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Feasting on Seafood at Truluck’s

12 May

A week ago, I was invited to Truluck’s in Southlake along with some other DFW food writers for a menu tasting.  With summer right around the corner, what could be more perfect than a giant platter of fresh seafood (we just needed someone to import some sand and shells to our landlocked region).

We started with a sampling of the appetizers paired with a Spanish Cava.

Crab Rangoons:

I have to admit, I was skeptical and snarky at first, thinking “even Truluck’s is getting into overly done Asian fusion trend?”  But these perfectly crunchy wonton wrappers brought the crab back to crab rangoon.  Paired with a sweet but pungent fish sauce based dipping sauce, the moist, flavorful lump crab inside these rangoons washed away all the fears of those mass buffet soggy cream cheese nightmares.

Miso Butterscotch Chicken Wings:

Thankfully this rendition of miso butterscotch was in no way reminiscient of the “Willy Wonka-esque” (Bourdain, Top Chef Season 4) Dale Talde butterscotch scallops.  The sauce was still a little sweet for my taste, but a nice variation on the traditional buffalo wing.

Mini Bacon Cheeseburgers

These little sliders were juicy and rich, with the smokey bacon being particularly memorable.

The best part about these appetizers?  Truluck’s features them at half price during happy hour Monday through Saturday from 4:30 to 7:00pm and all day Sunday.  Cocktails are also half price during happy hour.  No wonder the bar lounge area was booming on this Tuesday evening.

We then moved onto the massive platter of fresh shellfish known as Truluck’s Seafood Tower.

Succulent Maine lobster, sweet Florida stone crab claws, Gulf shrimp, and moist and delectable blue crab cocktail made up this ginormous feast.  The seafood tower truly lets Truluck’s shine at its best, quality seafood and simple preparation.

We also sampled the scrumptious Superlumb Crabcakes.

Then it was onto soups and salads, featuring a lovely Gulf Coast gumbo with a spicy, southwestern kick and a creamy Lobster Bisque with a surprising citrusy finish.

 

Also sampled were the Sonoma Greens Salad with goat cheese, candied pecans, sliced apples, and kalamata olives

and the gluttonous Wedge Salad loaded with Maytag blue cheese and diced bacon.

Live music kept the dining room festive on this weekday evening, featuring a piano player/vocalist.  The main entrees came out to the tune of Radiohead’s “Creep,” for a change of pace from the classic Billy Joel.

MSC certified Miso Glazed Chilean Seabass was served with a slightly too sweet crab fried rice and refreshing chilled cucumber slaw.  Texas Striped Bass Pontchartrain came in a golden crust of Parmesan served with an étouffée styled smothering of baby gulf shrimp, crawfish tails, and fresh crab meat over rice.

Niman Ranch New York Strip came with giant Nigerian King Shrimp that nearly stole the show from the steak

and Jalapeño Salmon came topped with fresh crab meat, gulf shrimp, and a bearnaise sauce with a jalapeño kick.

We weren’t done yet.  Another highlight of the evening was the succulent, colossal Dutch Harbor Red King Crab (a la Deadliest Catch) served with grilled jumbo asparagus and lemon-garlic butter.  There is an adult human hand in this photo for size comparison of these immense crab legs.

The entrees were accented by a creamy side of King Crab Mac n Cheese that can stand its own against any great steakhouse version.

We ended the evening with a variety dessert platter with Carrot Cake, Key Lime Pie, and the standout, decadent Chocolate Malt Cake.

It was the perfect feast for an evening that felt like the beginning of summer.  Truluck’s truly shines in its fresh seafood offerings with a focus on quality ingredients and classic preparations.  The menu offers variety for varied tastes, but never strays far from the restaurant’s strength in seafood.  With Truluck’s locations in Uptown, Addison, and Southlake,  a mammoth Seafood Tower on a breezy summer evening is never too far away.

Sophisticated Tapas in the ‘Burbs (Cafe Malaga)

17 Oct

On the main square of historic downtown McKinney is a little unexpected hidden gem, a narrow, intimate space that brings a breath of urban air to the otherwise sleepy suburb. That treasure is Café Malaga with its simple warm orange walls, dim lighting, cozy European café feel, and the best wine list in McKinney.

Café Malaga’s menu is comprised mostly of tapas in single or double servings. Despite its suburban location, there is little on the menu that screams “safe” or “toned down.” Simple items fare the best: roasted red pepper and onion mojete is a juicy dish of mild sweetness grounded by fresh basil served with baguette slices to mop up the sauce,

 

portabello mushrooms are sautéed in a sherry cream sauce to create an addictive savory sweet sensation (ask for some baguette slices to soak up this sauce, too!),

bacon wrapped dates play on the classic salty-sweet combination with the crispy bacon adding textural depth to the pulpous dates, and fresh Texas goat cheese stuffed, thin-skinned piquillo peppers get extra zing from lime zest and seem to be the highlight of any Café Malaga visit.

More elaborate dishes are still good, but not as memorable. The subtle differences between the cheeses are lost in the messy, gooey five-cheese spinach and artichoke fondue. Served with deep fried pita triangles reminiscent of county fair funnel cake, this fondue dish is simply rich upon rich without a break.

Wood grilled hanger steak and the oven fried potatoes that accompany it seem perpetually overcooked, steak is slightly tough and potato skins have an unpleasant burnt smokiness to them. However, the strong paprika-blue cheese vinaigrette poured over the bite-sized steak pieces and potatoes help cover some of the dish’s shortcomings.

Service is sufficient but indifferent, a bit lacking for a true romantic ambiance but feels authentically European at the same time. So if you are craving a night away from the kids and Hamburger Helper, then call the babysitter and book a grownup evening at Café Malaga. Hint: there is live music every second Saturday of the month.

Rating: 4 / 5

Cafe Malaga
111 W. Virginia St.
McKinney, TX 75069

A Skeleton of Its Former Self (River Spice)

6 Oct

When River Spice first opened its doors in 2003, it breathed fresh air into the too-Americanized Thai food scene in Dallas. The interior space of the restaurant was elegant in a time when the phrases “upscale” and “ethnic” simply did not mix. Local food media were wowed by River Spice’s creative plating and unabashedly authentic dishes like whole fried fish.

Fast forward some five years and River Spice is not faring as well. The Dallas Thai food craze has come and gone, leaving River Spice with half a dozen other stylishly decorated, artistically plated Thai restaurants within a few miles of its bland strip mall location. Moreover, the city’s “it” food vocabulary has moved on from pad thai to everything unagi, wasabi, and edamame.

To cope with the increased competition and calmed customer interest, River Spice is adapting. Thick, black marker lines streak across the menus, hiding the evidence of River Spice’s glory days. A few specialty dishes, along with complimentary Wi-Fi, are no longer available. Long time favorites like drunken noodles and pla yang, whole grilled red snapper wrapped in banana leaves, are still offered. The change does bring one piece of good news to diners: a wine lover’s favorite phrase, “BYOB,” is hand scribbled on the menu’s front page.

These days, River Spice sees more coworkers munching down on value combo plates during the workday lunch hour than friends lingering over conversations at dinner. The discount lunch combo plate with complimentary salad/soup and egg roll is a tactic that most Thai restaurants in the area have adopted for survival. Speedily grinding out plate after plate of pad thai during the lunch rush, one of River Spice’s former star plates is now a pile of saucy orange mess that is almost as sugar-laden as the Pei Wei version. Glass noodle chicken soup, the usual complimentary starter to the lunch combo plates, presents a few lonely noodles floating in a broth that tastes eerily similar to ramen base. Cheaper cuts of meat are used to accommodate plateauing menu prices and rising ingredient costs. The portions remain large, but the slices of over-tenderized, chewy, mushy beef simply don’t belong. Am I eating at a jewel of a Thai restaurant or a low cost Chinese buffet? It’s starting to feel more like the latter.

Rating: 2 / 5

River Spice
18111 Dallas Pkwy
Dallas, TX 75287

Bijoux for Restaurant Week

28 Aug

Just when I was ready to settle on mediocrity for Restaurant Week, a dinner at Bijoux raised the bar again.

A simple, sweet, and savory bite of watermelon and goat cheese amuse bouche set the tone for the lovely evening.

First course options were white corn and coconut soup, salad of mixed greens, crispy pork belly, or melon carpaccio. 

My choice for first course was the beautifully colored melon carpaccio plate topped with tender lump crab meat and microgreens in a tangy dressing.  A nicely balanced plate of subtle, light flavors.

Next to me, my pig-loving dining companion indulged in the seared pork belly with Asian aus jus and carrots and baby bok choy.  I had a good sized sample of the pork belly and I have to say I prefer the seared cooking method on thinner slices of pork belly, when the crispiness of the seared fat is the dominant texture.  Substantial chunks of pork belly like these do better when braised.  Only the outermost layer of the fat layer was crunchy (the interior fat being mushy and well, too fatty) and the bottom “lean” layer suffered from being dry and chewey (like the texture of overfried chicharrones).  Still, it’s hard to argue with the appeal of fatty pork, and the slightly bitter bok choy did a nice job of cutting down on the richness of the pork belly.

