Dallas restaurants, please don’t listen to the new restaurant critic

Posted on August 21, 2009

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The Dallas Morning News‘ restaurant critic, Leslie Brenner, has been here all of six months. And she’s got our dining scene all figured out.

She came from L.A., and I agree with parts of her assessment about how Dallas can become a better restaurant city, like using more local produce and offering more fruit desserts alongside all the chocolate. She says a few nice things about our scene and starts off by ticking off the main Dallas hoods — “Uptown, downtown, Oak Lawn, the Arts District, the Park Cities, Bishop Arts District” — to show that she knows us, complimenting our “vibrancy” because we eat out for lunch.

I am not a critic and I am not a foodie. But I laughed while I read this column, because it screams, “Why isn’t Dallas doing things the way I’m used to?” It’s all the funnier because it’s written by a fresh-from-the-airport transplant from L.A. Her big gripe, that our chefs and restaurateurs are giving Dallasites what they want.

Counter: Dallas restaurateurs, do not listen to her; please continue giving me what I want: good food, not high art. I will simply stop visiting you if this changes.

I want to believe she only means that we should look to other cities to emulate how they’ve carved out a reputation for themselves. But the column reads like she’s suggesting we actually de-Dallas ourselves. I don’t know why in the world we’d want to do that.

Leslie sounds like a bad American tourist in a foreign city, wondering why everyone’s doing things differently and upsetting her comfort cart. I’ve never heard a critic come out and say quite as straight as she does that a city should, essentially, study other large cities’ restaurants and copy them. That wouldn’t make us better; that would make us lame.

She seems to be experiencing a bit of lost-in-translation culture confusion. She says servers at sushi restaurants here are confused when she wants to order directly from the chef. Perhaps they’re confused because that’s not a thing here. The chef wouldn’t have conveyed to your server which fish is good? Maybe that’s customary in sushi restaurants elsewhere, but from a local’s perspective, it’s seems like a big waste of everyone’s time. We can be pretty pretentious here, but I can’t imagine my boring question of “What fish is good today?” as being so important that I would need to drag the chef away from his or her work of conjuring up the exciting, New York-flavored dishes you admonish them to provide us, when I could simply ask my waiter.

She also gets offended when she’s left food on her plate and the server doesn’t ask her what’s up with that. Maybe I can lend a regional lesson here as well. Sure, some servers will subtly inquire, but generally they don’t ask why you’ve left food on your plate because it’s none of their business. Maybe you became full before finishing, maybe you’re trying to lose weight, maybe you get gas if you consume too much wheat flour, maybe the portions are simply too large to prudently complete. Consider it regional manners that they’re not asking. We tend to be a little more independent here, so if a meal is that bad, don’t be a wallflower about it. Leslie does remind us that diners have a responsibility to say something if the food isn’t working for them, but she says this right after boo-hooing that servers don’t do the asking. She advises servers, “Pay attention to what diners are silently telling you.” Honey, we don’t silently tell anyone anything. Restaurateurs know this.

She also says our chefs should travel (could she be more condescending. Why does she assume they don’t travel? Because we’re in Texas and Texans don’t travel?) and that creme brulee is so 1994 (if we enjoy a dessert and it works, we’re not going to care if it’s from 1884 or 3004).

My gripe about the Dallas dining (and nightlife) scene is that it wants to be L.A. and New York so badly. It takes itself a little too seriously and behaves like a wealthy yet self-conscious teenager at NorthPark, constantly wondering who’s looking at her and trying too hard. Dallas needs to do Dallas and stop trying so desperately to be somewhere else. It’s not charming and erodes regional identity. Let’s explore (the so 1980s) Southwestern cuisine further. Let’s make ourselves known for the Dallas flavor we blend with other styles, too, like vegan, Asian, Brazilian, Italian.

When my mother made spaghetti and other pasta growing up, the sauce contained ground hamburger meat and jalapenos with a side of garlic Texas toast and salad with Ranch dressing. Borrow from a region’s ratatouille, and the people will love you. Borrowing too heavily from another region only further prevents Dallas from forming a unique identity outside of that dang-blasted TV show we’re known for. Being innovative means exploring regional spins on established cuisines. I imagine that travelers visiting with us would like to experience how Dallas does Korean, not how another city does Korean.

Along with regional spins, I’m down with classic, authentic flavors of French, Italian, etc., and I’m not going to fault a restaurant that doesn’t get freaky with the tapas and paella. When I eat Spanish, that’s what I want.

But mostly you’re going to find me at very North Texas eateries, like El Ranchito, Manny’s Tex-Mex, Joe T.’s and Spiral Diner. They give me what I want, which is a mix of comfort and new experiences.

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