The French Room is still The French Room. In fact, it’s more The French Room than it had been in decades.
A no-expense-spared restoration has returned the dining room to the elegance of its original look, closer to the way the restaurant appeared when it opened in 1912. Gone are the cherubic murals from the 1980s that imprisoned the restaurant in that decade. White plaster walls with gold trim have the understated majesty of a business that knows trying too hard would be gauche. Waiters roll small trolleys up to tables in anticipation of each course, and someone is nearly always wheeling the lavish cheese cart — a dozen cheeses; count them — around the floor.
The French Room is, as much as it’s ever been, a truly special dining room, one of the few spaces in Dallas that feels removed from everyday care. Or it would feel that way but for two quibbles. One is the open window curtain that permits a nearby traffic light to project blasts of color onto the tables, up the walls and — during one visit — right across my date’s face. (“Honey, you’re turning green.”)
The other flaw is a soundtrack of insipid ambient techno, relentlessly repetitive and so loud it is audible from the bar down the hall. The playlist is so short I remembered minimalist harp licks from one visit when I heard them again on the next. Surely if one restaurant in town is going to play soft, sublime classical music — or even French music — it should be The French Room. The place looks like César Franck’s violin sonata but sounds like the “parents trying to be cool” Spotify station.
Just between us, it’s been a while since anybody came here for the food. This was a place to revel in luxury, impress an out-of-town client, maybe even pull out an engagement ring. It was, for a few years, a fine dining destination because of the fine part, not the dining part.
The hiring of new head chef Michael Ehlert has changed that. So far, Ehlert and his team are doing an impressive job stepping into one of the city’s most storied kitchens. The cooking — available on tasting menus only, three courses for $85 or seven for $135 — is classically French with a modern accent, the plates happily focused and uncluttered. Overall, the effect of the new French Room’s food is to show the elegance creative minds can achieve when working within the constraints of tradition.
Stylish plating has a way of making familiar foods look thrilling. For instance, the colorful study of circles — black and brown spheres floating in a bowl of green — is, in fact, a series of sharply dressed old friends: buttery potato choux pastries, pearl onions torched black on one side but sweet rather than bitterly smoky, tender poached escargots, a bounty of pureed parsley root, watercress for garnish. Or take the bigeye tuna main course, the fish grilled flawlessly, sliced and upended to reveal its inner color.
For one seafood main, The French Room team looks, perversely, to the part of France farthest from the sea: the Alsace, along the German border. The idea is to take choucroute garnie — grilled meat with sauerkraut and mustard — and add halibut. The result is a firm, crisp-skinned halibut fillet with good kraut, a handful of black trumpet mushrooms and two presentations of sunchoke, one pureed (delicious) and the other diced (undercooked). This fish-in-the-woods idea holds up remarkably well; halibut is firm enough to stand up to savory accompaniment. But the cabbage roll on the side, containing a squishy, white paste of fish and scallop, is best left unmentioned.
The kitchen acknowledges its Texas location just once, through the Bandera quail main course. Even this, though, is transformed into an Old World fixture, the scrumptiously cooked bird mixed with lightly fried veal sweetbreads and pickled grapes.
There’s serious conservatism to this food. At least four options on the three-course prix fixe put contemporary stamps on recipes by Charles Ranhofer, a celebrity chef from the 1800s. His 1893 book, The Epicurean, includes beetroot “Dickens,” a first course so named because Ranhofer served it to Charles Dickens in 1867.
Ehlert’s rendition 125 years later hews surprisingly close to the original: Slice beetroots to an eighth of an inch, splash over a bit of Champagne vinegar, serve with a stuffing of chopped mushrooms. But Ranhofer fried his veggies into fritters, and Ehlert serves them as a light salad, the mushrooms hidden underneath and the beets dotted with slices of hazelnut. It is a quiet delight.
Another French Room first course, lobster salad “Paul Bert,” first appeared in the same 1893 book. In it, as in the century-old original, butter and walnuts adorn a generous helping of tender lobster meat.
The 21st century only intrudes on the menu’s periphery, as was the case with one evening's amuse-bouche, literally a green bubble on a spoon. The bubble’s pureed contents: wheatgrass, fennel, apple, Chartreuse. It tasted, well, green.
And The French Room kitchen saves one of its most modernist ideas for a vegetarian main course: eggplant steak. The eggplant is made to look exactly like a New York strip, sliced lengthwise, marinated with beet to provide red “juices,” cooked sous vide, scorched on the grill, served with its own “gravy.” The result is uncannily steak-like, right down to the pink-tender center and overcooked, tough edges.
Much of the restaurant’s best work is served at dessert. That might mean a true dessert, of course — or it might be the cheese cart. The cheese course is still, happily, one of The French Room’s great strengths, with a well-selected dozen available from cows, goats and sheep across the world. Even better, the waiters know their cheeses inside and out, and they suggest their favorites with genuine fondness. Expect to select three cheeses to taste, and expect a bounteous portion.
Among traditional desserts, an early favorite is the clafoutis, a feather-light tart delicately flavored of lavender and topped with chocolate ribbons that fold across the top like an endless series of bow ties. The 72 percent dark chocolate tart is a dream, with a just-right drizzle of Grand Marnier. The cake has a habit of cleaving along its bottom hazelnut layer, which could upset any diners who binge-watch The Great British Bake-Off.
Down the stairs from the main dining room is The French Room’s bar, which, if anything, is even more stylish with its gold-leaf ceiling, Gilded Age wooden fireplace, old-fashioned oil portraits and, bizarrely, a far more elegant soundtrack of midcentury French pop. The drinks are not cheap — there’s a $75 cocktail with caviar and another that features tobacco. (“Tobacco?” I asked the server. “It’s very high-quality tobacco,” he replied.)
For most mortals, the $14 aperitif or $18 sidecar should satisfy, but the bar is a good place to sample wines by the glass, courtesy of the restaurant’s comprehensive cellar. It’s also a good place to try some of The French Room’s food without wearing a jacket. The salads are especially fine; I devoured a frisée salad with sherry vinegar and ultracrisp croutons of fried pork belly ($17).
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The team behind The French Room’s rebirth faces an almost impossible task. It needs to lure back older generations with decades of memories of fancy dinners, making sure they don’t feel left behind by new trends in cooking. It needs to revitalize an ailing institution and place it squarely back at the heart of Dallas fine dining as a rival, Bullion, opens just blocks away, at the same price point and serving a similar cuisine to an equally wealthy clientele. And it needs to persuade ownership to stop sabotaging the remodeled dining room with the hold music from Satan’s tech support hotline.
Given those challenges, Ehlert and his team are off to a very good start. The bar is a triumph, a perfect nook for wine and people-watching. The dining room strikes a successful balance between old-fashioned and forward-looking. The French Room is back.
The French Room, 1321 Commerce St. 214-651-3615, thefrenchroom.com. Open 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.