That French food is making a comeback should not be a mystery to anyone. Instead, we should wonder every time we see a buttery and flaky croissant why it ever fell out of favor. As recently as the '80s, French cuisine was synonymous with fine dining — trout amandine and rich butter sauces were the mark of many special occasions. But by the time Nirvana and Pearl Jam took over our radios our Francophilia collapsed like a neglected soufflé.
We should be more loyal lovers. Despite a dearth of good French restaurants, we owe a lot to the ingredients and techniques fostered by our goose-liver-fattening friends. The banh mi wouldn't exist if the French hadn't beaten the Vietnamese with baguettes for half a century or so. The torta may have its roots in the French intervention in Mexico, too. The mother of sauces ladled over so many dishes? French. And ask yourself where your life would be without mayonnaise. French cooking deserved a second chance if only for the sandwiches.
Recently here in Dallas, French restaurants are sprouting at a decent clip. The Lombardi family opened Café des Artists in One Arts Plaza last year, and more recently a New York City import, Le Bilboquet, opened in Uptown. And this summer Mercat Bistro opened its doors, casting the smells of freshly baked pastries onto Harwood Street, not too far from Klyde Warren Park.
The restaurant is a spinoff from the owners of Saint Ann Restaurant, which might be more recognized for its sexy crowds or a TV appearance than for impeccably prepared cuisine. Mercat is just across the garden and represents Saint Ann's more sophisticated sibling.
Mercat is a restaurant that attempts to be everything for everyone. Drop by at 7 a.m. and you can indulge a decent croissant and have a cup of coffee before you trudge off to work. Come in at noon and sandwiches, salads and other lunch suspects wait to lull you into an afternoon nap. For dinner, a small patio, perfectly oriented to take in the sunset, is a fitting stage for a relaxed meal.
The dining room is just as charming, with the white subway tile that adorns every new restaurant, and a zinc bar that's much rarer. The metal frames a small kitchen where cooks throw eyebrow-singeing columns of flame into the vent hood above. It would make for a decent dinner show, except you can't actually eat there. Despite the bar stools, a glass partition protects cakes and pastries beckoning from the other side and only a narrow strip of horizontal surface remains. At best, two stools provide a suitable perch at the end of the run, and even those lose their charm to bar equipment that clutters the space. The design hints at poor planning, and the carelessness is echoed through much of the menu.
A croque madame is hard to muff. Ham, cheese, béchamel and an egg with a jiggling yolk are ingredients that taste delicious every time they touch. But the sandwich is best baked, not grilled like it is here. An oven's loving embrace causes the insides to melt, the flavors to meld and the béchamel to thicken like it will later in your arteries. In exemplary versions the outer layer might bubble and brown before it's concealed beneath a fried egg. Here, the massive sandwich is cool in the center and the cheese is stiff, which is a moderate disappointment considering the caloric cost. You'll be hitting the gym this evening, for sure.
That sandwich could learn a thing from an omelet that's cooked through and through. The exterior is a perfect creamy yellow — like daffodils in spring — but the omelet has no curds, little moisture and eats like eggs on Prozac. That may be precisely what you want for breakfast, but it's not as good as it could be. An impeccably cooked omelet wouldn't need that thick cloak of Brie cheese.
Mercat might get points for procuring a locally baked baguette, but they've chosen the wrong bakery. With a soft spongy interior, the loaves have no structure, and the crust is leathery and tough. Sliced into medallions, the bread ruins marinated anchovies offered as bruschetta. It also mars an otherwise wonderful appetizer that features house-made ricotta dressed lightly in orange zest and a small cube of honey. Smear a slice of the waxy comb on your bread, top it with the cheese and prepare yourself — the flavors work perfectly together. On a better baguette, the dish would be a keeper.
There are other bright points, which you should enjoy on the patio with wine and good friends. The hanger steak is good here, if you can forgive not being asked how you'd like it cooked. Instruct your waiter you'd like it rare (like the croque madam, not the omelet) and enjoy one of the better steak frites options in Dallas. Chef Jared Robinette should ditch the ketchup served on the side for mayonnaise and change his fry oil more regularly, but for $18 the plate is a bargain.
The short rib, served on a celery root puree with grilled peaches and whipped crème fraîche, is delicious, and the salmon coulibiac satisfies and then some. Leave it to the French to take one of the healthiest fishes available, wrap it in buttery pastry and inundate the dish with cream. Robinette's version uses a creamy sauce as heavy as Thanksgiving gravy for the base of the plate, and then floats the golden pastry on top. Note that there's spinach and mushrooms in the parcel as well. You needn't feel too guilty.
But why would you? Look at you, sitting on the patio and drinking wine, while wearing a beret and feeling so French. Regret from excess butter is the furthest thing from your mind. You could make a lifestyle out of dining like this. And with some tweaks Mercat Bistro could be your regular hangout. They have some work to do, though.