Restaurant Reviews

Scratch Shot

Carson's Palace is literally a megaplex: a huge adult entertainment game room with enough television screens (between 28 and 32, depending on which part of the press kit you read) to mush the brains of the entire population of Flower Mound. Carson's not only sports a coat of arms with a pair of pool cues crossed in the center, it also has a 200-inch high-definition TV system, which means the hockey pucks are as large as speeding Buicks on the goal-cam shots. This brilliant assortment of screens allowed us to see a car race, an NBA game, NHL hockey, XFL football, and a commercial for herbal sex enhancers all without channel-surfing or craning our necks. Carson's calls this palace a batch of "opportunities to enjoy the pleasures of life." Yet from our vantage point focused on all of these screens, it looked more like the close-up shot of a housefly's eyeball from third-grade science class.

Carson's also has four big rooms with between four and six billiard and custom shuffleboard tables each, plus an island bar, a dining area, and a 200-capacity performance room with a live stage "featuring high-quality sound, good sight lines, and a decidedly rock-and-roll atmosphere."

I'm not sure about the rock atmosphere. To me, it looked more like banquet-hall chic. The stage is framed with faux Roman pillars against a mural of faux pillars. On the walls on each side of the stage hang two huge paintings of medieval scenes: knights in armor, horses, and such.

Which is maybe why some of the menu selections have funny names such as "roasted valor" (mozzarella and smoked provolone cheese baked on a crust with tomato sauce and basil), "Camelot" (assorted cheeses baked on homemade crust), "dragon wings," "white knight queso dip," and an appetizer sampler called Carson's round table.

The latter is a collection of beer-battered "crispy" calamari, dragon wings, and crab Rangoon, all trying hard to be tasty. The bright orange chicken drumette dragon wings had a spicy coating under which resided moist, tender chicken flesh. But the coating was pasty and soaked in grease. The calamari was better, with a fluffy, airy appearance that quickly deflated once bitten. The coating wasn't fried thoroughly into a nice crisp sheath and was doughy, though the squid flesh was tender. Plus, the calamari was attractively presented as a little cluster on a clean, perfectly cupped Napa cabbage leaf. The third leg in this round table, crab Rangoon, were little nondescript pastry pockets with bits of crab meat inside--bits that were far too sparse to fill the pocket.

Carson's Palace is the $3 million vision of Carson "C.J." Wiley, the immensely talented and dexterous cue hustler who took the ESPN World Open Championship in 1996 and is considered one of the top billiards players in the world. His ambition is to spread the billiards religion wholesale, through bustling entertainment complexes such as this palace, which merges billiards, live entertainment, big-screen TVs flashing a smorgasbord of sports, and fine dining, all in one 16,000-square-foot adult entertainment cobb salad.

Crafted by chef Harry Salazar, a veteran who has worked closely with Jim Severson at Dakota's and was a chef at El Pescador Mexican seafood grill, the menu is billed as "royal eclectic cuisine, featuring rustic American flavors with a California flair." I'm not sure what that means exactly, and I'm not sure what kind of flair this food has, but it certainly is replete with rustic elements.

Like the angel hair pasta with scallops, prosciutto, and julienned vegetables in a wine-broth sauce, for example. This assembly, with perfectly cooked angel hair strands, was loaded with crisp vegetables and scallops that were firm, tender, and possessing a gentle briny nuttiness. But the dish was infected with gray dingy pieces of prosciutto that fumed the dish with a slightly off, sour aroma and taste, making it indigestible.

The wild game plate, with venison sausage, duck breast, and quail, fared much better. Though a little dry, the venison in a wild mushroom sauce was still hearty and chewy with enough of a gamy edge to keep it interesting. The duck breast was tasty with a nice rich flavor exquisitely framed by a smoothly understated brandy red currant sauce, though texturally, the meat was a little rubbery. The red chili-basted quail was the perplexing player in this gaming bunch. The whole bird, from wing tip to drum sprig, was dry, tough, and despite a purported chili basting, relatively flavorless. Even more perplexing than the quail was the side of butternut squash, a strangely tortured vegetable with a texture of dried pears and flavors of burnt plastic, leaving it pretty much inedible. But a centerpiece of sautéed Napa cabbage speckled with black beans was delicious.

Another black bean appearance didn't fare nearly as well. With firm hearty beans and specks of bell pepper dancing in the slurry like confetti, Carson's black bean soup was distractingly watery with a blandness barely rippled by a hint of spice. The spinach salad was also a bit of a conundrum. This heap of fresh spinach leaves, as bright green as clean billiard-table felt, held slices of red onion, pieces of mushroom, and slivers of hard-boiled egg and was topped with fragments of cheese. Yet it suffered from a dressing (billed as a citrus vinaigrette) that was more oil than anything, swamping the salad in limpidity.

While Carson's stab at refined, imaginative cuisine is laudable, it seems pointless. A fortified game room is not the kind of venue where those who enjoy fine food would necessarily congregate. Cool River Café in Las Colinas, which I guess is the template for this emporium, at least had the shrewd sense to segregate the bar and gaming indulgences from the dining forays, both structurally and in feel. Carson's hits like an adult entertainment gymnasium with leopard-print carpet in the dining room and bar seating everywhere save for a few booths. The feel of the place is upscale bowling alley, which demands, I would think, a tightly focused menu: fries, sandwiches, pizza, and maybe baked ravioli. Carson's has many of these items, but it doesn't do them as well as it should; its focus is too scattered.

The smoked pork sandwich, an element that should have been flawless, was merely adequate. The meat was lumped and pressed together like a loaf, pasted together with barbecue sauce as glue. Still, the flesh was dry and mealy, with just a modest spark of flavor. The steak fries, like little rough-cut potato shields, were delicate, light, and piping hot.

And, of course, Carson's has pizzas freshly baked in an oven behind a 15-seat pizza bar. The Excalibur is a cavalcade of flesh: pepperoni, bacon, hamburger, and sausage gooed together with cheese and piled upon a thin, crisp crust with black and brown singe marks along the edges. While the pizza had a good crust, it was shy on tomato sauce. Yet it didn't want for moisture. The whole thing was drenched in a yellowish grease, which helped it slide down easy, but made it hard to keep your fingers respectable, even after several wipings on the polyester napkins.

Perhaps like all game palaces, Carson's finishes with a smash. Served between two swirls of cream crowned by blueberries, the chocolate banana cream pie with maple caramel sauce was desperately delicious. The pie was light with smooth layers of banana flavor girded by a hearty, gritty graham-cracker crust.

But this banana was just one shining light in this jack-of-all-trades mainstream entertainment tirade. If Carson's is to truly be a palace, perhaps it should pair its tubes, cues, and bright clean felts with the simplicity of imaginative, robust sandwiches, bar nibbles, and pizzas. Those who care about fine cuisine would rather be caught dead than enjoying food in a pool hall, no matter how upscale its ambitions. And those who relish bank shots generally don't care a lamb's ass about fine cuisine (at least not when they're taking aim) even if it is served with good Chianti. The most culinarily adventurous thing I've done while watching ESPN is add fake bacon bits to my nuked Velveeta.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz