Suburban Slickers

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Southlake has a big sky. There doesn't seem to be much of a lake if you don't count the water hazards at Timarron Country Club. And it isn't really all that much south, at least from Dallas vantage points.

But it does have a big sky.

It also has intriguing strip-mall architecture, with all manner of stone edifices, stagnant ponds and an out-of-the-box faux urban core with a city hall flanked by Bombay Company and Banana Republic. There is a lesson here for Dallas and other dead downtowns earnestly yearning for the kind of urban romance that made Friends a font of prime-time renewal. Remodeling, as most people who buy pre-1970 homes in the Park Cities know, is for chumps. Better to raze and rise from the ground up. Dallas' downtown revitalization would go much smoother and faster if the city's parents just scraped the ground clean and installed Best Buy and Home Depot as anchors. All of the swell secondary urban stuff, like a city jail and a few high-rises for postcard purposes, would quickly follow once these hubs established critical mass.


Red Sage

Artichoke $8
Shrimp $8
Chicken breast $15
Lamb chops $21
Seared duck $17 and
Garlic taste $9.95
Roast duck $16.95
Spicy seafood $14.95
Sizzling seafood $16.95

Red Sage, a Euro-American bistro plugged into Timarron Village down the street from Southlake's "small-town downtown" Town Square, is in dire need of critical mass. Sure, the mostly empty red room is stylish, save for the illuminated knot of dryer duct work mounted on the wall posing as art. The food is, too, sporting lofty names like Roman stuffed artichoke. But that can't hide the fact that this is little more than a shabby green thistle with stringy petals crowded with clumsy breadcrumb-parmesan clumps before it's deposited in a bowl.

Shrimp were served on a square plate for geometrical contrast. They gracefully slump upon one another in a murky yellow coconut curry pool, bordered with black streaks of balsamic vinegar. Shrimp are crusted in coarse peanut confetti. The curry pool silks the tongue with a slim thread of sweetness rattled with a bite of pepper. Yet all of this pestering bludgeons these weak but juicy shellfish into a heap of cowering inadequacy; they don't have the briny heft to hold their own against this onslaught of tweaks.

Chicken breast with brie and spinach in a port wine sauce was served on a triangular plate, though the different geometry didn't help the overall composition. The meat was painfully dry, though it had a rich nutty flavor whose origin was hard to pin down.

Red Sage was founded by Sage Sakiri as a "European blend of cuisine with American touches." One of those touches, a Texas one at that, includes a mime wine list. "We don't really want a liquor license," says co-owner Aviva Kruger. "The community favors bringing their own wine." The list was actually composed by Farpoint Cellar, a wine retailer next door. You pay for the wine separately just after ordering and wait for delivery, hence there are no by-the glass options, though the prices are less lofty as a consequence. But a bona fide restaurant wine list would help fuel Red Sage to the sophisticated perch it's grasping for, since the food screams for the stuff.

Lamb chops in a port wine rosemary sauce would have worked beautifully with a brawny silken cabernet. It's a long plump rack: six spindly bones poking through a berm of meat. A shriveled rosemary sprig, smudged with the dark sticky sauce, tangles between the bones. The lamb is juicy, well-balanced, skirting the risqué tastes that can sometimes plague lamb flavors.

Seared duck breast slices in mixed chutney infused with berry port had edges that curled upward, as if they had been dried in the sun. They mingle with shaved strawberries and raspberry fragments. The duck meat is singed slightly, injecting a little bitterness. Yet the meat is still juicy and rich, so the bitterness has a pleasing context, and the fruit offers modest sweetness and acid, creating balance.

But the hours are confusing. Family dinner hour is a time slot set aside on Sunday between 4:30 and 8:30 p.m. We traipsed to Southlake to experience one of these periods, only to find Red Sage locked down tight as a drum. This made a mockery of both the hours stenciled on the door glass and our phone call confirming these hours.

So we scurried to Southlake Town Square to salvage the trip, since we don't golf. Thai Chili, an offshoot of the Las Colinas restaurant of the same name, was as barren as Red Sage, but open.

Like Red Sage, Thai Chili had duck. Mango duck was the special scrawled on the chalkboard. "Not so good," said our server. Well, how about the roast duck curry?

"Very good," he said through a smirk. It is, dramatically so. It arrives in a skillet, the pink-red curry sauce sizzling with ribald fury, hissing, spitting, steaming. The oval breast slices are ringed with a thick layer of creamy fat coddling slightly dry meat. But the aromatics and accoutrements made up for this small slip. The platter was threaded with bell pepper slivers and basil and studded with fresh pineapple cubes. It behaved like an Easter ham, dressed in so much fruit. The cubes were crisp, stained with red curry sputters. They sprayed their acids over the tongue, cleaning the palate like a fine wine might.

Thai grub is conflagration cuisine, loaded with the weaponry to mercilessly scorch delicate mouth parts. To guide diners through this fiery danger, Thai Chili has a menu legend with heat levels designated by chili pepper icons: mild, medium, hot, etc.

But the icons don't accurately reflect flammability. Several dishes ordered with the fire level set to medium were as tepid as a stadium bum warmer. This was a near detriment to the spicy seafood, "angel hairs" studded with mussels, shrimp, scallops and calamari and threaded with bell pepper slivers in a curry sauce. The seafood was serviceable, but it needed more to heave it above the mundane.

Sizzling seafood was less in need of chili thrust. Like the duck, it was delivered on a hot skillet. But unlike the duck, it was tucked in a foil pouch with a little basket handle sculpted in aluminum foil looped just above the contents. This dish had the same seafood quartet as the spicy version, though here it was in a puddle of light sauce thickened with egg that, hidden in the liquid, resembled tepid shreds of crabmeat.

Garlic taste, "most favorite dish in Thai household," is a marvel of balanced understatement. Though available dressed in chicken, beef or pork sautéed in garlic sauce, ours arrived with rows of thin chicken breast shavings neatly spread over cut leaves of romaine, each cupping tiny pools of mild garlic sauce (for a restaurant brandishing chilies at every turn, spice heat is air-conditioned into homogeny).

Thai Chili is a clean, narrow tunnel of a restaurant with a curvaceous bar crusted in rustic hunting-lodge paneling. But it's the ceiling that is compelling. It's a series of interlaced, suspended panels neatly fitted with murky white plates, reinforcing the Southlake reflex to look up and out.

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