Restaurant Reviews

Mixed Blessings

Somehow, it's incongruous to call a place serving American bulk cuisine levitated with Southwestern brushes The Abbey Texas Café. After all, abbeys were monasteries, and monasticism entails asceticism, or the practice of disciplined self-denial. This torment may include silence, a prohibition against private property, an embracing of bodily discomfort, poverty, celibacy, and fasting.

While it's difficult to ascertain the income and sexual activities of its employees after just a couple of visits, The Abbey Texas Café hardly embraces asceticism. It's a place where you can order heaping helpings of everything from "heavenly seafood" to "angelic salads" to angioplasty-friendly steaks and prime rib that for some reason don't merit a sacred header on the menu. And you can get all of this without the need to perform any post-meal masochistic acts of penance, such as self-flagellation with hot chicken-spinach lasagna, which you can also find on The Abbey menu.

So although it is a family place, The Abbey would certainly be considered decadent by monastic standards--especially when it comes to pigs, a wholly unmonastic indulgence. But The Abbey's slow-roasted pork tenderloin is simply among the best kitchen devotions to the Babes and Arnold Ziffels of the world we've ever tasted. Two pieces of tender, juicy crown tenderloin are scattered with stinging cayenne pinpricks sparring with craggy chunks of coarsely cracked pepper. The meat was brilliantly paired with a cherry and jalapeño cranberry sauce, creating an alluring harmonious tug among heat, sweetness, and tang.

This pork incursion should be The Abbey's "house specialty" instead of the smoked chili-crusted prime rib, a dish that currently occupies that slot, bordering on mediocre though it is. The cut had a nice pepper bite, but the meat was shy on flavor and succulence--this despite a preponderance of bulging fat globules perforating the flesh.

But the skillet mussels, a crowd of slightly gaping black shells on a sizzling-hot metal plate, arrived in a delicious bubbling puddle of seasoned juice. The tongues of mussel flesh were firm and briny. A ramekin of melted butter was positioned in the center, although a manager urgently stopped me when I dipped a mussel tongue in it, advising me to mop up the juice with the mollusk meat and leave the butter for the bread. I didn't obey.

Another success was the Frisco chicken pasta, strips of spiced chicken breast snarled among mushrooms, orange and green penne pasta tubes, and poblano pepper, all coated in a mild tomato sauce. While the chicken flesh was juicy, the sauce was parsimoniously applied, leaving the tubes more glutinous than bathed.

This new restaurant is the Richardson version of The Abbey Texas Café in Frisco, which is situated in a building that was a Baptist church from 1902 to 1974. The restored building became a restaurant in 1983 before it was taken over by Michael Madson and Morteza Darzi in 1993 and was re-engineered to serve fare with a slightly Southwestern culinary hosanna. A wall-sized mural in the Richardson restaurant depicts the original abbey.

And perhaps just like mainstream Christianity, The Abbey sometimes embraces a disruptive duality. On one visit the service was exemplary. Someone in the restaurant observed us making our way from the parking lot to the front door and held it open for us. On the way out, another employee did the same. In between, the service was remarkable: prompt, courteous, and gracious, even when our server subbed a frozen margarita with a Butterfinger milk shake. This place wants to prosper, I thought to myself

But on a second visit the service was less than stellar. I sat at my table with a menu shoved aside for 10 minutes before a server approached me. And after noticing their mistake, the staff commenced to inundate me with bread and water and an assortment of inquiries and apologies, which is almost as irritating as being ignored.

Which the catfish was--irritating that is. It arrived as three long strips of seasoned and corn-fried fish, at least that's what the menu says. Yet it was hard to detect any seasoning, and the coated flesh hadn't been fried long enough. The coating was soft, blond instead of golden, and relatively flavorless, while the fish flesh was watery. But a side of jalapeño fettuccine was perfectly cooked, pasty though it was.

This is one of the blessings at The Abbey, that each entrée comes with a choice of a side including baked potato, French fries, fried corn, or steamed veggies.

But The Abbey prides itself--if pride is a legitimate monastic cause--on its pies. And The Abbey's cherry pie was nothing short of...wicked might be a good word. It arrived bubbling and sizzling--like a choice piece of hell's real estate might--with a gently percolating caramel sauce and a scoop of ice cream that wasn't nearly powerful enough to exist long on the pie. The crust was perhaps a little pasty, but the cherries were buds of tartness, which foiled the caramel sauce.

The Abbey has good spirit, but it perhaps needs to perform a few more alms before it can sit satisfied with its Southwestern self. Either that or it can forget the whole theme and go pagan.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz