Abacus for Restaurant Week, A Return

18 Aug

I typically use Restaurant Week as an inexpensive way to check out a fine dining establishment I haven’t had a chance to try, a way to test the waters with just a little toe dip instead of a full-body dive.  However, even though I tried Abacus for the first time at Restaurant Week last year, a return visit was in order after the Iron Chef Battle Elk episode and the restaurant’s complete interior remodel following Chef Rathbun’s Iron Chef victory (bye bye 1980’s southwestern booth seating). 

The fabric covering on the seats may have traded in passe busy patterns for neutral and airy, but the Restaurant Week menu still presented many of the same selections from the previous year.  This year’s menu included more choices for the first and second courses, but the dessert course was a no-choice sampler.  Similar to previous years (and a tradition that will likely continue), Abacus places an hour and half time limit on Restaurant Week reservations in order to maximize the number of patrons served during this charitable time.  That’s no problem with me, I’m not coming to Restaurant Week for a nice dinner complete with thoughtful conversation.  My dining companion is one whose sentence I can finish before he even starts, as much as he seems to dislike that little habit.  Wine pairings for the three course meal are available for $30/person, but recalling how buzzed I was after downing three glasses of wine in the course of a little over an hour last year, I dared not to take on that challenge again.  I opted for a peartini (not too sweet and not too tart) and my companion had the taste highlight of the evening, el diablo, a tequila drink mixed with lime juice and ginger.  The beverage starts out smooth but tingles at the back of your tongue with a concentrated punch of ginger.

Did I give too much away by calling a specialty cocktail the highlight of the evening?  Well, the rest of the evening wasn’t terrible, but the theme for the night seemed to be “sloppy.”

We started the evening with the Central Market bonus course.  You guessed it, lobster shooters.  Like last year, I found the boldly flavorful broth to be overwhelming for the fried lobster balls.  I would much prefer something more delicate that doesn’t hide the taste of the lobster.  Additionally, on this evening, the broth was just lukewarm and the chewy fried lobster balls tasted like they sat out a little too long before being served.  The details didn’t come together for this dish on this evening, but I still like the concept (and longed for the version I had last year).

Onto the appetizers:

My starter was the seared diver scallop with Meyer lemon risotto and white asparagus in shellfish butter sauce.  For the sake that it was Restaurant Week, I won’t dwell on the fact that this was one of the smallest scallops I’ve seen in a fine dining restaurant in… well, ever.  Portion size issues aside, the scallop was almost burnt to a crisp on top.  Once you start working that addictively rich shellfish butter sauce with the food, though, you could almost forget the unfortunate texture of the scallop.  Risotto was perfectly creamy with the occasional crunch of the white asparagus.  Again, love the concept of the dish, but execution was sloppy this evening.

Across the table, buffalo-shiitake potstickers.  This was probably the only savory dish whose concept didn’t make sense to me.  The description sounded creative and appealing on the menu, but when the potstickers came out, the delicate skins on half of the potstickers were broken (on the bottom).  Additionally, the skin was limp and slimy, and thus had a greasy-like mouthfeel.  A generous streak of too-sweet plum sauce topped the potstickers and overwhelmed the flavor of the filling.  When you scrape off the plum sauce topping, the flavor of the buffalo and shiitake combination comes through as smokey but balanced.  Loving the flavor concept of the filling but not the way the dish was carried out, I asked myself what I would do differently.  First, I would attempt a more substantial skin on the potstickers, more like the chewy dry fry (versus steam first, then fry) skin of sheng jian bao (by the way, post about Yang’s Fry Dumplings in Shanghai coming in future China trip posts, I promise!!!).  Then, I would go for a hoisin-based sauce rather than plum-based sauce, served on the side rather than slathered on top, giving the diner the option of using more or less sauce, and saving the potsticker skin from growing limp under the moisture of the sauce.  I think that style of potsticker/dumpling would make more sense in the tradition of Asian cooking, but perhaps the fusion cuisine loving masses aren’t ready to veer from generic, sugar-heavy pan-Asian style?

Intermezzo was a tall shot of watermelon slushy, similar to the raspberry limeade spritzer idea from last year.

Entrees fared better.

Pan seared cod with parsnip puree and artichoke in a tomato butter sauce, and no, I didn’t take a bite out of the fish before taking the picture.  The barely-holding-it-together cod fillet is yet another example of kitchen sloppiness.  Nonetheless, the flavor combinations in this dish were just amazing: crispy, moist, flakey fish on top of thick parsnip puree with crunchy artichoke chunks, all topped with an unforgettable tomato butter sauce.  It’s not complicated food, just great tasting food.

Braise beef short rib was a small, but deliciously tender and moist, serving.  Port wine sauce that topped the short rib and mushrooms was a little light on port flavor but unified the dish nicely.  The awkward half under-cooked, half over-cooked layered potato au gratin square was the only misstep in the dish.  It was just hard to eat and the Parmesan flavor was too subtle to detect.

The dessert sampler presented to every Restaurant Week diner was the least impressive course of the evening.

 

I realize doing a sampler like this, where each item can be prepared ahead of time, is time and labor efficient for Restaurant Week.  But these pastries are more suited for a country club banquet than a fine dining restaurant.  From left to right: pecan blondie, cheesecake with raspberry sauce, Vahlrona cream sandwich, mini red velvet cupcake, and Scharffenberger Kit-Kat.  It’s not that anything was particularly bad, just nothing really stood out.  The richly nutty pecan blondie was probably the best of the bunch with the Kit-Kat being the most disappointing, it just tasted like dense, too-dry chocolate cake.  I would’ve much preferred a quality single dessert rather than five mediocre pastries.

I did notice Chef Rathbun making the rounds in the dining room as we were leaving, a nice touch.

Overall thoughts?  I can attribute the sloppy kitchen errors and the bare-bones service to Restaurant Week exhaustion and overload, but choice of certain ingredients (smaller scallops) and no-choice, unimpressive dessert sampler (which probably oohs and ahhs the inexperienced diner with “variety”) seem to indicate that Abacus is tailoring its Restaurant Week menu to patrons that they don’t anticipate will return during regular times.  It may be a smart tactic, since the non-returning patron seems to be in the majority during Restaurant Week anyway.  As Abacus’ Restaurant Week menu grows more and more a faint shadow of the restaurant’s actual capabilities, I think I will no longer be visiting during these hectic times.  I know I love the ideas and flavor combinations in these dishes as all impressed except the potstickers.  Thus, in a round-about and almost unintentional way, Restaurant Week at Abacus has made me want to return during non-Restaurant Week.  

Link to last year’s Restaurant Week visit to Abacus: http://donnacooks.wordpress.com/2007/08/21/restaurant-week-at-abacus/

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12 Responses to “Abacus for Restaurant Week, A Return”

  1. Mike Smith 08/19/2008 at 11:56 am #

    How can you say that the food is sloppy when they are serving three times the number of people they normally do to help out charity. Do you think Restaurant week helps them out??? I used to be in the restaurant business in New York and got out of it when I married and moved to Dallas. Do you think that going out for restaurant week and traveling makes you “experienced diner”?

    I ate there last night and found the meal to be superb. If the portions are smaller, could it be due to the fact that we are paying $35 for a 3 course meal, plus an intermezzo?? 7 of the $35 is then given to the food bank. So the restaurants are left with $28 for that meal. Have you seen the rising prices at the grocery store. Guess what, it is the same for restaurants, even more since a lot of them choose higher quality ingredients.

    I had the scallops and they were excellent, cooked to perfection and the short ribs. I asked for an extra portion of the au gratin potatoes they were so good. I think it is a great idea if you do not go to restaurant week any more like you said and enjoy the full price perfection that you get at all other times

  2. Margie 08/19/2008 at 11:59 am #

    That’s really too bad. I hate being disappointed. I’ve had such a great time this year. There’s only one on my list that I’ve visited before and it’s Bijoux. Every year we go to the one we liked the best from the previous year. I sure hope Bijoux is as good as last year. Are you going anywhere else this year?

    You got some good shots, by the way!

  3. donnaaries 08/19/2008 at 12:59 pm #

    Mike,

    “How can you say that the food is sloppy when they are serving three times the number of people they normally do to help out charity.”

    Because the food WAS sloppy. I did conclude in my review that I can excuse the sloppy food due to the fact that it was Restaurant Week.

    “Do you think Restaurant week helps them out??? I used to be in the restaurant business in New York and got out of it when I married and moved to Dallas.”

    No, I never said that Abacus (or any of the other high end establishments) profit from Restaurant Week. In fact, I know it’s the opposite. Most high end places lose money during Restaurant Week.

    “Do you think that going out for restaurant week and traveling makes you “experienced diner”?”

    Going out for Restaurant Week certainly does not make an experienced diner. In this review, I’m simply comparing Restuarant Week at Abacus from this year to last year. In which case, last year was a much more pleasant experience.

    “I ate there last night and found the meal to be superb. If the portions are smaller, could it be due to the fact that we are paying $35 for a 3 course meal, plus an intermezzo?? 7 of the $35 is then given to the food bank. So the restaurants are left with $28 for that meal. Have you seen the rising prices at the grocery store. Guess what, it is the same for restaurants, even more since a lot of them choose higher quality ingredients.”

    Ditto, aware of all these things.

    “I had the scallops and they were excellent, cooked to perfection and the short ribs. I asked for an extra portion of the au gratin potatoes they were so good.”

    Looks like you lucked out where we did not. Photographs don’t lie, my plates obviously did not fare as well as yours.

    “I think it is a great idea if you do not go to restaurant week any more like you said and enjoy the full price perfection that you get at all other times.”

    I think that’s exactly what I concluded.

    Thanks for reading.

  4. luniz 08/19/2008 at 2:18 pm #

    <3

  5. FatCap 08/19/2008 at 6:13 pm #

    donnaaries is experienced enough of an diner to have written 79 reviews of DFW restaurants (including Abacus) in the past two years, helping to provide content to both Pegasus News and an upcoming book of reviews covering the NTX dining scene. Her upcoming series (so she keeps promising!!!) will cover her latest culinary adventures in China, making her an internationally-experienced diner. Accusing her of having to claim expertise via RW week visits is among the silliest of silly notions.

    Sloppy is sloppy, no matter when, even when the kitchen just couldn’t help it. I thought donnaaries found, and wrote about, a lot of positives in her meal. I would hazard a guess that her sub-par, by Abacus standards, RW meal will not prevent her future returns to the restaurant. THAT is one mark of an experienced diner.

    By the way, how was the service? My experience is that, some two weeks into this year’s grind, a lot of the service staffs are holding up better, for a number of reasons. We’ll see how things are by month’s end, for those restaurants extending RW to Aug 31.

  6. frustrated 08/19/2008 at 11:56 pm #

    I think the point that Mike makes is…if you want to “review” Abacus, then maybe restaurant week isn’t the best time to do it…Abacus will probably send over $40,000 to the food bank this year, (no one seems to acknowledge that fact) and this is money on top of lost food cost…not the perfect time to “review” a restaurant. Restaurant week should be about getting a meal and giving to charity. Not about a competition between restaurants so people can complain.

  7. donnaaries 08/20/2008 at 7:39 am #

    frustrated, the “review” wasn’t intended to be an overview of the restaurant, and in no way does the post try to state that it’s a general review. It is meant to reflect the experience of a RW diner.

    “As Abacus’ Restaurant Week menu grows more and more a faint shadow of the restaurant’s actual capabilities…”

    I’m clearly stating that I know Abacus is capable of more than what the RW experience captured.

    Additionally, I think we all know that RW is for charity and we all appreciate that fact. However, some restaurants seem to be able to put on a better show than others during this hectic time.

  8. donnaaries 08/20/2008 at 9:01 am #

    Oops, got so caught up in responding to Mike and frustrated, I forgot to respond to the other comments!

    Margie, yes I’ll be checking out Bijoux later this week. From all the good things I’ve heard, I’m really looking forward to it.

    FatCap, service was just sufficient, which is all I’m really looking for in RW anyway. We didn’t experience any grouchy servers like I’ve read about in other RW reviews.

  9. Margie 08/20/2008 at 11:47 am #

    I think it’s very interesting to know what people think of a restaurant during RW. It’s a good indication of what they can do under pressure. You had such a good experience last year it would be hard for them to live up to it again. I’m hoping I won’t find that to be the case at Bijoux this Friday. I LOVED it last year.

  10. sass 08/22/2008 at 1:04 pm #

    Restaurant Week is all about taking a chance. Consistency is the hardest thing for restaurants to maintain in the RW craziness.

    There’s nothing wrong with posting a review of a RW experience. Personally, I love reading about other people’s RW dinners, good or bad. And really – anyone who decides to avoid a particular restaurant because of one disappointed RW review is not thinking straight.

    Anyway, just wanted to say that we had dinner at Abacus last night and it was really great. It looks like you caught the kitchen at an off moment. My scallop was just slightly browned on top and was probably the best dish I’ve had during my entire RW experience. And thanks to your review, I ordered the cod and couldn’t have been happier with that decision. So thanks for that.

  11. True 07/13/2009 at 2:22 pm #

    I have been a regular Abacus diner; and found the service unacceptable during resturant week. They were rude.

  12. Kate 08/19/2009 at 11:22 pm #

    I dined at Abacus tonight for the first time ever (and during RW). The food and service was incredible!

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