High-profile hotels the W and the Palomar go for broke with their upscale on-site eateries; Bistro N cooks it up old-school
Craft. The very name sounds ho-hum. And its gimmick “family-style” food service and five-star prices oozes pretentiousness. In my neck of the woods, “family-style” conjures up wooden banquettes for cooling your heels until Disney characters escort you to a table where upended barrels serve as stools and drinks arrive in Mason jars.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Minnie Mouse refilling your iced tea. I just don’t want to pay $100 a plate and have to tip the valet for the privilege.
But if the abstraction of Craft left me leery, the experience made me its champion.
Craft is the creation of celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, owner of several high-profile New York restaurants and head judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef” reality show. He’s not on site much in the Dallas location inside the W Hotel (chef de cuisine Kevin Maxey runs the kitchen day-to-day). But the skills that made him a star are evident on every plate.
The surprise from that comes because it is the diner more than the chef who designs each meal. All items appetizers, main courses, sides arrive a la carte. You’re expected to put together the flavor profile yourself, sharing dishes with the entire table. (Theoretically, nearly every meal is unique.)
If it sounds like a trendy diet plan or the culinary equivalent of Garanimals, it’s anything but. Crafting a dining experience is easy when virtually every item is so well-thought-out and gracefully prepared. It’s almost impossible to go wrong.
We started with fennel salad ($12), ribbons of white strips tangled on the plate, crispy and lightly dressed; and arctic char ($17), served carpaccio style thin slices of fish with what tasted like whipped sour cream. The polished simplicity whetted our appetites.
What followed wowed us. Each dish was superior with one exception: The gnocchi ($12), robin’s-egg-sized dollops of potato, which were oddly flavorless and too chewy. The trick seems to be that nothing is overworked. Fresh ingredients predominate and preparation is kept minimal to bring out the best in every vegetable, every cut of meat.
Which is not to say the menu is haphazard.
“It takes a lot of money to look this cheap,” Dolly Parton is fond of saying. It takes an equal amount of knowledge to know how little to do to make food soar.
Diver scallops ($29), for instance, demand care. Three scallops (each the size of a wallet) displayed a light, caramelized patina in a bath of cream sauce, and little else. Slightly crunchy but smooth and opulent, they sold themselves.
Seafood, beef or fowl all were standouts, including the monkfish ($32) and the braised short ribs ($28), wonderfully fatty and served in a deep cast-iron bowl with rich sauce and fresh herbs.
For dessert, the cheesecake was orgiastic while a panorama of eight sorbets were wondrous. The pear sorbet was a bit mealy (the risk with some pears, alas). And the sourness of the passion fruit didn’t appeal to my dining companion, but I loved it.
Although prices are high, the group-service strategy allows each diner numerous tastes and is manageable.
But let’s face it: This is the W. The d?cor (lots of horizontal wood slats, gorgeous lighting and tasteful tables) and service (top notch) ask for something akin to event dining. And at Craft, every dinner is an event.
In “Richard III,” Shakespeare describes the deformed king of England as “scarce half made up,” a line I couldn’t get out of my mind when walking into Central 214 at the Hotel Palomar. Until recently, the locale was known as the “Hiltop Inn,” a rotting eyesore on East Mockingbird Lane at Central Expressway that got a major facelift (and by major, I mean of the Phyllis Diller variety) that transformed it from motel hell into hot-as-Hades hotspot.
But not every aspect of the development is ready for public inspection. The hotel quarters, open for business since September, are gorgeous and charming. But some of the mixed-use facilities attached to the hotel are still being built out, and the adjoining residences are under construction. Would it be too soon to try the restaurant?
The answer, it turned out, was yes and no: No, because Central 214 is in full-service mode, with no kinks visible it’s exactly what it means to be. Yes, because the restaurant lacks a warmth and fluidity but we sensed it was on the cusp of discovering those elements.
The front bar area seems to set the tone, with cherrywood barstools and a backlit glass wall that’s as hypnotic as a river of lava. It promises hip romanticism.
Then you walk into the main dining room. Cold gray-slate floors with starkly monochromatic, low-slung chairs. Minimalist, Asian-influenced place settings. Lots of exposed concrete.
