Restaurant Reviews

Well-Heeled

Food is the new whatever used to occupy the portion of our minds devoted to culture. Unfortunately, that implies a certain amount of the old "wine snob" mentality. Diners flashing authority in culinary matters expect to learn arcane details when scanning menus, and woe to chefs who fail to identify the source of their pork or the farm from which their vegetables sprouted. So restaurants nowadays have a tendency to print rather verbose listings. It's no longer sufficient to mention lasagna without adding a bit about flat pasta, meat, cheese and sauce arranged in layers.

Still, it's difficult to top the collection of short stories put out by Capriccio.

According to our quick tally, their menu totals something in the vicinity of 900 words, not counting dessert. A seafood primavera listing alone accounts for a good portion of the content, with neat florid phrases and suggestive allusions. The shrimp are "plump," and the lemon butter and white wine sauce contains "a hint" of garlic. They even resort to more active turns. Marinated chicken breast, for example, isn't just set on the plate, it's "tumbled into a bed of spinach." Before reaching the table, presumably.

Some of this translation is necessary, of course. The restaurant lists all items in Italian. Well, almost. Chicken with penne pasta becomes penne con pollo, and a sautéed plate of the same bird, that's pollo alla Carciofo. So why Americanize "chicken cannelloni?" It stands out on the menu, and the glaring contravention caused us to order the tubes of al dente saffron pasta packed with a mix of ricotta and almost imperceptible grilled white meat. Many establishments turn stuffed pasta into soggy shells oozing melted curd, but this is a firm and extraordinary dish. Mild cheese and bland chicken allow the complex floral and spicy essence of good fresh basil to emerge over the top, followed by the mellow coda of roasted pepper sauce.

Lumache funghi also caught our attention, largely because the description--"mushroom caps with escargot"--was terse and, considering everything else on the extensive sheet, anticlimactic.

Ah, but the simple listing doesn't prepare you for a masterpiece. Delicate, fruity gastropod rides over the musky flavor of mushroom, as if flirting from across a room. Both are cooked with garlic, and the spicy impression lures them together. Then you notice the elegant sauce, a reduction of white wine, shallots and rosemary, strained and finished with butter. It starts faintly, hiding behind the earthier ingredients. Then more savory notes explode across the palate.

Italian cuisine is generally simple fare drawing vibrancy from fresh ingredients. Capriccio's chef, Jose Franco, adheres to tradition, for the most part. But his sauces are often more responsible for the depth and complexity of flavors than anything else on the plate. Makes sense: He began as a line cook at a country club in ritzy Southern California, eventually earning the saucier spot.

Lombata di vitellini al sugo di porcini, or veal chop with mushrooms, is a good example of his flair with boiled-down liquids. The kitchen selects a darker, gamier free range meat and tops it with intensely earthy porcinis. Every element in the sauce is intended to develop the existing flavors. Marsala reduction provides a rich base for the musky, peppery spirit of fresh sage and the dulcet bitterness of garlic. The combination attaches to the natural essence of veal and mushroom, enlivens them and then begins to assert itself, unfolding in layers. His twist on beurre blanc, served with the aforementioned escargot appetizer, even worked perfectly spread on the dull slices of crusty white bread served when diners first slip into their seats.

Cioppino, or fisherman's stew, would be a durable, satisfying peasant dish if it were merely a hodge-podge of things pulled from the sea, in this case hefty portions of crab, fish, calamari, mussels and shrimp. But they wallow in a viscous brick-red broth that evolved from brandy reduced with discarded crustacean shells, garlic and tarragon. Franco mixes this bold sauce with plain marinara, tossing in a little crushed red pepper for fun. The result is profound, with sweet tomato flavors wafting across the taste buds for a moment before collapsing into the dominant, savory reduction. The crushed chiles sneak in at the end and linger until the next spoonful.

Nothing delicate about this stew. Nothing simple, either.

For a comparison, order the fried calamari with a container of traditional marinara as a dipping sauce. It's not the best thing on the menu. In fact, the crispy hoops of tender calamari are rather common. You find similar stuff handed out in plastic baskets at sports bars. We tried the fisherman's stew with Franco's spiked marinara on our first visit and started with calamari the next. The prosaic marinara seemed listless.

On second thought, skip the calamari. It's one of the few disappointments in an otherwise solid menu ranging from age-old classics familiar to generations of Americans, such as pasta primavera and veal Parmesan, to grilled Atlantic salmon and other nods to universal taste. Torte di granchio (crabcakes) include more breading than we normally expect but otherwise stand out as a near-perfect starter. Noticeable chunks of sweet crabmeat nestle in an herbal mound bathed in a tangy roasted pepper sauce. Roasted eggplant soup is well-rounded and comforting. Franco's brandy cream sauce makes an already rich association of crab and veal scaloppini (vitello alla Oscar) even more decadent. The sides--typically fresh, crisp vegetables or al dente pasta--also stand out.

It requires some effort to order dessert after all that, but a few items deserve mention. The tri-color wedge of spumoni is fun but vapid. Crème brûlée is perfectly executed: a warm singed crust and cool custard drizzled with just enough lemon to brighten the rich sauce of the previous courses. The tiramisu smacked more of a generic "toffee" flavor than liqueur and espresso but still produced a burst of excitement from a female companion on one visit.

The room echoes Capriccio's menu. Guests settle into a warm chamber of sienna and old gold, at once comfortable and romantic. Tall windows expose one side to the patio and neighboring wine bar. Cooks dressed in crisp white toques toil in an open kitchen to the rear, lending a traditional feel. They stock several decent bottles of wine at shockingly reasonable prices (although they plan to revise the selection sometime this fall). Servers tend to everything in a professional yet casual manner. Tables are spaced to allow for some privacy--a nice touch when you consider one of the other annoying restaurant trends of noisy, congested rooms. Speaking of trends, bring along a flashlight. The place bows to the current fad of murky lighting, so all that fine print they use to fit so much verbiage on a couple pages becomes difficult to sort.

Minor flaws aside, it's worth the drive up Stemmons to Oklahoma territory.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Dave Faries
Contact: Dave Faries

Latest Stories