand robs diners of a heightened appreciation that can only be experienced when we lust for something we miss.

Anyone who's ripped a vine-ripened tomato right from the plant in August knows what a tomato should taste like. It's an experience that's relished summer after summer, and always followed by three long seasons of desire. That's not an experience you can package up and save for Christmas — no matter how brightly Highland Park's holiday lights shine.

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