Tall, blank windows accentuate the verticality of the space, inviting the eye to trail up to discover nothing. No window treatments, no curtains, no blinds or paint, just grey cement ceiling joists. None of the staff acted as if anything was missing, but we couldn’t shake the idea the d?cor was underdone.
To a degree, the food mirrors that suspicion. The signage proclaims Central 214 serves “American food;” is that it? Points for a lack of pretension, but isn’t there an overarching theme to hang your hat on?
Maybe chef Tom Fleming doesn’t need a hook. Certainly he’s skilled and well-regarded enough to be playful in the kitchen. He pledges fresh ingredients, and that should be enough.
It almost is. The butternut soup with duck ($6) would be an excellent beginning to any meal. Sweetly flavored with an autumnal elegance in color and style and served in a delightful winged bowl that made the soup feel like a sacramental offering it got us excited for dinner in a way the atmosphere didn’t.
The bread and butter (sitting in a ramekin of olive oil) were good, too, although the hummus was runny with too much lemon and garlic.
Black Angus carpaccio ($9) acted more as an exaggerated amuse bouche than a full-on appetizer: Tasty and sliced razor thin (the beef tore like wet tissue whenever we tried to scoop it up), it came with a tuft of watercress and fennel nested atop, nicely melding on the palate.
The chicken, chevre and caramelized onions pizza ($9.50) was ordered as an appetizer, but at eight inches could easily double as a filling entr?, especially at lunch. Presentation was artless (ingredients looked heaped on like laundry in an overstuffed hamper), but there’s no quibbling with the taste: the bread was cracker-like and the goat cheese plentifully spread around.
Indeed, generosity hasn’t been an issue with many items. When we ordered the lemon-herb crusted chicken ($19) we didn’t expect to get half a bird, but that’s what came to the table, in all its rotisseried glory. What we did expect was a citrusy tang. Rosemary and other fresh herbs were easy to detect.
“I’ve had more chives tonight than I’ve had in the last three years,” my dining companion accurately remarked late during one visit.
But where was the lemon?
Other than being puzzled by the description, the taste was rich and juicy if not awe-inspiring. A side of green beans seemed butter-blanched and remained firm, assaulting the tongue with freshness.
What the menu here calls “crispy potatoes” are a fancy variation of latkes, which are themselves a fancy version of hash browns. Aside from the beautiful and flavorful edges, they weren’t all that crispy, anyway too greasy in the middle. (This style of potatoes should be prepared in an open, flat dish, resting in a shallow pool of oil, not crowded and drowned.)
Many side dishes are served a la carte (owing no doubt to Fleming’s steakhouse experience). Central 214’s version of mac and cheese (does anyone not do a version anymore?) boasted thick tubes of rigatoni swaddled in string onions and aromatic parmesan. Although a bit oily, the flavors were definitely there.
The same proved true of the basil-infused haddock ($26), a flaky white fish served skin-on with red pepper coulis, microgreens and lump crab. Hanger steak ($22), a beef cut similar to skirt steak more common in Europe than the States, is prepared simply and effectively (overcooking destroys it; you might as well order fajitas on a street corner). A dessert of white chocolate and tart cherry bread pudding with creme anglais ($7) needed to soak more to fully steep in the milk, but it did its job.
Our waiter did well enough (recommending an unexpectedly charming chardonnay that was more sweet than buttery was a highlight), but service didn’t pop.
A similar dining experience in many restaurants would meet with its share of appreciative nods. Still, we expected something more. Central 214 has the bones to be great; for now, good will have to do.
Some dishes seem proprietary to certain restaurants, even if that’s not legally the case. So it takes some balls and we don’t mean matzo to serve a chicken tortilla soup just one long hallway down from Neiman Marcus, which practically invented it. But that’s exactly what Bistro N, the tony little restaurant inside Nordstrom’s at NorthPark Mall, does. Good for them; better for us.
High-end department stores with schmancy restaurants a staple in New York City are less common elsewhere, but Dallas is a shopper’s paradise with a Big Apple attitude. Neiman’s has the Zodiac Room and the Mermaid Bar. Nordstrom’s needed to stake its claim with Bistro N. So why not go mano-a-mano on the soup front?
