It looks like a small town in Illinois.
Sitting down for lunch at Tarantino's Deep Ellum, my dinner companion tried to recall something--anything--about our meal the previous week. The atmosphere came to mind instantly. It speaks to that lost sense of old-school comfort lodged somewhere in America's collective consciousness, with worn brick walls, deep colors, white tablecloths and a vintage console turntable oozing the rich and slinky sounds of smooth jazz. Every half-hour or so, the music ends in a blur of quiet static, prompting the proprietor to wander over and flip the vinyl disc. For a moment, that bygone era when lounge singers were cool and obsequious restaurateurs wore crisp aprons and bowed gently to every request seeps into your memory. Quaint neighborhood joints and decent, inexpensive meals, ah, the stuff of nostalgia. But as someone sang in the days when Louis Armstrong and Doris Day were fading into the oblivion of legend, "Something's lost but something's gained in living every day." The past, like the once-thriving downtowns of middle America, cannot be recaptured. We can only hope to reinvent the old days in a pale and imitative form.
And that's the role of Tarantino's Deep Ellum, in more ways than one. The place serves what can best be described as Italian-American classics. These are simple, hearty dishes born in the era when waves of immigrants adapted native favorites to American tastes, the stuff made popular by the likes of Chef Boyardee. Spaghettini, for instance, is a wide bowl of thin pasta strands, alla Napoletana, offered with meatballs (sound familiar?) or sausage. It's a filling dish, granted, but that's about all. Supermarket-quality spaghetti was boiled well past the al dente point. Spicy sausage dominated the characterless and watery tomato sauce.
A slightly sweet, slightly herbal and thoroughly unchallenging lasagna also tugged at our Franco-American memories. Ten minutes after shoving it to the side, we were forced to pick at it again, having already forgotten every little, shall we say, nuance.
Reawakening the simple Italian-American dive, that's one challenge. But thriving in a part of town considered dangerous and gasping for breath? Owner Peter Tarantino has been around the Dallas restaurant business for quite some time now so he should understand the pros and cons associated with location and cuisine. He intends to provide nothing more than hearty comfort fare, and he's slowly developing a crowd. On a Wednesday evening, guests huddled over most of the tables, and our Tuesday lunch visit placed us in a half-filled room (including a boisterous group tucked in a neat alcove). The amiable restaurateur is also convinced restaurants in the area will survive a wave of bad publicity, pointing to the longevity of Monica's, The Green Room, Daddy Jack's and others. We must admit, to his credit, that as long as we've watched people pounding drinks (or other guests) in the various bars of Deep Ellum, we've followed diners filing in and out of the more renowned establishments. Still, it's difficult to believe anyone but neighborhood regulars and longtime acquaintances would trek past Knox-Henderson, Uptown or Stephan Pyles in the Arts District for prosaic comfort food.
Oh, forgot to mention: Tarantino's sits across from the vacant Trees, a few steps down from the former Club Dada, in the space once occupied by Standard 2706. Perhaps his faith is of the "light at the end of the tunnel" or "mission accomplished" variety.
Destination restaurants generally feature some sort of "wow" factor. Here the kitchen barely flexes, and even then results vary. An appetizer of hummus served on crisp romaine and wedges of pasta, seasoned and fried, attacked the senses with a zesty blast of vinegar and citrus. This initial dart was followed by the subtle balance of mashed chickpeas and tahini--but something else lurked in the background, a deep flavor teetering between brine and smoke. Matched to salty pasta chips, the sharper elements subside a bit, allowing earthy, nutty and bitter tastes to emerge. Against a crisp leaf of lettuce the experience shifts, so different layers assert themselves evenly. The spinach, artichoke and wild mushroom dip, listed on earlier menus as "dirty dip," is a mild starter riding on competing sour and musty streams barely stirred by ripples both biting and vegetal. Crab, served as an entrée, tosses a crab cake, a lump of crab salad and minuscule, creepy legs bearing an insignificant nibble of meat on one plate. Only the fried patty stands out, a mix of shellfish and smoked trout lending a unique combination that nudges crab's natural sweetness into a supporting role. The "legs" proved salty, more mushy than firm, and the salad commonplace, although not unpleasant.
And that's where you start to sense the end.
Cutlets of slightly overcooked pork arrived with a pairing of apples and other fruits, roasted garlic and a mound of panna cotta cut with goat cheese. Ideally the latter would cut through some of the cheesecake-like smack of custard. Instead, the entire mélange of fruit and sweets becomes cloying and, eventually, overwhelming.
Tarantino's is meant to be a joint. Despite the memorable digs, the bold artwork and the cushy lounge next door, the kitchen is at its best with unsophisticated recipes and simple, one-dimensional, inoffensive flavors--the kind of "everyman" goal that made Italian-American dishes so popular way back when. There's something comforting about mac and cheese washed down by a decent $5 wine.
Then again...we ordered mussels to start our second visit. They were an inconsistent, modest-grade lot: some tough and leathery, others delicate. Only a few carried the beautiful, earthy flavors of a great bivalve. They wallow in a tomato broth that seems vague in every respect. Salt and sugary notes dominate the watery sauce while tomatoes and herbs and anything else cooked into the mix disappear into an unrecognizable, um, flavor. The house salad, insalada Tarantino, alternates bitter greens, sharp olives and sweet onions. On our first visit someone in the kitchen cascaded a nice sweet-and-sour dressing over the dish, drowning everything. The next week a staff member more attuned to the whims of field greens tossed them lightly through the same vinegar-oil mix. In this guise the dressing stepped forward to perk things up and then receded into the distance. Perfect, in other words.
Which, of course, brings us to inconsistencies.
Service wavers between relatively competent and somewhat hesitant. On one visit we killed time for 20 minutes before our appetizer (the aforementioned hummus) arrived and waved our waitperson down several times before the "glass empty equals need to refill" equation sunk in. The very next week, things went smoothly. The restaurant seemed to be out of truly intriguing menu items, such as duck, each visit.
All in all, Tarantino's is a cool space occupied by a relic. There's nothing offensive here, and fans of Italian-American favorites will enjoy the respite. They serve pizza and pasta and the occasional special--something for everyone. But those seeking robust flavors or intricate recipes should avoid the place.
Or to put it another way, it's like a weathered Midwestern town: quaint, comfortable, interesting to ponder and somewhat lacking. Few people find such places worth the drive. 2708 Elm St., 214-651-0500. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; open for dinner 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday and 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. $$