Restaurant Reviews

Review: The Food, Not the Setting, Impresses at Scene Restaurant & Lounge

Scene, blessedly, is not much of one. Sure, it goes through a few strenuously correct motions, mingling beatnik inflections with aspirant bourgeois vernacular in the great hope of generating a new breed of cool in this chic, cavernous bassinet of new urbanism. Fixed in its own private, gated exhibition space near the entrance of the parking garage, in a pose reminiscent of the row of Cadillacs planted nose-down at helium millionaire Stanley Marsh's Cadillac Ranch, is a red Porsche 944, its front end partially swallowed in concrete. The interior is worn, with black leather seats split and peeling like chapped lips, grimy pennies stuck to the gearshift console. The valet ($5 to park) says the Porsche is a Scene art installation. Another installation: Old black and white movies projected onto the white concrete garage walls, seemingly choreographed to the music plumbed through the garage.

Yet this, save for the Food Network Iron Chef clips projected onto the soffit above the open kitchen, is virtually the only slice of hip fizzing at Scene. In essence, Scene doesn't seem to have the stomach for itself. There's little of the kinetic, microprocessed Euro-throb pouring from hidden speakers, thwacking you in the temples before your first dirty martini has a chance to do voodoo to your thinking cap. There are no flashing lights or shimmering curtains or knowing winks embedded in the build-out. The vibe is digestible—almost endearing in its retro-modernism; a roadside diner clipped from a scene in The Jetsons.

Scene makes its home in the Mosaic "ultra urban" residential apartment complex. On the wall along the descending concrete staircase is an exhibition of Warhol-ish photo treatments of the late Julia Child clipped from her early PBS French Chef broadcasts, popping loafs out of bread pans or gripping a turkey by its splayed wings for a full frontal. That in this context chef Blaine Staniford is able to compose exquisite dishes in everything from salads to steaks is hardly surprising.

This menu is solidly New American, albeit heavily steeped in Mediterranean influences. Staniford has always possessed a masterful sense of flavor orchestration, flavors that in the past have been bedeviled by a gaudy, chintzy sense of style. Witness how his invigorating TexAsian compositions struggle for honesty and relevance in the churn-and-burn nightclub trappings of Scene's sister of sexed-up ultra-urbanism, Fuse Restaurant & Lounge.

There is little of this jarring antagonism at Scene, little of the caricature that self-constructs when a concept tries to revolutionize the quenching of two appetites with equal earnestness at once. Scene is more focused on the food than the scene. A glimpse: Staniford's amuse bouche is a lamb ragout over creamy polenta with a lacing of dill sprigs over the top—a micro square meal with potent flavor and balance that juices up the expectations. These are mostly met through sheer craft and dare-devilishness.

Staniford makes prodigious use of the cured and fermented to flavor and accessorize, displaying it in salads, in pastas and in the reductions that drench his meats. Pinches of prosciutto turn bitter greens into sultry foliage with wads of house-made mozzarella buried below and crisps of toasted sourdough on top. Then comes a ping of ingenuity: Off to the side is a single musket ball of basil sorbet, so torrid with its herbal aromatics it near instantly melts into a stream of dressing.

There's lots of house-made stuff here in addition to that mozzarella. He whips minces of house-brined pickles with grain mustard and braised chicken in the deviled eggs, creamy and rich, priced like oysters at two bucks a pop. A mound of crumbled, house-made chorizo sausage mounts the baby artichoke (real ones, not disgorged from a can) and Scottish salmon arugula salad with three dots of saffron aioli staring up from the edge of the plate like three jaundiced, bloodshot eyeballs. Its alluring antagonism is embedded in the tension between the riveting spiciness of the chorizo—which look like grains of blood sausage in the dark—and the cough of smoke off the wedge of salmon, moist and rich, a racy crisped skin underneath the dirty pink meat.

Dry-aged rib eye, a foxy cut of rich rosy prime, soaks in an apple-wood-smoked bacon reduction that adds more complementary fume than overbearing flavor.

Scene has leather. Rows of plush banquettes are sheathed in taupe sheets of it. Scene has service, well-tuned, well-briefed. Servers know menu particulars cold, recite them to entice before the order, reiterating, amending and expanding on them when the dishes arrive to reinforce anticipated gratification.

If there is a drawback to some of this Scene work it's that it sometimes has a tendency to be cluttered and overbearing, blurring its creative flare with a reflexive need to reiterate until flavors and textures collect into a haze.

Take the skate wing. It's stuffed with blue crab. Off to the side is a leek cannelloni stuffed with still more crab (a compelling composition, this). Not content, Staniford adds a crispy calamari salad ostensibly to round out something that needs no rounding. The skate is buttery sweet and delicate, too much so to successfully survive an onslaught of crab (commerce speaks: Staniford says he wasn't selling the skate until he stuffed it with crab). Leave the skate with just the leek and crab cannelloni as a counterpoint, perhaps with some greens sans the pointless fried calamari.

Shrimp agnolotti, flattened pasta in a delicate, cedar-smoked shrimp broth with sweet English peas, is the kind of light, supple touch Staniford should use more of. Save the heavy-handedness for the ham, turkey and melted aged Gruyère "croque madame"-style sandwich on thick, fluffy bread with an over easy egg on top. It's perfectly cooked, perfectly satisfying, brunch-style richness.

Scene awkwardness is stark in the baked risotto, a cumbersome brick of starch and Parmesan with thin shims of crisped prosciutto, wild mushroom and basil striated into the block resting in a brisk Parmesan rind marinara. It looks like an upended layer cake. The veneer is scorched and stiff—crisped in some places—the interior gluey and compressed, with none of the loose creamy contentment that traditional risotto stirs. What might be an ingenious composition on paper doesn't translate all that well onto the plate.

For dessert a bowl of chocolate-covered grapes, dusted in powdered sugar, chopped mint between them, offered finger food as a finish.

Despite all of the facile impressions the name might evoke, Scene really has the makings of one. All it has to do is trim its sails a bit (shed those Food Network clips projected above the kitchen for one) and intensify the focus on the respectable service and Staniford's able craftsmanship. Because the real scene at Scene is on the plate, not in the garage.

300 N. Akard St., No. 100. Open 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 6-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, and 6-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $$$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz