The French Room, Dallas. Peerless Food Preparation In A Dingy, Denuded Room
by Andrew Chalk
I went to the The French Room recently. My first visit since the post-restoration opening in October 2017, and the first under current chef Diego Fernandez. I was treated to some of the best prepared food that I have ever had in Dallas, leaving me in no doubt of this chef’s talent. Beyond the food I ate, everything else was disappointing. Allow me to explain.
First the food. A starter of Smoked Sturgeon Tortelli with Crème Fraîche, Chive, and Caviar ($25) featured seven tortelli crafted of the most precisely al dente pasta I have tasted for months. The filling of smoked sturgeon may have been ‘gilding the lily’ with its luxury ingredient emphasis but worked, judged solely as a tasty, earthy filling forceful enough to stand up to the pasta.
A main course of Porcelet Porchetta with Romano Beans, Puntarelle, and Bagna Cauda was likewise exquisitely prepared and something I would order again in a heartbeat.
I skipped dessert, solely because the above were ample after a large lunch earlier in the day.
Wine prices are Dallas-stratospheric. For example, Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut is $20 by the glass. Total Wine will sell you the bottle for $50. I don’t know if they have pretentions to localness but no Texas wines are on the list.
So 10/10 for the food. If food were the only thing that mattered in this rarified strata of fine dining then all would be excellent. Unfortunately, at this level almost everyone expects a total experience. Let’s go through the problems.
The renovations to the room are a disaster. In the baroque era one may have felt embarrassed being stared at by 20 half-naked cherubs while chewing a sausage, but at nighttime in the post-renovation era it is like eating in a reproduction of EUR. I almost expected the waiters to goosestep. Part of the problem is the dingy lighting which generates a mood of living through a California style blackout without a generator. All of the promotional pictures are taken in broad daylight, when the restaurant is closed. The management would behoove themselves to visit, say, Garrison at the Fairmont, Austin for a compelling example of how to light a large, smooth-walled room.
While the food was exquisitely prepared, the menu has too little ingredient range. Entrées consist of two beef, two pork, one salmon and one scallop dish. No game, no lamb. Forget organ meat. Among starters there is not even a soup. Oddest of all is that this non-threatening menu is being assigned to a chef who earned his stripes at the edgiest restaurant on the North American continent (Alinea). I just get the feeling that something has to give. Either The French Room goes modernist, or the chef leaves and is replaced by someone with more journeyman capabilities. Fernandez is the third chef since the renovation in October 2017, so his life expectancy is about one year.
Service on our visit was willing and professional but our waitress seemed to have been assigned a lot to do, and only a few tables were occupied on the Tuesday night that we went. She had to deal with wine requests as well. There seemed to be no sommelier (more on that later).
Putting this together: sommelier eliminated, lighting an afterthought, no flowers to enliven the stern lines of this Mussolini mausoleum, the lack of exotic proteins on the menu. All this smells of a place run by accountants. Budgets have been cut to the bone. It is the tragic end of a Dallas icon.
GM Victor Rojas has a different take. The French Room has already pivoted to appeal to younger diners (important when death is the leading cause of customer attrition). As I navigate to the restaurant’s home page on the web I am baffled. It looks like an invitation to the court of Louis XIV. Nothing youthful about it. The menu we have already discussed. Jackets are “strongly preferred” for gentlemen and cocktail attire preferred for women, according to The Dallas Morning News. Millenials don’t own jackets and cocktail attire is a new tattoo.
I think The French Room needs competing outside consultants to look at it, and a management willing to pivot based on the recommendations.
Update: Since my visit, Aaron Benson has been appointed sommelier. He is one of the best in town and a trustworthy guide for the wine-loving patron. This means that they have the right people in the kitchen, and the wine cellar. Maybe there is hope.