I'm relieved that no one appeared to recognize me when I presented myself to the hostess at The French Room. I dined at this world-famous restaurant the last time I was in Dallas, which was quite a few years ago, and my companion and I were the last customers to leave. That evening I had been oblivious to the time and, beguiled by my beautiful date--and perhaps a little relaxed by a couple of bottles of excellent wine--I eventually noticed that all the other tables were empty. Had we been the only ones there for the last thirty minutes? An hour? More? The wait staff never gave the slightest hint that we were keeping them late. Which, I now realize, should have been no surprise: every detail of the service at The French Room is fit for royalty, and no one ever hints to the king that it's time to go home.
Tonight I'm sitting down with Executive Chef Jason Weaver, who has been at The French Room since August of 2005. A few things about the restaurant have changed since my last visit--jackets are still required but ties are now optional, and the waiters no longer wear tails--but the dining room is still gorgeous.
Mindful of the restaurant's time-honored reputation, I ask the chef how much tradition constrains changes in his menu. Very little, he says, though he acknowledges that he is mindful of what is appropriate for the restaurant. In fact, the menu is constantly evolving and is primarily influenced by the availability of the freshest fish and produce. Dishes may be Moroccan-inflected or Asian, for example--the chef's resume includes stints at the Mandarin Oriental properties in Miami and New York--and of course French. No simple label characterizes the food here: I've seen it described as New American, and it's certainly not classical French. Anyway, Weaver notes, "French cuisine today isn't what it was fifty years ago."
The chef starts me off with a sample of his homemade charcuterie: slices of bresaola and French garlic sausage. Weaver says he really likes to make sausages and cured meats, and he regales me with an account of the process behind these flavorful delights. The bresaola takes about five weeks to make, the garlic sausage about twenty days. I could very happily make a meal of these meats, some crusty bread, and the appropriate red wine...but the chef has only just begun my introduction to his favorite dishes.
Next up is a French Room classic, the Crab Cake with Tomato Jam. Some version of the dish has long been a mainstay at the restaurant: it's one menu item that long time customers pleaded with Chef Weaver to retain when he arrived in Dallas. Which he did, although he applied some of his own touches, like the little dollop of tomato jam atop the crab cake and the lemongrass-lobster sauce in which it is served. I am such a fan of crab cake that I'm usually satisfied with the version served in joints like Joe's Clam Shack or The Krusty Krab, but The French Room execution is in another league altogether. For one thing, there are no bread crumbs or other fillers in this crab cake: the crabmeat is held together with a very delicate shrimp mousse. This is far and away the best crab cake I've ever come across.
Because I'm so enthralled with my Crab Cake and focused on my conversation with Weaver, I absently sip one of the wines chosen for me by the chef and wine steward. This is not a wine that ought to be taken for granted, however, and I actually do a double take to make sure I've got more of it my glass. When I turn back the chef, he's smiling at my reaction: I may have been surprised by the flavor, but he expected it. What is that wine? I ask. It's a 2006 Gewurztraminer, an Alsatian wine from Lucien Albrecht, I'm told.
As if on cue, my server appears: "Would you like some more?" I most certainly would, I say...but I'm driving.
I turn from one of the restaurant's oldest dishes to one of its newest, a summertime addition to the menu: Tuna Tartare on Watermelon. The tuna and melon are an identical deep shade of red and I didn't realize what I was about to taste--or even that the dish had two distinct main components--until the chef explained it. The tuna is topped with a soy-sugar drizzle and bits of avocado and brioche. This strikingly beautiful serving is part of the chef's Asian-influenced repetoire. It's as tasty as it looks...and it goes well with the Gewurztraminer.
Weaver is a decorated Marine who served in Desert Shield, Desert Storm, and Somalia. When I learned about his military experience, my first thought was that that realm of activity is vastly different from running a kitchen. But then I realized that both jobs require a great deal of drill and discipline up front, so that when things heat up--in the field or in the kitchen--one has an instinctive grasp of the skills required to deal with the particular circumstances. When I try out this thesis on the chef he doesn't treat it like the craziest thing he's ever heard. The jobs are "not as different as people might think," he says. "The activities are different but even the structure in kitchens is similar to the military. Chef--sous chef, staff sergeant--sergeant. There's never any confusion about hierarchy."
(Later, I seize a few minutes with Jim Donohue, The French Room's estimable Maitre d’, and he tells me that while Chef Weaver is no martinet, his kitchens are indeed extremely well-run and professional.)
Finally, I'm on to my third appetizer. It's Braised Pork Belly with five spice and ginger, with a little bit of celery root and apple salad on top, all served on a bed of lentils with soy, sugar, and lemon. The experts have matched a Siduri 2006 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir to go with the pork belly.
While the tuna and watermelon clearly required quite a bit of plating and presentation time, it had zero cooking time. This pork belly, on the other hand, has been cooking for the better part of the day. The chef obviously relishes my request to learn more about the preparation. He tells me the pork belly is first rubbed in five spice, then marinated in orange juice and stock with ginger, onions, celery, and cinnamon. It's then gently braised for six or seven hours. The pork bellies come out, and the liquid cools down. Then the liquid undergoes "reducing, reducing, reducing." The cook sears the meat, then it goes into the pan for glazing with the reduced liquid.
It's melt-in-your-mouth delicious. And, I ask the chef, no fat or cholesterol either, right? He laughs and tells me that may have been the case with the tuna and watermelon, but with the pork belly....
The food is brilliant, the service peerless, and I'm learning a lot about fine food and the evolution of a first-rate chef. Yet Chef Weaver has already given me much more to write about than I can report in one interview, and I know I'm keeping him from his work: he oversees not only this dining room but five other kitchens in The Adolphus.
There's a very tempting grand tasting menu of thirteen courses, and I wonder if I could possibly eat ten more of these sublime dishes.
I do know I could easily stay here all night, wining and dining. After all, I've done it before.
For menus, hours of service, and reservations contact information, visit the website of The French Room at The Adolphus, Downtown Dallas.
© Marshal Zeringue