Restaurant Reviews

Old war-horse

Among the few things that are striking about The Old Warsaw, that stalwart fine-dining venue founded in 1949 by Polish diplomat Stanley Slawik, is the Café Pierre ($9.50). It's hard to get a grip on the exact formula and the preparation from a distance; it's blended on a cart in an aisle in the middle of the dining room. But what isn't hard to catch is the long ligament of blue flame searing the dusky dining room as burning brandy is repeatedly poured from glass to glass--one held high above the other--stretching the fluid flow to dazzling lengths. The blue conflagration continues as the glass is set down with roiling flickers fanning and flailing from the mouth of the glass. Then the waiter picks up a coffee pot and pours coffee into the brandy glass from on high. As the brown liquid streaks from the spout, making that long mocha ligament, it's hard to believe the waiter doesn't regularly scald his arm or splash a diner into a fit of yelps. After this daring performance, the glasses are topped with a little whipped cream and served.

The other striking thing about the Old Warsaw is the huge saltwater tank in the entrance portal near the host stand. It's filled with a small bevy of sharks, the kind that would be stuffed and hung on the dining-room wall as trophies if they were trout. They circle the aquarium, flaring their rows of gills, flashing their teeth. On the coral-covered bottom is a moray eel, a fierce guacamole-green beastly fish strip that's always in the same position with the same expression, except when it opens its mouth wide and holds it there, showing off its teeth and perhaps waiting for a scrap off The Old Warsaw menu.

The Old Warsaw is credited with setting the standard for fine dining in Dallas. It was among the first Dallas restaurants to offer sophisticated French-inspired creations and to urge diners to accompany them with wine instead of booze. The menu has been simultaneously described as a bulwark of tradition and a captive of a time warp that deliberately skirts experimentation and culinary fads. In service of that description, you'll find undaunted entries such as shrimp cocktail, Caesar salad, steak tartare, escargot, sweetbreads, and Chateaubriand. Only menus placed in the hands of men have prices, a quaint throwback thoroughly devoid of charm. At the conclusion of the meal, the women are presented with long-stemmed roses.

But bulwarks and time warps, holding fast to tradition in the face of relentless culinary upheaval, are valid only if they cleave to a healthy measure of polish and integrity. Instead, The Old Warsaw is an imposing figure that leans heavily on accolades long ago earned and bronzed into perpetuity by virtue of its staying power. It's frayed, stale, and tedious, which, at the prices it charges, makes it more of a bull-warp than anything else.

For example, after patrons are seated, warm, moist rolls are delivered to the table. But they're consistently dispersed without butter to spread. And by the time someone comes around so that you can point this out, the rolls are cold. Not that this makes much difference. The butter, a thin square pad topped with a delicate rose bloom rendered in butter, is slightly rancid, to the point where it's more palatable to eat the rolls cold and dry than dripping with this lubricant.

And the menu has a few distortions and miscues. Salmon tartare with capers, onion, lemon, chives, Cognac, and caviar ($14) was billed as a tableside preparation. Instead, it was delivered as a smooth blob parked on a lettuce leaf--more like a sandwich spread than a coarsely chopped tartare. And much as we tried, we could find no evidence of caviar in the blend. The flavor wasn't bad, though far from interesting or compelling.

Caesar salad ($12) slipped equally. The dressing was rich with a good surge of lemon, but that's all that was commendable in this slushy platter of foliage. The salad had obviously been assembled and left to age in a cooler. The croutons were not only soggy, but had disintegrated into a gritty gruel. Plus, the edges on many of the leaves were browning, a condition detectable even in the dining room's dim lighting.

Indifference reared its ugly head during virtually every phase of The Old Warsaw dining experience. Little dishes of lemon and raspberry sorbet, served as a palate refresher between courses, had also been prepared well in advance and left to the mercy of the elements. Mint leaves placed in the dishes as a garnish were brittle and frozen to the sides of the dish. Freezer-burned golf balls of sorbet were stiff and hard and flecked with sharp shards of ice, as if the little dish had been thawed and refrozen before serving.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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