If there is one thing Suze is about, it's romance. Not the frilly, why-does- everything-smell- like-a- lady's-underwear- drawer kind of romance, but the quaint, cozy, Bob Villa rusticity kind. Suze is a quietly austere, softly lit, thoughtful sort of love story, the kind that lets you fill in the blanks.
Susie Priore opened Suze in March 1999 in the spot on Northwest Highway that was once Going Gourmet. She had Russell Hodges of the Aims Culinary Academy in the kitchen and later enlisted the talents of Gilbert Garza, former chef of Toscana. Garza bought the restaurant from Priore last year, and the changes inside have been relatively minor. The walls hold racks cradling colorful plates of varying shapes along with abstract paintings. Gone are those whimsical pictures of French matrons and waiters and such. And speakers positioned high in opposing corners of the dining room pump out bluesy grit, just in case you do get a hankering for floral tablecloths and lady's underwear drawers.
Unfortunately, because of where the restaurant is located, this romance can be violently shattered. Shortly after we were seated on one visit, some kids, left unattended in a black Suburban parked in front of Suze's window--its headlights aimed directly into the dining room...er, at us--tripped the burglar alarm. This filled the dining room with the pulsing flash of headlights and the throbbing bray of the horn. "We plan to frost those windows in the next couple of weeks," said a server, making his way past our table. Not that frosting will do anything to shield diners from the racket that served as an aural backdrop for several minutes until the parent returned to the car and the kids attempted to disable the thing. And they did, after what seemed like 15 minutes, a length of time sufficient to strip away any romantic inclinations.
The trouble with Suze is that of a good part of the Dallas restaurant scene: It's located in a strip mall. It is therefore subject to the crass vagaries of strip-mall vagrants and their vehicles. This is the risk of dining here: Your little bubble of quaint, idealized allure seasoned with sly grit can be punctured by perforated mufflers, fog lights, screeching tires, and the occasional untended whelp.
The fortunate circumstance in all of this is that Suze manages to transcend these petty annoyances. It has an unassuming menu, void of glossy "look-at-me" creations. Garza has kept a few of the Suze mainstays such as trout almandine, the double-cut pork chop with red curry rub, the veal in mushroom sauce (renamed Veal Gilberto), and the Prince Edward Island mussels. And there are some amusing new ones, too, such as crispy young chicken, tandoori shrimp, and Moroccan delights (falafel, hummus, etc.).
The plates aren't exquisitely assembled or visually arresting, but the menu is exquisitely clean and balanced. The brilliance of the food is subtle instead of glaring; it manifests on the tongue, which then pulls all of the other sensory elements together in one tight culinary masterwork.
The use of balsamic vinegar is a prime example. In far too many restaurant creations, the raw power of this rustic fluid runs out of control, bulldozing virtually every flavor it is meant to enhance. But Suze's Buffalo mozzarella with beefsteak tomatoes didn't suffer from any such brutishness. The gooey, misshapen, and flavorful cheese slices were parked next to rich, thick, juicy tomato segments, all deftly doused in aged balsamic and speckled with scraps of basil.
Balsamic was also skillfully employed in the seared foie gras, another holdover from the previous menu. And it would have been a crime if the vinegar hadn't been used with reserve. The liver lobe was near perfect: firm and richly nutty with a crisp sear veneer, all bathed in a restrained dried cherry sauce pocked with golden raisins. Next to the liver lay a small heap of greens splashed with white truffle oil and balsamic vinegar. Every ancillary flavor in this composition was understated, leaving the richness of the foie gras to blaze unobstructed, with the remaining flavors, a sharpness and sweetness that behaved like symbolic foils, serving as applause.
The only detectable slip in this fine orchestration was the smoked salmon carpaccio. The slices of fish, cluttered with capers and bits of diced onion, with a delicate blob of creme fraiche on the side, were thick and indelicate instead of paper-thin. And though, for the most part, the flesh was silky smooth with a good fresh flavor, some sections were a little stringy. Yet the toast points, so often relegated to second- or third-thought status, were delicious. They were crisp and packed a pleasing Parmesan bite.
Entrées came across with the same aplomb. Though undercut by a slightly overbearing grill flavor, the Chilean Sea bass was rich in sweet briny sea flavors, and its bath of orange champagne butter simply heightened the flavors with a mild citrus sweetness. A side of couscous with tiny slivers of toasted almond was full and hearty.
There's even an agile stab at comfort food. Crispy young chicken, a chicken breast that's coated and sliced into juicy sheets, was arranged in a tight row, interspersed with thin slices of Spanish Serrano ham. The chicken flesh was tender and juicy and void of all hints of grease, while the Serrano brilliantly filled in the flavor blanks with its earthy sweetness and smooth texture. The only drawback was the dabs of creamy Roquefort polenta arrayed on the side, a mush that was a bit too encumbered with cheese potency, knocking the flavors out of balance.
Which is how the service can be sometimes. The same thing that makes Suze so cozy and inviting--its intimacy--can also make it congested. This space works very hard, and sometimes things get so tangled that service nearly grinds to a halt. It took 15 minutes to get our entrée plates cleared and our dessert ordered. Still, the servers are gracious and attentive. And while the space may be hard to work for the wait staff, you don't feel cramped or uncomfortably compressed, even though you are just a bit. This space has so much fresh character and personality that it simply opens up, leaving you with a memory of understated style and sophistication.
That unassuming quality comes across in the food as well. Grilled tuna steak, coated with cracked pepper and sesame seeds, was rich, firm, tender, and void of any of the stringy toughness and fishy smells that low-grade tuna can impart. Though ordered rare, this steak was closer to medium, with a grayish tinge dueling a pink core. It was settled in a ginger soy broth with wilted baby bok choy that was light instead of overly salted or rich, which could have muddled the tuna flavors.
Baby rack of thyme-crusted Jamison lamb slathered with whole-grain mustard arrived as three ribs severed and fanned loosely in a semicircle. The meat was silky sweet and juicy with the coarse mustard giving the flesh the subtlest of sparks. The lamb was settled in a merlot reduction strewn with mint leaves, giving the already well-balanced flavors some levity. A side of diced potatoes lay alongside snow peas, baby carrots, and strips of bell pepper, seeming almost superfluous, though they didn't detract from the masterful execution.
Even dessert had that same steadiness. The chocolate truffle cake was a moist, rich, but not overwhelming puff of chocolate topped with whipped cream and a slice of strawberry. This simple assembly was surrounded by beads of creme caramel sauce.
Since its inception, Suze has always been a very good restaurant. Not surprisingly, it has come a long way under Garza's grip. He's exploited its charms and enhanced the food offerings immeasurably, making it one of Dallas' finest restaurants. That this cuisine can be had at prices that are roughly two-thirds of what you might pay at one of Dallas' other top restaurants just makes it all the more enticing. Even when it comes with flashing headlights and pulsating car horns.