Restaurant Reviews

Review: The Club Dining & Drinks

It has the look of a speakeasy, or a port of ill-repute where scruples are scarce commodities. The entrance to The Club is in the quiet, expansive alley-like causeway that drains into the central courtyard at the Centrum building. The frame around the large door is black and leather-like. Gas lanterns flicker from each side. You half expect to see a black-hooded sentinel armed with a scythe, glowering in the shadows. The emblem, a rearing horse, would be an example of sheer trademark plagiarism lifted from Ferrari if the horse's tail didn't have little doily frills to tune down the horsepower.

The bar is on the left. The host stand is dead center. The dining room is beyond. Hefty chairs sheathed in brown burly leather, with garish brass studs outlining the contours, are pushed up to the tables. Thick, brass handle-like implements crown the apex of the curved chair backs. The floors are hefty wood planks. "It's Ralph Lauren," insists manager Enam Chowdhury, once maître d' at The Mansion. Not Ralph Lauren design, he corrects, but Ralph Lauren color sensibility: navy blue, brown, black—a dearth of chartreuse.

The Club is swarthy, as it should be, but not to the point of distress. Tablecloths are navy blue leather. Testosterone flows like white water. Sometimes there are softer touches. On a visit to the Game Room (is it game as in "play" or game as in "hunt"?), a large rectangular room perpendicular to the open kitchen, our table is littered with red rose petals. The room can be closed off with sheers.

The Club Dining & Drinks is a supper club, or so owner Robert Colombo (Trece) classifies it. Risky, that. Supper clubs that hark back to the '30s and '40s have been brutalized in these parts. The bruised and bloodied stack of supper corpses include Venus Supper Club, Chaucer's in Mockingbird Station, the regrettable Lighthouse Supper Club in Rowlett and Timpano Italian Chophouse, a dining room that seemed to loop Sinatra in perpetuity. Is this one fitter for survival?

The Club's menu arises from the steakhouse primordial soup. There are the prime tenderloins and sirloins, the lamb chops and lobster, the creamed spinach and sautéed mushrooms, and the requisite organic chicken. Halibut too. But there are weird divergences. For example, the lamb is grain-fed; the beef is grass-fed. It's all prepared with an "Italian flare," which sets it apart in ways that are hazy.

Commanding the kitchen is Vincenzo Indelicato, classically trained in the kitchens of Italy, overseer of kitchens in Europe and the Caribbean, late of Nicola's Ristorante Italiano in Plano. He stands in front of the wide-mouthed, travertine-framed open kitchen in rumpled, tight-fitting chef's whites, his hair laid and overlaid in fits across his skull, the portrait of an artist tortured modestly. If he wasn't a seasoned cook, Indelicato could stunt-double for actor Dean Stockwell, the billboard hawker in Paris, Texas, the weird presence in David Lynch's Blue Velvet. So why is the food so wimpy?

Indelicato has gripping little signatures he sometimes works into his compositions. He slips one into the calamari fritti, a lightly battered and floured tangle of body rings and tentacles seasoned only with salt and pepper. But hidden in the golden slough are cherry peppers, cut and dredged in coating and fried. It's a foil with oomph, the briny sour bite and textural mush invigorating the palate just after it succumbs to deep-fry fatigue.

But everything else needs a whomp of garlic, a kick of pepper, a slash of vinegar, a long slow lick of salt—something.

You can taste these absences in the tartare, a black-rust bun of chopped beef with a quail egg. There are no capers or chopped onions or parsley to distract, just a simple sheaf of greens. The server folds in the egg tableside.

Seasoning is minimal: just cognac, lemon and a little salt and pepper—very little. The tartare is rumored to be shot up with Tabasco. We tasted none. But there is a little lemon, the acids from which cook the meat into darkness, much like lime cooks fish white in ceviche. The minimalism is intense.

"It's continental cuisine," our server says. "Nothing is really spicy. We don't have anything that's spicy." There's none in Southside double bone-in wagyu beef fillet, a simply salted and peppered piece of meat marked on the grill and then broiled. It's lush and velvety, rich and tender. It needed salt. There was none on the table.

Chops from the grain-fed lamb are tasty, although ours, served with grilled figs in a balsamic reduction, were nearly raw, shivering and glistening in bluish deep pink.

Pastas at The Club are housemade. "Once you've had it, it's hard to go back to the dry," our server says. There's a delicate heartiness to these noodles. Macaroni and cheese, cavatelli noodles in a velvety blur of cheese including Parmigiano-Reggiano and fontina, is the best we've tasted. Hands down. Not because of some scorched bread-crumb cap, but because of the deft mesh of richness and ripened tang wedged into the pasta's earthy frame.

Indelicato cooks some of his pastas in a wok with their companion sauces, searing the flavors into the wheat fiber. Spaghetti alle vongole with clean sweet clams is in a simple white sauce and a preponderance of red-peppered oil, transforming it into a pit of slithering noodle serpents.

While the food can be unnervingly underseasoned, the dining room is a clutter collage of photographs and paintings of stars and cultural totems from the 1950s and '60s. There's a headshot of Harry Belafonte, a black and white snapshot of an old Citroen, an impressionistic painting of a woman wrapped in a shawl, her bare breasts exposed. There's a picture of a woman in a short black cocktail dress crossing her legs while seated on a portable dishwasher, pulling plates from its racks. Audrey Hepburn? Suzanne Pleshette? No one there seems to know who she is.

Wine at The Club is served in stemless glassware, those tuber-like implements that balloon wide for reds and narrow for whites, just like real wine glasses do. The Club's by-the-glass selection is paltry and pricy. Opus One can be had for $50, a Heitz Cabernet for $33 and a Robert Sinskey Pinot Noir for $30. There's Dom Pérignon and dessert for four for $250. Whites are limited to two Chardonnays and a Sauvignon Blanc. But there is an Il Baciale, Braida for $16, from Piedmont, a red bleeding ripe plum and spice into an alluring rustic finish.

The Club has a spa menu, a roster of dishes composed with minimal fats and other caloric fisticuffs. Flat seafood ravioli is one such example, a sheet of pasta trounced in a heap of halibut, lobster and shrimp threaded with long slivers of carrot and zucchini in a white wine sauce. The shrimp and lobster are sweet and rich. The halibut tasted like mud.

That flavor was thankfully redacted from the wild Alaskan halibut on a twisted bed of spinach and topped with chopped tomatoes and basil slid next to sheets of grilled squash. Yet with all of these frills the fish was bland.

Caesar salad, a spread of chopped organic romaine with blue polenta croutons and a couple of loosely unraveled anchovies, is minimally covered in a dressing void of assertiveness save for a barely perceptible streak of lemon. The palate yawns. In contrast, a dessert of organic berry zabaglione in a martini glass is so drowned in creamy custard, it's difficult to find the berries, let alone taste them.

There's a lot to be said for treading lightly on ingredients, letting their intrinsic qualities rise to the surface and speak for themselves. But even clear voices benefit from amplification. Skilled seasoning is what separates a memorable dish from a forgettable one. The trick to brilliant cookery is seasoning right up to the edge of disaster. Sometimes just a few grains of salt can make all the difference. So shake it, Vincenzo.

3102 Oak Lawn Ave., No. 110, 214-526-3100. Open from 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. $$$-$$$$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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