The tortilla soup ($3.25) certainly stands up. Thick like chowder (kernels of corn bob around like buoys caught in a powerful undertow), it splashes with an orangey-saffron color and speckles of black pepper. The beautiful copper saltshakers ended up being decorative only: The zesty soup arrived seasoned ideally to our tastes. A garlic and chive crostini with parmesan baked on accented it spicy but not too insistent. It was a winning sortie in the battle of the boites.
The soup actually reflects the overall d?cor and tone of the restaurant: The color of aged parchment, it’s earthy and inviting. Ceiling panels positioned at varying levels float overhead (a similar design adorns Stephan Pyles, Veuve and several other new restaurants), and an open kitchen boasts wood-fired oven for making pizzas.
And those pizzas! The California-style four-cheese pesto ($8.95) is a favorite. The whole menu is simple but wonderfully refreshing during a day of shopping (though I’ve actually made a special trip to NorthPark just for a bite).
The blue cheese and pear salad with dried cherries, wild-cherry vinaigrette and candied pecans ($9.25 full; $5.50 for a half) is big and delicious. Notwithstanding the sugary nuts, there was a natural, unrefined sweetness from the fruits, uniting in a smoky-nutty flavor combination.
If you know what it should be like, risotto is easy to ruin and this version ($13.95) was anything but ruined. Lemon caper sauce with jumbo-shrimp risotto, accompanied by crispy grilled asparagus stalks, were all perfect.
Service is quick and unobtrusive but not flashy. It doesn’t need to be the food already sparkles.
Craft at the W Hotel, 2440 Victory Park Drive. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 214-397-4111.
Food prepared brilliantly and without artifice in a lovely setting upscale simplicity at its best.
Overall: Four and a half Stars
Food: Five Stars
Atmosphere: Four and a half Stars
Service: Four and a half Stars
Central 214 at the Hotel Palomar, 5680 N. Central Expressway. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 214-443-9339.
Some good but not spectacular dishes go up against a somewhat bland atmosphere.
Overall: Three Stars
Food: Three and a half Stars
Atmosphere: Three Stars
Service: Three Stars
Price: Moderate to expensive
Bistro N inside Nordstrom, 200 NorthPark Center. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (11 p.m. weekends); Sunday, noon-8 p.m. 214-231-3810.
High quality cuisine in a breezy setting distinguish this appealing cafe.
Overall: Three and a half Stars
Food: Three and a half Stars
Atmosphere: Three and a half Stars
Service: Three Stars
FEAST FOR THE “‘AHHS’
Hotel restaurants tend to have good reputations, in part because the space is such valuable property that established chefs like Tom Fleming and Tom Colicchio, or well-connected corporations, have the deep pockets to fund and maintain them. Dallas, already an imposing foodie town, has many hotels with excellent eateries inside (as well as some inside high-end department stores and loft spaces). In addition to the ones above, here are some others worth a taste (Note: The revolving Antares at the Hyatt Regency is not on the list for good reason.)
Arnold Wayne Jones
Fuse at the DP&L Lofts. Blaine Staniford’s Texas-tinged sushi restaurant is a downtown dining draw.
The French Room at the Adolphus Hotel. One of the lost lauded, gorgeous and expensive restaurants in town is this elaborate fine-dining landmark.
The Landmark at the Melrose Hotel. An Oak Lawn favorite, chef Joel Hartloff may find himself tasked to turn up the fancy quotient by the hotel’s new owners.
The Mansion at The Mansion on Turtle Creek. New executive chef John Tesar, pictured, is trying to restore some of the luster to the venerable restaurant, a pioneer of Southerwestern cuisine.
Nana at the Hilton Anatole. Does having the best view from any restaurant in Texas make the food taste any better? Kinda, yeah.
Nobu at the Crescent Court Hotel. Try to forget the hype and concentrate on careful preparation of new-style sushi at this upscale chain.
The Zodiac Room at Neiman Marcus. Its glamorous past isn’t diminished in the present: Chicken broth, popovers and strawberry butter are still served complimentary to each diner. This place is classy and delicious.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, January 12, 2006.