Trendy eatery at Hotel Lumen has great food but needs a point of view
Bless those chefs who go out on a limb to promise greatness and then achieve it. But overstating your goal is a strategy rife with risk.
All restaurants engage in a bit of salesmanship when it comes to describing their dishes, whether it’s a waiter nudging his favorite soup or even what’s put in writing on the menu. Lots of places tout their specialty appetizer with phrases like “signature dish” or “grilled to perfection” (a cliche so overused it makes me choke just writing it).
Social, the trendy little restaurant inside the boutique Hotel Lumen, is no exception. The hyperbole here applies to an item called “damn good fries” ($5). That’s as much a challenge as a promise where I’m concerned: Step up and prove it.
So we ordered them as a pre-entree finger food. Good? Certainly; they were thoroughly cooked (nothing is more irritating than fries that are cold and mealy inside from being too quickly pulled from the oil) and came steaming hot. But “damn good” that is, sinfully, profanely good? Hardly. They needed more crispness to claim that modifier, and they were a bit greasier than my ideal.
Which raises the dilemma: What do you do when a restaurant works well enough, but not as well as it boasts?
The billet at Social isn’t the only element prone to exaggeration. While many of the items are certifiably delicious, a problem lies in its overall identify what, exactly, does it want to be? And how close does it come?
Certainly as a restaurant inside a Kimpton property, it aims for elegance and cache among hip diners. The space, though smallish, is refined and attractive enough to warrant a second look from savvy foodies.
But I’m not sure it has the routine down pat yet. Service bordered on annoying, being excessively attentive but often clumsily so. On one visit, our waiter stared at us intently as we ordered, but failed to write everything down. I consented to his offer of saffron rice as a substitute side dish to an entree, but then the course arrived without it. When I mentioned the oversight he apologized and rushed back with the rice, so fast I wondered if it was fully cooked.
Another time, when an upended glass of sweet iced tea spread its sticky sugars over the table, we used our dinner napkins to quickly stem the flood.
But while the waiter cleared away sopping linens, he never delivered fresh napkins nor did he dry under the placemat which trapped the water like a kitchen sponge. Hardly the mark of the finest in fine dining.
But get beyond such puzzles, and a less-than-well-edited selection of food, and there is much to enjoy here. The Texas tomato soup ($6) was a milky bisque flecked with fresh seafood. It didn’t have a strong tomato-y taste, yielding more to the richness of heavy cream; fine by me. It wasn’t as wonderfully assaulting and flavor-forward as LaMadeleine’s tomato basil soup, but a true winner in its own right.
The only anchovies in the Caesar salad ($6) arrived liquefied in the dressing, but the Romaine lettuce picked for our salad was made mostly of the shriveled hearts, which looked like yellow vegetal tufts where we wanted green. Thumbs up for taste, but presentation distracted.
Several local restaurants finally have caught on about how to prepare crab cakes that will attract a loyal following: more crab, less cake. A friend of mine always tries them once at a new place, but his second orders are few and far between too much filler, pounded into a tightly-packed biscuit that is no more about the meat of a crustacean than the red-streaked whitefish supermarkets sell under the name “krab.”
Social’s ($12) definitely would.get repeated orders. Made of flaky lump meat gently massaged into a fluffy oblong croquette, it was served with a flavorful tartar remoulade that was one of the hits of the table.
Macaroni and cheese, once relegated to diners and steakhouses, is not merely in evidence nowadays, it is inevitable everyone seems to have a version. But staple comfort foods can be minefields at fine-dining establishments, because their appeal often has more to do with sense-memory than ingredients.
The recipe here, made with melted brie and a pass of bread crumbs atop ($8), wafted with the faint redolence of truffle oil. It was altogether likeable (my dining companion even ordered a second portion for himself as a dessert); the only disappointment was that the best finish for mac and cheese is a crispy baked surface nothing beats buttery pasta with an al dente crunch and this was served creamy style.
My dining companion praised the open-faced beef sandwich ($14), but I found the meat too chewy. The toasted bread, however, was delicious, as were the slices of blue cheese that almost obviated the need for beef anyway.
The skin-on trout ($24) was charming, cooked so that the edges were crisp, the flesh juicy and not over-sauced. Fewer bay scallops accompanied the dish than I expected, but the ones that did were chewy and oddly flavorless, so it was probably just as well. The salmon fillet ($21) was satisfying.
It is as easy to recommend the fudgy ganache cake ($7) for dessert as it is difficult to describe why it’s on the menu in the first place. A lot of what Social does, it does well, but it also seems in search of its personality. I can wait; in the mean time, I’ll happily order the crab cakes.
DINNER AND A MOVIE
Usually when you think about going out for an evening of dining and entertainment, you divide the activities: Food first, followed by a film. Cinema-drafthouses got the brilliant idea to combine the two, and a whole industry was born though not always a successful one. The distinguishing characteristics of most motion picture cabarets are (a) second-run films in an older converted movie palace and (b) lots of beer and a limited menu, mostly pizzas.
Yet while the concept may not be new, Studio Movie Grill in Arlington (there are several others around the Metroplex) has refined it considerably: An all-new construction with high-quality sound systems, big screens and comfortable chairs; current-release films playing multiplex-style; and perhaps best of all, above-average food.
There’s a real menu at SMG, and although the selections tend toward pub grub burgers, chicken fingers, the ubiquitous slices of ‘za execution and variety are standouts for the breed. The spinach and artichoke dip, cocoanut tenders and potato skins will all be familiar to bar-food devotes, but the preparation here is as good as anywhere. Even better is a rib basket half a rack of St. Louis-style baby backs that are messy for in-the-dark dining but totally worth the sticky fingers. For dessert eaters, the delicious brownie sundae (pictured) is nicely presented and great to share.
There’s also a fairly good selection from the bar, with signature margarita drinks, beer that goes beyond Miller and Bud, and wines labeled with more than the insultingly generic “red” or “white.”
The crowd tends to be younger and more suburban, but with movies like “300″ and “Blades of Glory” playing there, you can expect a diverse group depending on the movie.
Still, the disadvantage of wedding food and film is the inevitable tendency of diners to chatter on without regard to the movie in front of them. Would that we could call this an aberration confimed to this kind of cinema experience, but alas, most people nowadays confuse theaters with their living rooms, to the detriment of serious cinephiles everywhere. On that score, Studio Movie Grill is no better nor worse than most other moviehouses these days. At least you get the check after the film and don’t have to look for a parking space twice.
225 Merchants Row, I-20 at Matlock, Arlington. 817-466-3429.
Arnold Wayne Jones
Social in the Hotel Lumen, 6101 Hillcrest Ave. 214-219-8282.
Good food and a relaxed atmosphere are pluses, but the overused “new American cuisine” label doesn’t really define its personality much.
Overall: Three Stars
Food: Three and a half Stars
Atmosphere: Three and a half Stars
Service: Two and a half Stars
Price: Moderate to expensive
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 13, 2007