Restaurant Reviews

Preston's: Comforting, Casual Food in an Uncomfortable Setting.

The fact that Park Cities Prime, a pricy steakhouse with all the trimmings, couldn't survive in the belly of the capitalist beast of the Park Cities is a testament to something. Of what specifically, it's hard to say, but in the wake of popping economic bubbles, Park Cities Prime could not survive.

"The Park Cities Prime concept wasn't working," says Steve Hammond, one of the partners in the concept. "When the economy went south, fewer customers were coming, and it just wasn't working." So Hammond, the driving force behind the recently shuttered PoPoLos (a concept he is trying to revive), shut the place down and re-conceptualized the space last January with minimal interior changes.

Behold Preston's. Preston's is upscale casual fare, or cuisine that appeals as much to the gut as it does to the brain—in theory anyway. Although Preston's has a couple of prime steaks on the menu (a rib-eye and a flatiron), it doesn't groin-kick you in the billfold like its predecessor did.

Sure, there's no shortage of steakhouse clichés here.

You've got the monster shrimp cocktail, three shrimp as big as gorilla thumbs seasoned in shrimp boil resting on their necks—tails to the ceiling—amongst ruffles of greens. They're plump with a slight touch of sweetness, with a ramekin of horseradish and chipotle-lime remoulade sauces nearby. Stick with the chipotle-lime remoulade.

You've got smoked chicken tortilla soup (avocado, cilantro and cheese), which isn't necessarily steakhouse trim, but a cliché nonetheless.

While Preston's is decidedly a shift from the Park Cities Prime menu, the décor is virtually untouched. Its Old World elegance is gaudy in its dark wood brooding with only a shock of white stone on the columns to break the monotony. Moody lighting adds to the shopworn—if rich—setting. A coffered ceiling injects a bit of intimacy.

Preston's has a second level that begets banquet rooms and a wine room. There's a grand piano on the ground level aft the staircase, and jazz is plied on weekends.

This setting runs counter to the cozy casual menu. The dining room pleads for more openness and light, something to counter the cave-like, claustrophobic resonance. Is heavy-handed steak temple design even relevant anymore? An earnest, cloying staff adds to the clamminess.

Yet in many cases the food transcends these bugs. Jon Schwarztenberger is in the kitchen. He's also a partner. Schwarztenberger has worked in a variety of kitchens, from Central 214 at the Palomar and the forgettable Social at the Hotel Lumen to the Rosewood Crescent Club. His work here is good—in some cases damn good—upscale comfort grub. His signature white truffle and brie mac and cheese is simply the best of its ilk: creamy, rich and rib-sticking hearty with a slight brie tang and a brisk hearty punch of panko bread crumb crunch over the surface.

Another downscale highlight: French onion prime rib sandwich is slab-red slices of rich prime rib slipped between a toasted hoagie in Gruyere-cheese-roasted-garlic-mayonnaise goo. That hoagie is perfectly toasted: stiff enough to soak up the prime rib juice without turning into slush and pliant and demure enough to not clobber the meat and robust condiments in bread ballast. A ramekin of French onion jus made it doubly good.

Another example of Schwarztenberger excellence is his distinctive tomato and mozzarella salad. Tomatoes in Texas are always a gambit fraught with tragedy and tearful regret: They're either mealy or colorless or all beauty and no savor or some combination of all of these. But these glistening slices—as red as a paramedic wagon—were juicy and gushing with rich, complex acids sopping the tender, chewy meat. Sprays of cilantro green scatter across the modestly thick slices of mozzarella. But the most potent touch on this salad is the jalapeño relish with minced onion and cucumber with a spritz of lime. It adroitly adds a Southwestern stroke where one was not needed, or even desired. The strains of tang and heat go where no pesto or basil blade have gone before. If you come here for nothing else (and certainly don't come for the psyche-drubbing décor) then come for this. It will put a fine speckle on your summer.

There is no more epic a fail than dry short ribs. The short ribs braised in Ugly Pug Black Lager from the Rahr & Sons Brewing Co. out of Fort Worth thankfully skirt such cataclysms. These ribs—blanketed in a tarry oil spill of lager and veal reduction—are moist and tender with a strain of tacky bitterness on the finish, no doubt from the Ugly Pug's coffee-licorice-charred malt vivaciousness. This is a terrific fall dish that is in no way out of place in a good air-conditioner-driven breeze. Wild rice and a carrot and squash duet round out the short ribs.

To help wash some of this down we plumbed the Cellar #8 Pinot Noir of California extraction off of Preston's "30 wines under $30" menu, as simple a workhorse red as you would expect for the $27 price point (under $10 retail as I recall). It was served distressingly warm, which only intensified its pedestrian demeanor.

Not that this drink could have much helped the North Pacific black cod, perhaps the weakest entrant sampled. The fish was underdone and slightly gelatinous while the glaze, a formula composed of agave nectar, jalapeño and lime, is far too cloying.

We sample the chicken-fried venison loin, too. "Excellent, excellent choice," blurted our server in that grating sort of white-tablecloth formality that can bring out the pugilist in even the most uppity epicures. "It's chicken-fried style, country style. It was a special that people kept re-requesting."

And it is a damned hearty mess—an expensive mess at 34 bucks. A thick dimpled batter blankets a chewy seasoned piece of venison—a little tough—covered with cream gravy. The meat is gray with just a smattering of juices and a distinct livery, metallic gaminess on the finish. Jalapeño-cheddar smashed potatoes add to the cold-air temperament of the dish—very appealing overall.

Foodstuff-wise, Preston's has a lot going for it, though some buffing around the edges would be fine. But the atmospherics need to catch up with the times. If there's a species of dining that needs sweetness and light with nary a hint of banker boorishness, it's the smart casual, pocketbook-conscious kind. Give us a dining room worthy of good mac and cheese. Please.

Preston’s 8411 Preston Road, 214-691-7763. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; open for dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$$
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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz