Restaurant Reviews

On the Rocks

Geode is a restaurant I wanted to like. It's got guts and lineage, after all. The interior is clean and crisp, with modifications that only slightly deviate from the innards it inherited from Bistral, the casual American bistro that was installed in this McKinney Avenue space by Dallas-based Richmont Corp. Richmont, a branch of Mary Kay that also operated a catering limb called Wynnwood, put longtime Dallas chef David Holben in the kitchen.

But it couldn't wait for Holben and company to make its spreadsheet look as pretty as the food. So Mary Kay dissolved Richmont and scuttled Wynnwood. Enter Bevin Holman, a seasoned pro who has belt notches from the Petroleum Club, Arcodoro Pomodoro and a run at operating her own restaurant consulting business. Holman describes Geode as a global tapas bar.

But Geode, it seems, has more to do with rocks.

Pretty rocks. Split rocks. Geodes, brown mineral eggs in their uncleaved state, were formed millions of years ago as bubbles in lava flow. Over great swaths of time, minerals sifted through these bubbles, leaving crystals of amethyst, quartz, citrine and other semiprecious stones that kind of look like rows of shark teeth.

Tall tables in the bar area hold these slightly flattened rocks. The tables on the raised strip of banquettes along the back wall hold them, too.

And these crystals have powers, at least according to the kind of people who hang out on tree limbs with Shirley MacLaine. Walk into a building or a room where the incense is as thick as the Yanni, and you're sure to find geodes strategically perched here and there in metaphysical circle-jerk fashion. According to New Age orthodoxy, the quartz embraced in geodes has healing powers and channels the energy of the universe. Some even say quartz crystals powered the flying machines and computers that were commonplace on Atlantis. Us? We use them to power our Disney watches and best-selling authors who channel ancient loquacious conversationalists named Ramtha.

Yet whatever your views on Atlantis, it's clear that Geode desperately needs some of this crystal's reputed healing power, because Geode's plates can cause little tragedies deep down inside where volcanic bubbles seldom turn into beautiful stones.

Which is a shame, because if you are able to successfully sort through the riffraff, there are some gems, so to speak, to be had.

Seaweed and octopus salad was sown with crisp fresh seaweed and small pieces of chewy, savory octopus all dressed in a fluid composed of sesame oil and soy sauce. White anchovies were gustatory marvels. Slit and laid flat next to a pinch of greens, the delicate and tender fish flaunted a searing flavor rendered from potent marinating.

Buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes, two deeply crimson tomato slices topped with thick slices of mozzarella cheese with a pinch of basil, was fine. Smears of olive oil around the plate gave it some visual interest. But at six bucks, this pair of tomato tom-toms was a little pricey.

At $2.95, the half-dozen house-marinated olives were pricey, too, good though they were.

But from here Geode's ode to little plates descends, consistently plying food that was either old (especially meats) or ill-prepared.

A prime example was the beef carpaccio. Although this platter was a visual sensation with a crimp of dressed greens perched in the center of a ring of thin oval sheets of meat in geode-like layers of pink and crimson, the meat itself was spongy, soggy and old-tasting, like a cut that could only be rescued from the dumpster by a stew or maybe chop suey.

Tuna tartar was a tiny hockey puck of chopped fish on a plate surrounded by sliced cucumbers with little smears of reduced soy sauce. The tuna flesh was stringy, not at all silky. And it was bland.

And what sounded good and out of the ordinary on the menu--fresh halibut ceviche with jicama, avocado and slivers of red onion--was just shy of a disaster in the flesh. The halibut pieces were spongy and fishy.

Oyster mushroom spread was another concoction that sounded good on paper but didn't materialize on the plate. A ramekin of brownish spread is served with crisp crackers; the spread was bland and a little slimy.

A platter of serrano ham was a notable uptick in this parade of little tapas plates. It consisted of beautiful rolling folds of fluffy pink cured meat sliced skin-thin and with a clean, salty taste. Yet parked in front of these Rubenesque swells was a pair of artichoke heart slices that chewed like straw and tasted only marginally better.

To execute kitchen duties, Holman has enlisted Sardinian native Nicola Chessa, who worked at Arcodoro in Houston before undertaking a breathlessly brief stint at Patrick Colombo's Ferré Ristorante & Bar in the West Village. It's hard to know what to make of his efforts, though they have the vivid taste of cost-cutting.

An example of this is the grilled Angus prime rib eye, perhaps the most dreadful steak I've ever encountered outside of a wall hole slinging steak 'n' eggs platters. Though cooked to a near perfect medium-rare hue, the meat was stringy and tough with overwhelmingly sour fume and flavor. This is one steak that needs to spend a few hours under a pyramid before it is healed enough to serve.

Other meat dishes follow a similar tack. Grilled venison chop in a "delicate" mint sauce was a single, mangy chop in a puddle of nondescript brown sauce. The meat was dry, gray and mealy, with that funky old taste food sometimes gets when it dances with refrigerator odors for too long.

Geode's indulgence of the carnivorous comes in the form of two carne platters, both registering sub-par results. The platters are supposed to look like artists' palettes, with sauces slipped in little divots to resemble paints, I guess. The platter with lamb, duck and pork came with a dismal pistachio-encrusted lamb chop that flaunted mushy flesh and the same hoary flavor that seems to infect much of the meat here. The minuscule piece of pork wasn't much better, but the duck was fine.

The other carne platter had a barely bite-sized piece of ostrich (chewy and well-prepared), a minuscule beef medallion (edible) and a chicken breast morsel (dry).

Grilled tuna steak was loose, underseasoned and texturally insipid.

The side of seaweed salad was flawless, although our server didn't tell us the seaweed salad was an included side with the tuna when we ordered an extra kelp tangle at $2.95.

Perhaps the best piece of meat sampled here was a hammered pig: a pounded-thin pork chop Milanese topped with Parmesan cheese. The meat was crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside, tasty and lean. It was accompanied by a delicious heirloom tomato panzanella, a salad with cucumbers and onions that kind of inflated the flattened pork with a lively spark.

Dessert drifted. The ooey gooey fudge cake was a lot of mush without a lot of flavor.

Geode has had some hard breaks as of late. The failure to install a proper drip pan with a new air-conditioning unit resulted in a roof that was soggier than the lamb chop. It crashed in. But I should say that a restaurant packed with beautiful rocks that once powered the aircraft and computers on Atlantis should spiff up a simple tapas menu in no time. Didn't Atlantis have some chefs that could be channeled?

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz