Restaurant Reviews

Pair o' Dice

Paradise means different things to different people. To some, it might mean grains of white sand speckling the lime slices in your umbrella beverage. To others, it might be a 38D casting shadows over your Bud Light. To a select few, it might mean drinking expensive gin from a Ferrari fuel injector.

To The Paradise Restaurant, it means "full bar now open Happy Hour till 11 p.m." and "Karaoke every Saturday 7-11 p.m." The happy hour till 11 sounds good. It sounds even better when you discover it starts at 11 a.m., which means there is virtually no hour at The Paradise that isn't happy. Singing a karaoke version of Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" with the lyrics he coined addressing photographers a few weeks ago in Taipei might be heavenly, too: "Rude vile pigs. Do you know what that means? Rude vile pigs. That's what you are...We'd love to get out of Taiwan if it is full of people like you. Pig! Pig!"

At this point it's useful to note that The Paradise Restaurant serves breakfast on weekends with plenty of ham, bacon and pork sausages. But what are the contents of the rest of the menu like?

Let's throw the dice. Paradise is loaded with Italian dishes like spaghetti, manicotti and linguini, along with zupeeripesh, a dish of indeterminate origin. Zupeeripesh is linguini with lobster tail, chopped clams and "muscles" (it doesn't specify if they're pecs, glutes or--if this is really paradise--kegels).

But the menu includes a Greek salad, too. It's a long spread of iceberg lettuce topped with strips of grilled chicken. Greek salads with chicken seem odd, as do Caesars with chicken, shrimp or steak. Anchovies are the prime expectation in both instances. The grilled chicken is prevalent and juicy. The shreds of iceberg lettuce sprawl across the plate, crowding specks of black olive (no kalamatas?), crumbles of feta cheese, bits of onion and carrot slices as big as poker chips. But instead of a clean, lemony oregano dressing, I was delivered a thick creamy dressing of uncertain pedigree. Is it asking too much to expect a Greek with more authenticity? Maybe. This is Paradise, after all, not Olympus.

Paradise has crab cakes, and if the carrot slices are poker chips, these things are shuffleboard discs. They're large and bronze and striped with deep creases that would make a cosmetic surgeon salivate. Yet the filling is very peculiar. It has pepper, onion, breading and flecks of bright red that at first glance come off like specks of bell pepper. Probe further and these bits of red hint at a sinister plot. Then you realize the truth: THESE CRAB CAKES ARE FAKES. Yes, these cakes with flecks of Day-Glo pink are embedded with fish pulp; or, if you prefer the euphemism, surimi.

We're definitely not in Paradise anymore, nor Kansas for that matter. The menu says these cakes are accompanied by Alfredo sauce, a concept as weird as a decaf caffe latte with soy-milk froth (nothing has more hideous toxins than a coffee bean, so why sweat the buzz and the dairy?). But the pool on our plate was runny tartar sauce. I know this not only because of the taste but because I ordered fried catfish and requested tartar sauce after the fillet arrived with nothing to dip it in. Same stuff.

The sliver of fish is blond, with a thin, brittle crust, oil-free. But the coating is bland with little seasoning, and though the fish itself is moist and flakes in clean sections, it sweats that river-bottom essence we thought was farmed out of the school of cat cookery long ago. It's not a bad thing, this hint of sludge, and actually adds a little charm to the beast. But our little red potatoes, variously halved and quartered, were orange. We quivered with dread: Could these be surimi, too? No. A quick analysis reveals they were dusted with Spanish paprika, a move whose purpose remains a kitchen mystery.

The Paradise rests in the husk of an expired Denny's, the home of the Grand Slam Breakfast and Elton John's "rude vile pigs!" in a blanket. You can see the remnants: the glass dessert case by the cash register (half-empty in Paradise), the glass panels that divide dining sections; the green vinyl seat cushions (some of them slashed by overzealous grand slammers); and the smell of rancid grease. There are some notable changes, though, such as the green neon tubing around the cash register soffit (unless this was part of the standard-issue Denny's uniform at some point), green cactuses painted on the walls and a section of the dining room converted into a full bar where the happy hour almost never ends. There are other changes, too, such as paper place mats depicting "beautiful Italy," and instead of Denny's stiff, colorful menus sealed in bulletproof plastic, you get a multipage photocopied roster held together with three staples along the left margin. It's endearing in a way, but this can't assuage the realization that the food is a dice toss--at best.

The Italy part even gets a little homely. Cabelini Special is a bed of angel hair topped with spinach (we didn't spot any, though we concede those little green specks could be spinach instead of parsley) slumbering in a pool of garlic oil. Consequently, the pasta, seemingly more like capellini than angel hair, shimmers in a thick layer of grease. Yet this is the least of its shortcomings. Something else is on the pasta. Not sure what, but let's just say texturally it resembles those little sweaters that hug your teeth when you wake up in the morning. Embedded in these pasta strands are a few sautéed shrimp and crabmeat pieces. But just as in the crab cakes, this meat has gone Day-Glo. The flesh is formed into pleated strips, rolled and rumpled. Strange scents rise from the tangle, ones that are hard to recognize if you don't count a freshly opened pouch of catfish bait. The shrimp have other horrors; they're dry, fibrous and soapy, like eating straw raised on a steady diet of catfish bait. The shrimp are so distressing it's hard to keep them in the mouth long enough to tease out the flavors. This is where combat pay kicks in. Frying the shrimp does nothing but cover them in a spongy veneer.

Surf and turf has this billing: a 4-ounce lobster tail and a 6-ounce filet mignon. But our server explained there were no more lobster tails in the freezer, so he asked if it was OK to sub shrimp. A quick glance at our check reveals there was no adjustment in the price. Frances, Ivan and Jeanne must have wreaked havoc on shrimp prices. Invest heavily in Bubba Gump.

Unlike the shrimp in the Cabelini Special, these are not awfully dry; they are awfully moist--mush, in fact. The desiccated part was reserved for the fillet, which was stringy and dry but otherwise serviceable. Side vegetables were cooked into a kind of pudding, so it was hard to determine the contents, but I'd put money on zucchini.

As in other matters of Paradise, things actually look up once you zero in on basics. (How complicated are 72 virgins, after all?) Spaghetti and meatballs is fine, with massive balls that are juicy and free of a swamping filler blizzard, pasta that is firm and separate and a sauce that is reasonably free of annoying flaws, such as a preponderance of sweetness and runny streams (it sticks to the strands fairly well, which invites all sorts of unfortunate speculation in the context of the rest of the menu).

Resting on a bed of pasta, chicken breast piccata is a thick, juicy piece of chicken drenched in a well-balanced lemon-butter sauce generously pebbled with capers.

Yet if this is Paradise, it's easy to see why so many roll the dice on dens of iniquity here and there, every now and again. Good thing those long hours are happy. 408 Westchase Drive, Grand Prairie, 972-263-7707. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. $$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz