Restaurant Reviews

Stayin' Alive

At this point on the dining timeline, Avanti Ristorante is perhaps better known for its longevity than its food. After all, more than a handful of restaurants execute its brand of Nor-Ital Mediterranean fare, often with better results. But Avanti has been doing it for 14 years; that's a near decade-and-a-half strung on the McKinney Avenue trolley line, which has served as a noose for more than a few restaurants. The names of the fallen would roll off the tongue if the tongue had Avanti's endurance.

Still, for every Salve!, Bizu, Mangia e Bevi, Coco Pazzo, Bistral, Geode, Scented Geranium, Chihuahua Charlie's, Lulu's Bait Shack and O'Dowd's Little Dublin, there's a Breadwinners, Primo's, Truluck's, Café Express and...Avanti. Maybe that's not a long-term survivor for every sunken ship, but McKinney is hardly a barren Siberian steppe when it comes to dining (though with ridership reportedly down to 100 per day, maybe that precious, cobblestone-skirting trolley is).

Dressed in the svelte and the swanky with votive twinkles and a full-wall banquette that gives way to expansive mirrors, Avanti is a tight space of geometric perplexity: Sharp lines, angles and dividers merge earnestly into no discernible shape, at least in martini twilight, which is good. On the wall opposite the banquette, a series of black wooden nooks are stacked into a checkerboard wine rack, with a lighted space in the center devoted to a bottle display.

Avanti is a creature of the night, where unexpected atmosphere and idiosyncratic food perhaps help it survive the avenue's bizarre form of natural selection--a dynamic that has left restaurateurs and observers alike scratching their heads for years. Live jazz, which can range from a lone guitarist to a guitar-throat-bongo trio, is scrunched into a corner near the portal that opens onto a large covered patio.

Avanti heightens the gritty swank...with eggs. Three nights a week, Avanti offers a "moonlight breakfast" until the wee hours: filet mignon and eggs, Avanti omelette, eggs Benedict, eggs and Italian sausage in marinara. Now, jazz and eggs might be a strange duo. Mopping up ruptured yolk drool isn't something that necessarily pairs well with bebop.

But maybe it's a key to McKinney survival, and Avanti owner Jack Ekhtiar is certainly no slouch. Though his restaurant Jack's Place downtown fizzled some years ago, he's had a couple of successes since: Avanti Café at Fountain Place and Avanti Euro Bistro in Addison Circle. Both, like Avanti Ristorante, are highly stylized and engaging in a quirky way. Yet it often seems the food doesn't keep pace with the bon ton.

Like any good Mediterranean foodstuff purveyor, Avanti fiddles with meat in the raw, or at least the near raw. Carpaccio Avanti is not your typical racy helping of lacy shaved beef drizzled with olive oil, squirted with lemon and scattered with Parmesan cheese. This is a customized carpaccio, with a bib lettuce pocket off to the side shouldering mundane black olive rings (instead of torn scraps of kalamata), shredded carrot, sliced tomatoes and cucumber, and a single wrinkled pepperoncini. This might sound more like just another salad than a typical serving of raw steer gauze, and it is. For instead of delicate sheets of lacy pink (the menu describes it as "paper thin"), this carpaccio is near-thick strips of gray-pink, gristle-laden flesh lacking richness and that comforting chill, the kind that takes the shivers out of dining on raw muscle fiber. That disconcerting edge was softened a bit, though, by a generous littering of thick Parmesan cheese curls that flaunted a sweet tang.

Though it is of Latin American pedigree, ceviche seems right at home in the Mediterranean lexicon. Again, Avanti embarks on customization. Instead of fish and such deposited in a martini glass or other stemware, Avanti's Italian ceviche is strewn across a plate in tossed-salad fashion. Tender calamari and shrimp--marinated in vodka and cilantro-lime juice--mingle on a bed of lettuce, tomato, onion and parsley. Borrowing Avanti's carpaccio temperament, the seafood scraps were warm. Yet this isn't enough to hobble the searing flavors, which create a refreshing bite on the tongue that cancels any leeriness.

Despite a moniker hinting at a little distinction, salad Avanti was mundane: a heap of cucumber, romaine, hearts of palm and artichoke splashed with a weak dressing. It's no surprise that this item doesn't make the moonlight menu cut. The drowsiness it induces would be deadly.

The Avanti pizzazz trickles--or maybe stumbles--out in fits and starts and in the most unexpected places. It doesn't necessarily materialize in vinegar or wine sauces or even with seafood. It buds in fungi. Stuffed portobella Florentine with glazed Chablis béchamel and Parmesan cheese is a lusty fungi treatment if there ever was one. Centered on a thick fleshy 'shroom complemented--but not in any way smothered--by the rich flavors of the clean, smooth sauce, this dish was a masterpiece of understated richness; of hearty meatiness that can only come from a toadstool relentlessly pestered with dairy products.

It's uncanny how the best of Avanti seems born in bogs and on rotted logs. Cappellini basilico is a gnarl of perfectly cooked angel hair pasta loosely looping an assortment of mushroom pieces perked with basil, capers and a clean, riveting sauce of citrus and olive oil. Tucked throughout are little foils (citrus tart and terrene muskiness) and exquisite balances.

Then in places where you would least expect it, Avanti goes flat. Veal artichoke, a piece of stringy meat more parched than dank, was tousled with tender artichoke bottoms and petals. The collaboration sounds so good on paper, but it didn't necessarily work in the flesh, even though the promise could be tasted.

Jumbo stuffed shrimp with crabmeat lands like a lawn dart into the heart of Red Lobster monotony. I kept thinking that if they gave it a breezy Mediterranean name with elaborate vowel placement, it might have tasted better, but it's hard to see how. Though the plate was puddled with a deliciously tangy and smooth sun-dried tomato sauce, the shrimp had been tortured beyond culinary coherence. The milky shellfish flesh was tough, dry and fibrous, a little like pasteboard with a red fanny fan. It's difficult to get shrimp to end up this way; at least I've never seen such degradation. What a tough job that mushy crabmeat stuffing had, trying to reanimate a serving of freeze-dried space scampi.

Given its style, who'd a thunk this place could finesse a steak? Avanti does. This is Dallas after all, though judging by the rash of suspicious stuff that's served as prime, you'd think the carnivore hordes could prod City Hall to assemble a posse to smoke out the frauds and skewer them in public, out of civic pride if nothing else. It's doubtful that Avanti's New York Prime sirloin is a fraud, though. Cooked char black on the outside, the meat was juicy and rich.

Like its stuffed sibling, the shrimp in the shrimp linguini was a huge disappointment. The pasta was supple and al dente, but the shrimp, paired with squash and zucchini, were soapy and listless.

Which is why the salmon fillet was such a welcome seafaring rescue. The meat was firm, flaky, deliciously mild and slathered in a fresh tarragon sauce that basted it with an herbal sweetness.

Dessert, too, scored high. Avanti panna cotta was a near perfect moment: delicate, silky and cool custard imbedded with raspberries and sloshed with Chambord. It's the perfect apparatus to stylishly secure satiation. And wash away the soapy shrimp flavor.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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