One diner across the table chose the corn and coconut soup to start. 

“Tastes just like corn chowder,” she declared. 

“Any hint of coconut?” I inquired.

“Just a little.”

I didn’t taste this dish, so I’ll leave it to your judgement whether more or less coconut is desirable in a creamy corn soup.

The Central Market complimentary course was next.

Smoked prawn atop heirloom tomato slices with a tangy chorizo vinaigrette.  This plate represented the most interesting flavor profile of all the dishes I sampled that evening.  I often think of add touches of citrus and tanginess to seafood, but not to chorizo.  But the smokey and savory yet tangy dressing played an integral role in bringing out the “smoke” factor in the prawns.  The delicate flavor of the heirloom tomatoes was hard to detect when placed against a bold vinaigrette like this one, but the texture was lovely when paired with the prawns.

Entree choices were truffled risotto, Scottish salmon, or New York strip steak.  I guess we were all feeling like carnivores this evening, no one tried the risotto.

I am not the type who usually orders steak when I eat out.  But a bottle of Chateau D’Arcins Bordeaux on the table and description of Tellicherry sauce by the waiter sold me on this plate.  Steak was ordered to medium-rare doneness but presented itself leaning more towards medium doneness.  But obviously the kitchen knew me better than myself on this one, the fatty trim needed those extra seconds of searing to achieve that crispy fatty exterior that I love so much (and was wishing for on the pork belly).  Steak had beautiful texture and mouthfeel, a little zing from the Tellicherry sauce helped me practically lick my plate clean.  The whipped mashed potatoes were airy and clump-free (what else can you say about mashed taters?)  A nice surprise was the chunks of daikon radish in the vegetable mix that looked very similar to the pearl onions also in the mix.  Nothing like a hint of bitterness to ground a rich dish of steak and potatoes.

Two diners at the table tried the salmon atop polenta, asparagus, and mushrooms.  Incidentally, one of the diners who ordered this salmon joined us for dinner earlier this year at Jasper’s where she had almost an identical plate.  I have to give the version at Jasper’s the slight advantage on this one.  The Bijoux version on this evening was a tad on the dry side, and may be a little too salty for some people’s tastes.

A spoonful of tart and refreshing Granny Smith Apple sorbet served as a palate cleanser.  Not tart enough to shock your tastebuds, just a little acid to prepare you for the next course.

The fourth course choices were the Maytag bleu cheese plate, almona panna cotta, or Valrhona chocolate mousse.

It’s hard for me to pass up anything with Valrhona in the ingredient list but my entree was so rich that I didn’t think I could handle such a bold dessert.  Light in both texture and flavor, almond panna cotta with a peach topping, berry sauce, and toasted almond ice cream served as the perfect ending to my almost perfect Restaurant Week meal at Bijoux. 

And lucky for me, my kind dinner companions let me sample the dense, ultra rich Valrhona chocolate mousse.  Passionfruit sauce added brightness to the opulently silky dessert.

I love it when my chocolate is more black than brown.  :)

My pork-loving better half somehow managed to sneak in another form of bacon into his meal when he chose the Maytag blue cheese with pancetta crisp, celery confit, and carrot mousse for his last course.

Not missing a step, the meal ended with a lovely mignardise plate of mini tiramisu sandwich, blueberry muffin, truffle, something gelee and another item I can’t quite recall. 

In contrast to our meal at Abacus this year (not last year, when it was also great), where the dessert sampler were just slightly larger portions of this mignardise plate, Restaurant Week at Bijoux was near perfection.  Service was impeccable.  The waiter took the time to go over the complete menu (and I don’t mean just read the words on the menu out loud, I mean actually explaining the words written on the menu).  Bread service came around at least four times during the meal with choice of olive, rosemary, or raisin bread.  The servers may have been overworked but didn’t show any sign of irritation or stress.  Other than the restaurant being louder than usual due to the large number of patrons, nothing about this meal needed the “oh it’s Restaurant Week” excuse. 

All six of us were first time visitors to Bijoux on this evening.  With the regular prixe fixe three course meal priced at $57 (just a tad more of a reach than the Restaurant Week price), all of us were impressed enough to want to come back to Bijoux for a special occasion meal during non Restaurant Week.  No matter if attracting new customers is truly the goal of Bijoux’s participation in Restaurant Week, they’ve just served six diners who will be talking about this impressive meal for a good while.

Bijoux
5450 W Lovers Ln #225 (in the back of the same shopping center as Inwood Theater)
Dallas, TX 75209

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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