The ‘lipstick building’ as it has been known to cab drivers and long-term residents since its construction in 1984, is considered iconic by some and gimmicky architecture by others. Nonetheless, there is agreement that it is one of Dallas’ most distinctive buildings. It has been a luxury hotel under a couple of brands but currently it’s the Renaissance Dallas Hotel.
Renaissance is Marriott’s “lifestyle’ brand,” according to general manager Mark Woelffer. Marriott regards Westin’s ‘W’ brand and Hyatt their closest competition. With that mandate it’s great to their renewed commitment to opening a destination restaurant in the hotel. Asador is the creation of Dean James Max a successful chef in Florida with a couple of James Beard nominations. Their slogan is “Modern Farm To Fire.”
So, a new name, a celebrity executive chef, and a catchy slogan. Could this be a good deal for Dallas? I attended a press event and followed up with a Q&A e-mail with some of the people involved to get a better look at the restaurant.
First, what does that slogan mean? Modern Farm To Fire is intended to describe the restaurant’s food as New American made with ingredients that are providentially sound and, here’s the kicker, cooked on an open mesquite fire. That technique actually applies to the meat, fish, and some of the vegetables. By providentially sound sourcing, I mean sourcing conforms to a set of rules. The Renaissance’s rules are embodied in the words artisan, local, organic, natural, seasonal, and sustainable. Asador tries to adhere to these rules as best as they can and remain viable in the modern world. For example, on the night we dined, there was Hudsbeth Farms grass fed beef on the menu. But if a significant block of Asador’s customers insist on grain fed beef the restaurant will have to accede to majority rule. Pragmatic idealism has to be the modus operandi here.
How can an $11billion corporation with 3,500 franchised hotels in 70 countries possible link up with local suppliers and react seasonally? The answer seems to be to install the right people on the ground and give them the authority to take decisions to implement the mandate. In the case of Asador, the man on the spot is David Trubenbach, chef of Asador Restaurant. He has been with Marriott for 8 years. Before arriving in Dallas he worked in Florida at the Grande Lakes JW Marriott in Orlando, and at Primo by Melissa Kelly. He met Chef Dean Max through events and working with Marriott. The two also used some of the same farmers in Florida. At Asador, Trubenbach has the authority to change the menu and does so by a dish or two a day, depending on ingredient availability. The menu is a floppy piece of cardboard printed on the in house laser printer so that changes can be slip-streamed in at short notice.
We started with a selection from the section of the menu named ‘Snacks.’ These are small plates priced from $4 to $9 that can be combined depending how heavy you want your meal to be. Think of them as starters, or tapas, or components of a meal in themselves.
Jar of Pickles ($4) is literally that–pickled cucumbers, cauliflower, carrots, and radishes in habanero vinegar. Order these with something else to ameliorate the acid zing but the unalloyed flavors of the vegetables makes this worth trying. The side of Crispy Fried Artichokes with Avocado Aioli ($6) are fried, seasoned and topped with the aioli. These artichokes had
acquired a texture of boiled potatoes. This dish was one of our favorites. Shishito Peppers with Lime Salt ($5) was one of those uncannily simple preparations that just work so well that you think the components must have been created to go together. These mild Japanese peppers are fried and then doused with a little salt on the plate before service. I picked them up by the stem and bit them off whole. Actually, these would be a great snack with beer while watching a game. Perhaps the most intriguing small plate was one that was not on the menu on the night we visited: Texas Cigars (Trubenbach says that he has the method down for individual tables, but is still experimenting with how to scale it to
restaurant quantities. Fortunately I was allowed to try some.) These are beef, pork, and lamb mixed together into a paté, wrapped in Brik pastry, and deep fried. Trubenbach serves them with a tomatillo sauce, although the mixing possibilities are endless. These things are addictive and likely to go the way of “signature status.” They’re delicious, scalable (you can eat just one – or 16!) and portable in crowded events when dressed in fancy duds.
Next was Tamarind Grilled Texas Quail ($7). I think the tamarind is one of the most subtle fruit flavors in cookery and in this
preparation the basted tamarind had concentrated and dried on the skin of this bird to wrap it in an envelope of Asian flavors.
Tortilla Soup ($7) has a long and venerable history in Dallas. So much history in fact that it’s kind of incumbent on any establishment that introduces it now to meet a stiff set of local expectations. David Trubenbach’s version is going to receive studied murmurs of approval. Tortillas are pureed in chicken broth to develop a ginger colored and brawny bodied style of soup that has a warm, slightly sweet, soft finish.
From the section of the menu titled ‘Market’ we had Heirloom Tomato and Smoked Mozzarella ($13). It included ‘fire-kissed’ asparagus, frisée, pecan encrusted smoked mozzarella, and balsamic vinegar. It was an unusual salad and drew its most interesting note from the smoked mozzarella. This may be the most intriguing example of this normally straightforward cheese that I have tasted. The mozzarella is purchased from The Mozzarella Company then cold smoked (i.e. surrounded by ice or in a refrigerator) to impart the haunting smoky flavor.
Hudsbeth Farms Beef Tacos ($10) must live or die by the condition and preparation of the beef – and these rocked. Sure, red beans, salsa roja, and tomatillo salsa wrapped up the filling in the house made corn tortilla but it was the earthy umami-rich gently charred beef that was the foundation. I will give a shout out here to ‘Taco Tuesdays’ which starts next week at which, alongside these tacos, you can have tuna with Napa cabbage and avocado tacos, fish tacos (no tilapia, I hope), brisket tacos and, frankly, whatever comes into Trubanbach’s head. The guy is machine gun shooting out ideas.
On the ‘Large Plates’ menu section we had Grilled Wild King Salmon ($20) with citrus scented bulghur rice, fennel salad, and blood orange reduction. The bulghur here was blended with basmati and pearl (short grain) rice. The aromatics included jasmine, orange, and ginger. The fennel salad included pea tendrils (see picture), shaved fennel, blood orange segments and a blood orange reduction was lapped over the top. The mesquite grilling of the salmon fillet developed that crisp sear that makes salmon taste exotic. Parsing the flavor components of this dish is heady stuff as there are so many things going on. But, like a professional synchronized swimming display, the parts all work together. I hope the weary travelers who form the backbone of the hotel’s trade appreciate that they may be tasting one of the most subtle, complex salmon dishes they will come across at any restaurant on their travels. I have salmon fatigue, but I could order this dish again without equivocation.
Lastly desserts. These are made in house. We had the White Chocolate and Fruit Bread Pudding with Spiced Hot Chocolate ($8) and then the Local Ice Cream and House made Cookies ($6). Our sugar fix had been sated. The ice cream (coffee caramel flavor) came from Waco’s Homestead Heritage.
Now be aware that if you are looking for an intimate night out, this isn’t the place. The restaurant setting reminds me of Terminal D at DFW, or Changi: One of those airport terminals reminiscent of a Robb & Stuckey store where planes land. It is a long oblong room with little sense of smaller areas. At one end a bar stretches the length of the wall. Over 100 different Tequilas are available, which proves a hit with the visiting businessmen. Two lines of tables with adjacent bar stools are dedicated to tequila service. If you plan to dine, opt for a table at the far end from the bar. To its credit, Marriott invested in artistic treatments on the walls so the view around is pleasant, even intriguing. It is just not cozy. It should also be said that the high ceiling makes Asador the quietest new Dallas restaurant that I have dined in for some time. That said, it was only half full the night that we dined. I wonder what happens to the noise level and the food service when a convention is in town?
The wine list is under reconstruction so I have omitted specifics. On the Tequila list, shot prices range from $10 to $150.
The effort Marriott has put into making Asador a destination restaurant is substantial but only time will tell if their experiment succeeds commercially. I don’t just recommend Asador, I recommend trying to go soon. The enthusiasm of chef Trubenbach knows no bounds at the moment. Your menu will be slightly different than ours but the experience should be just as good.