Restaurant Reviews

Out Back

No municipality on earth is a better locale for a restaurant pushing backyard cuisine than Plano, bedroom community to the world. But what exactly is gourmet backyard cuisine? If my memory still serves correctly after years of alleged cabernet abuse, backyard cuisine once consisted mostly of Oscar Mayer tubes, Durkee onion burgers, a sauerkraut-infested Polish sausage, lots of Ruffles and acres of potato and mini-marshmallow fruit salads mixed with Deep Woods Off residue and blood from lawn-dart wounds.

But today backyard cuisine is no longer simply a hot dog with a squirt of French's. Now grills, once fed by Kingsford charcoal briquettes, are fueled by gas lines and include an array of burners, warming racks, smoker systems and infrared rotisseries.

Jasper's revels in this new age. Chips are no longer grooved potato slices from a sack. They're house-made chips made plush with Maytag blue cheese (named after Fred Maytag II of dishwasher fame, who commercialized the process for making blue cheese with pasteurized milk). But the heap, served in a paper-lined metal basket, costs far more than the Ruffles and tub of onion dip of yore. It rings in at nine bucks--pricey especially since the chips arrive in various states of atrophy: some folded, some drooping, some sagging under the sheer force of crumbled blue cheese. The flavors were good, with a salty nip tugged by cheese bite, but the textures were cold and unruly.

Jasper's does better with items never found at a yard meal. Mussels Sicilian-style is a bowl of shellfish smeared with a rich spicy tomato sauce flecked with basil and bathed in a pond of tomato-fennel broth. Grains of parmesan cake near the shell gaps, and planks of firm focaccia rise from the center of the bowl. These mussels are near perfect: The sweetness of the meat is subtle and well-scrubbed, leaving the briny flavors to breeze through the mouth without worry or wince.

Jumbo lump crab cakes are modest gold buttons scantily shrouded by a sheaf of supple greens. The button bottoms soak in a thick smear of avocado cream, a cool, clean frame that was pleasantly rattled by brisk, smoky slivers of grilled tomato. The crab within is more shreds than lumps, but it was crab--good and sweet and not cluttered with cereal fillers like cat food used to be before the advent of personal pet chefs.

Salt-crusted prime rib is a deliciously thick red section of meat in a puddle of tawny broth dotted with shimmering isles of grease. Pockets of fat, deeper and wider and more convex than you might expect from a ritzy back yard, pebble the long expanse of rosy muscle. Caramelized onions inject sweetness, while a perfectly baked Yukon gold potato supplies the plate's Atkins Diet terror.

Jasper's is the work of Abacus chef Kent Rathbun, a meticulous creator of busy fusion artifacts that are as well-honed and enjoyable as they are pricey. But here the work is toned down with Rathbun's and chef Aaron Staudenmaier's creative exertions focused more on clean, comforting finishes, except, perhaps, for the minestrone soup. It's delivered in a large white bowl with a gruff little dot in the center: a blend of farfallini pasta, asparagus and crimini mushrooms minced almost to nothingness. A server deploys a silver pitcher and floats it high above the bowl, pouring out the contents in ever-tighter concentric circles around the bowl until the dot is submerged in a blurred haze of broth. The soup is brisk and assertive with barbecue-sauce undertones (the backyard part) laced in sweet threads that were offset with a distinctive bite. It was deliciously simple.

Bucket staples like fried chicken worked just as well: thin crust, good seasoning, greaseless. Yet the pieces lacked the lush flood of juice normally locked into place by hot oil.

But where you'd think Jasper's would be energetically seductive, it yawns. With all of the fawning over Kobe beef (I have yet to taste a burger composed of this pricey protein that lives up to the hype), I expected the Kobe bacon cheeseburger to be one of those juicy behemoths of richness. Instead, this well-groomed patty with strips of chewy, sweet applewood-smoked bacon X'd over the spread of cheese goo was tired with off flavors (plus the fries were limp and soggy). I've experienced richer, more robust flavors from a USDA Choice mound slapped on a backyard Webber not far from a bug zapper popping like a drum machine.

Which is what the sound system resembles, pulsing with oversampled house music and quasi disco and other sonic annoyances that may spit stones into the gears of culinary enjoyment. Why do restaurateurs insist on piping this shiny sonic polyester near fine cuisine, especially on a Sunday afternoon (one of our visits) when such pulsing has absolutely no relevance? Are they that desperate for an "ain't we hip" hook?

There's evidence that such sound-system bilge is actually a detriment to dining. "Any continuous or highly repetitive sound structures in a dining environment are always a source of general irritation, which ultimately contributes to impaired digestion," writes producer Ron Pellegrino in an essay titled The Effects of Sound/Music on Human Digestion. "...Any sounds that are at the aggressive extremes--loud, pounding, abrasive, complex multiphonics, screeching, insistent, repetitive, explosive (the list could go on and on)--will lead to poor digestion."

OK, maybe Pellegrino isn't a scientist or a researcher, but if operators don't care about the impact of their music choices on their customers' plumbing, perhaps they're susceptible to fiscal appeals. Researchers from the Universities of Leicester and Surrey in the U.K. released the results of a study in October showing that music played in restaurants has a direct impact on check averages. Unobtrusive music such as pieces by Mozart, Mahler or Bach triggered higher spending rates among diners--particularly for items like appetizers, expensive wines, desserts and after-dinner drinks. When the dining room was flooded with pop music, Muzak or was music-free, per-person spending fell off by as much as 10 percent. This isn't to say that dining rooms should doze into a stuffy sound environment, but it seems common sense would dictate that sound that clings well to tight blouses and chocolate martinis behaves like a chalkboard scratching when paired with steamed mussels or pan-seared mahi mahi.

Which was still good, even without the violins. Mahi mahi arrives as squares of fish on a bed of grilled portobello "whippers" (whipped potatoes). The meat is deliciously moist and rich, flaking cleanly and easily.

Jasper's is a crisp restaurant with chilly modern lines rendered in wood, stone, concrete and glass, while beer pop top-like chain-mail curtains dangle in the windows. A private dining area in the center of the room is cordoned off by a slatted picket fence softened by curtains. The back yard invades in bug-free splendor.

7161 Bishop Road, Plano, 469-229-9111. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. $$$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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