As Downtown heats up, two restaurants — Charlie Palmer at the Joule and Scene — offer different takes on what makes a ‘hot-spot’ hot
Charlie Palmer at the Joule
Charlie Palmer at the Joule, 1530 Main St. Open daily for dinner. 214-261-4600. The style and service are seriously impressive and much of the food simply wonderful.
Overall: 4 Stars
Food: 3.5 Stars
Atmosphere: 5 Stars
Service: 4 Stars
Price: Moderate to expensive.
The intense glamour of Charlie Palmer at the Joule wafts like the perfume of warm black truffles from every inch of its Downtown space. Seen through large windows that look out on Main Street, it pulses like a mountain cabin fireplace. Inside it’s even more impressive: Up close, the diffuse up-lighting and wall sconces make the surfaces even more tactile, reflecting on the lacquered tabletops and the upholstered parchment-colored leather on the chairs and placemats. Overhead, huge propellers, spinning almost imperceptibly slowly, convey the wind theme of architect Adam Tihany.
For sheer drama, it would be difficult to find its match in Dallas right now.
Service has been unassailable. A mention to the staff that dinner is a family celebration triggered a message written on the dessert plate in chocolate; a screw-up with a reservation (totally my fault) was cheerily and effortlessly resolved.
So ferociously appealing are the dÃ©cor and service, the food could be almost an afterthought. It’s not — much of it is excellent — but it lacks the "wow" factor on the plate that exudes from every corner of the space.
While the food doesn’t keep pace with the style, Charlie Palmer nevertheless is a bastion of reachable elegance. Considering the phenomenal atmosphere, prices (for a steakhouse) are in the moderate range.
Granted, $10 for an appetizer of beets may sound on the high side, but observe: the beets and goat cheese are an architectural composition, stacked like a layer cake and almost as indulgent. The creamy cheese envelopes the crunch of beets and hazelnuts, while the bitterness of the frisee salad adds a hint of depth. It’s a winner. (By contrast, the limestone salad, while fine, didn’t stand out.)
The ricotta agnolotti ($14) — an amuse bouche-sized ravioli redolent of cheese — had taste but seemed precious in its daintiness. On the other hand, the actual amuse, a lobster corn dog, was too aggressive. Deep-frying the delicate meat of lobster in thick breading would do better as a State Fair experiment than to prime your appetite for a fancy dinner.
Then came the Sonoma duck ($27) and we were in heaven again. Served two ways (a confit leg, a breast glazed in honey), it boasted a crisp layer of fat searing in moisture. The same held for the pheasant ($35), slow-cooked in a tagine that left the bird as juicy as a Page Six blind item. The wagyu flatiron ($32) in a pool of a bourbon armagnac sauce was deliciously charred on the outside, tender and a luscious medium rare inside — a true star of the menu.
But beef preparation can be inconsistent. On one visit, the sirloin ($36) was slightly dry; on a subsequent visit, it delivered all we could expect, highlighted by a cabernet reduction. (Chef Scott Romano says the bone marrow flan should be slathered on like butter, but we found it merely puzzling.)
Side dishes are served family style, although Charlie Palmer must come from a small family of light eaters: They arrive in modest bowls. We loved the polenta but merely liked the root veggies (uninspired carrots dominated), the cremini mushrooms in oxtail ragout and the quinoa (we couldn’t find any of the dried fruit promised in the description).
Pastry chef Ruben Torano prepared a wonderful clafoutis for dessert, but the tarts we tried were hit-and-miss. A caramelized banana was as mushy and bland as baby food, but two others, especially the espresso tart, were kicky.
Still, Charlie Palmer is more than the sum of its components. It’s so spectacularly diner-oriented that every visit is an occasion to be savored, culinary quibbles notwithstanding.
The signature drink at Scene, the New American restaurant anchoring Downtown’s edgy Mosaic lofts building, is an aromatic, Caipirinha-esque elderflower gin drink blended with house-made tonic water.
Custom made tonic water? Who makes their own water — or rather, who needs to?
Blaine Staniford needs to. Desperately.
Of course, it’s not water per se that drives him, but the push to flex his creative muscle. It’s what led him to defy conventional wisdom with his deconstructed salad at last year’s annual Caesar competition; it drove him to skewer shrimp on eyedroppers filled with cocktail sauce. This is the chef responsible for Fuse, still one of my favorite eateries in town and one of the few that genuinely sticks with its theme. "Ordinary" is too ordinary for him.
With Scene, initially promoted as a "stage kitchen," Staniford — button cute and scary talented — aims for a grand, urban-foodie concept: culinary theater. And he does so with an astounding lack of pretension.
And it works. Mostly.
Scene possesses a more free-flowing attitude than Fuse. It doesn’t have the Tex-Asian theme to unify it, so the menu has fluctuated since its December opening. Individual dishes are accomplished, but it needs balance.
Case in point: Staniford is so caught up on the heart of the menu, he’s forgotten about its limbs. Yes, some plates come with pastas and pestos, and there are entrÃ©e salads for the herbivores. But starches and caramelized onions do not a vegetable make. I love meat and carbs, but I need some greenery, too.
The hazelnut pizza on foccaccia (lunch only) drips in exquisite goat cheese and ricotta, but just a few artichoke leaves, though sprigs of fresh field greens on the side supply needed roughage. The marinated flatiron (skirt) steak ($17) buries broccolini and fingerling potatoes under a hearty portion of medium-rare beef — man cannot live on sides of French fries alone.
If only. Almost everything on the menu that we tried was brimming with Staniford’s stylish flourishes. A deviled egg ($2), domed with rich egg yolk, shredded chicken and whole mustard, turned picnic fare into fine art. (But no paprika?) Yukon gold potato soup ($6) comes topped with the agreeably sour bite of crÃ¨me fraiche and chives, plus a hint of salty caviar (I actually prefer the lunch version without the roe, because the flavor profile is cleaner). For special events, he pours the liquid into hollowed-out egg shells. Who else strives for such impact with potato soup?
The osso bucco ($27) spends 24 hours braising, layering it like short ribs with strata of fat and crisp flesh. Served on a pillow of terrific polenta with bits of eggplant, parts of the meat seemed a bit dry but it was still packed with flavor.
Of all the dishes we tried, only the New Zealand snapper could be categorized as nouvelle cuisine in attitude: a smallish medallion of perfectly grilled fish, served alongside three hefty shrimp with a grapefruit garnish. The grapefruit was wholesome and fresh, but towered over the shrimp taste-wise.
The atmosphere is the polar opposite from Charlie Palmer’s moneyed Upper East Side luxe; Scene is East Village all the way. Everything is bohemian, but not of the cheap garage-sale variety: a cavernous room decorated in enamel surfaced in cafÃ© au lait colors except for splashes of electric orange from abstract mobiles that resemble kites which have lost their way. The glassware bespeaks retro streamlined highball tumblers, but with a sophisticated edge.
Videos of the open kitchen plays on wide walls over the counter, turning a meal into an impromptu "Iron Chef" competition. Seeing a meal you ordered being fussed over on television — isn’t that the definition of 15 minutes of fame?
Andy Warhol would fit right in here. It’s where you can see and be Scene
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 14, 2008