Pyramid, a Dallas tradition for decades, tries to reinvent itself

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor [email protected]

AMUSING | The pumpkin soup amuse at Pyramid is a triumph, and the scallop, despite a light caramelization, terrific. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

The Egyptians perfected the pyramid more than 4,500 years ago, but over at the Fairmont Hotel, they’re still tweaking it.
First was the name change: The Pyramid Room, for 40 years a revered institution for Dallas anniversaries, graduations and engagement parties, became just Pyramid in 2008. In a town overrun for a few decades by trendy, cutting edge and/or elegant fine dining restaurants (from Routh Street Café to Five Sixty), Pyramid had ceased to have the cache it once did. It had been upstaged, just as the Giza Plain has been by Dubai’s skyscrapers.

The rebranding included a makeover (brighter, welcoming decor, a killer wine cellar overseen by sommelier Hunter Hammett, an ace at pairings), an on-site garden for the ultimate in locavore ingredients (from roof to table!) and two new chefs in as many years; Andre Natera is the current exec. Pyramid wants to remind everyone it’s still there — and teach newcomers that it’s not daddy’s haunt anymore.

The effort is paying off — or at least it’s close to it. The menu is smart and vibrant (and well-priced, for a high-end hotel restaurant), fresh ingredients show off their muscularity on the plate. But sometimes, technique suffers.

Not on the amuse bouche, though — well, half of it. Chef Natera usually sends out two items to prime the palate, and the combination we tried showed thoughtfulness. A demitasse of pumpkin soup, spiced up with Spanish chorizo and some cayenne pepper (then topped with a light foam) turns the traditional autumnal flavorings of pumpkin on their head: It’s spicy without cliché, and satisfying.

Served alongside the soup was a scallop salad (also available as an appetizer, $10).

DUCK,  DUCK, GOOSE EGG | The pan roasted duck breast at Pyramid is enormous and gorgeous, but tender? Not so much. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

The sear on mine — and everyone’s at the table — was too faint, though: It needed more caramelization to fully evoke the scallop’s flavor. But the bits of crispy pancetta among the green apples, frisee and sherry dressing melded warmly.

The pork belly starter ($9), on the other hand, was a triumph of technique: Braised and cooked sous vide (under vacuum), pressing it into a compact cube of layered pork. Maple glaze, apples and traces of cinnamon added a savory-sweetness, as did the celery root puree. If you can handle the unexpected heat from jalapeno, the tuna crudo ($9) is a winner. Thin slices of raw tuna are accented by near-invisible slices of grape, imbuing a hidden sweet character that contrasts to the bite of radish and chile. Presentation is also excellent.

Terrine is a tricky menu item. It’s a hearty preparation, and the venison version here ($9) boasts a density that makes for an appetizer better shared than enjoyed alone. Aside from that, this rustic peasant food transports you to Provence, with authentic Dijon mustard and cornichons, and a cherry reduction that kicks all the flavors down the road. (Pickles and mustard? No easy task for Hammett to pair a wine with that.) So far, so good.

Then comes the duck ($27). You’re first struck by its imposing size. This isn’t some delicate cut, but a slab of pan-seared bird of deeply crisped and pink flesh. I dove in.

Tough — almost too tough to cut, not to say eat. Another corner perhaps. Worse. None of it was great. Maybe there’s a reason duck breast is often served in small portions. The yam puree underneath became a mess while I struggled to cut it. It would take Dr. House — or at least Dexter — to make this work.

Dessert kept this meal from ending badly. An indulgent tart tatin hit the spot. Sliced wings of fresh, spicy apple, doused in syrup, arrived on a wavy disc of pastry anchored by a dollop of ice cream. Seasonal aromas set my mood right, and the flaky pastry was the perfect medium for soothing the meal and my disappointment in the duck.

A number of other desserts piqued my interest (Mexican fondant? Petite cupcakes? Drool), but they can wait for next time. There’ll be a next time; I wanna see where this goes.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 26, 2010.