Restaurant Reviews

Old faithful

The last time I wrote about Dakota's was several years ago, for another publication. I remember on that particular weeknight visit that I was just about the only woman there--the whole restaurant was populated by pinstripes, with a very few power powder puffs with jabots on theirs.

But on my recent weeknight visit, almost all the tables were taken by women. Maybe affirmative action does work.

Of course, we were there early--real early. We were going to a concert and decided to try Dakota's "twilight" meal, served for a limited time only, spring and summer, from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.--a dinner to jump-start the evening crowd.

Now if you take "twilight" literally, it doesn't happen in Dallas in the summer until around 8:30 p.m.; the sun is still blazing at 5. So we enjoyed the cool descent from the scorching street into this odd subterranean grill room, and as always were pleased by its slightly old-fashioned appearance when we exited the elevator. That continuous cool expanse of gorgeous marble floor, the windows overlooking the patio, and the wall of falling water prevent claustrophobia, even though you are below the street.

We liked our little semi-private cubby, the table surrounded on three sides by walls of black stained wood and etched mirror. Dakota's is a good example of aging gracefully--it's had no facelifts or plastic surgery. Its appearance is unchanged since its opening more than 10 years ago, and its menu is exactly what its looks suggest: a fundamentally conservative grill, with a dash of unexpected style. Under the sure, steady hand of Chef Jim Severson, Dakota's has mellowed into one of the great Dallas dependables.

It's not cutting-edge--it's straightforward, with just enough imagination showing to keep the tastebuds tingling. Sometimes a whisper is more distinct than a shout, and Severson's subtle statements exhibit crystal clarity. Our grilled beef medallions, for instance, browned till crusty on the outside, were red within. A tangy tomatillo sauce was sweetened with cumin, and the tri-color tortilla strips shredded like excelsior over the top brought a little sweet and a little smoke to the heft of the meat. The bits of tortillas softened as you ate, gaining in flavor as they lost their crispness; somewhere in the middle you attained the perfect balance.

Salmon, served on a bed of soft rice, was given the tropical American treatment with earthy corn and peppers and a sophisticated citrus sauce. We began with a cooling cup of gazpacho, the red sea floating a cucumber raft piled with crabmeat. The portobello mushroom appetizer was dressed with red pepper puree, and a summer salad combined the fruity flavors of a Greek salad with a touch of sophistication: lightly poached asparagus with ripe tomato and a crumble of feta.

The special menu offers your choice of three courses, plus coffee or tea, for $15.95. Wine is extra. Our desserts were suitably summery--fruit-sauced fruit, frozen yogurt pie--except for a damn-the-season, densely chocolate pecan pie.

Twilight--it's a deal that we wish would last longer than daylight-saving time.

--Mary Brown Malouf

Dakota's, 600 N. Akard St., 740-4001. Twilight special served in spring and summer, Monday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-6:30 p.m.; Sunday 5:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m.

Twilight special $15.95

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Mary Brown Malouf