Scott Romano, the opening executive chef at Charlie Palmer at The Joule, firmly established the restaurant as a leading chef-driven establishment and a forerunner in the trend to house-cure meats. Since he left in October, the restaurant has been in the hands of Richard Blankenship. Although he holds the title of Executive Sous Chef he is, for all practical purposes, Executive Chef. Witness, he just introduced a new winter menu.
What effect has this change of chef had on the food? Since Blankenship worked under Romano for years, delivering such things as the hotel banquet service, it will comes as little surprise to learn the watchword for the personnel change is continuity. The cured meat program continues. The menu remains focused on sophisticated New American cooking (with a strong section catering to steak lovers because over one third of the diners order steak). Farm-to-market and seasonality figure prominently. All the other personnel remain in place. GM Enam Chowdhury ably runs the front of house. Wine Director Jeffrey Andrus maintains one of the best lists in town.
Let’s get to the new food.
I was an invited guest at a recent media event and got to sample some of the new dishes. I asked Blankenship about how much of the menu was his thinking. Corporate chains have to tread a fine line between delivering the customer a satisfactorily experience nationally, while attracting and retaining creative chefs locally (Blankenship trained at the Culinary Institute of America). Imposing a national menu won’t achieve the latter. Blankenship explained that a single line-item change due to ingredient availability or quality issues is something he has complete discretion over. A wholesale menu change, such as this winter menu, must be submitted to Charlie Palmer himself for approval. In Blankenship’s case, the new menu came back exactly as he submitted it. So this menu is a good guide to the chef’s thinking.
I perused the menu in advance and the first thing that struck me was the dominant place given to vegetables (loosely defined to include things served like vegetables such as beans, grains, etc.). There are nine listed as side dishes. The list includes Brussels sprouts, root vegetables, quinoa, and baby potatoes. Later, at the meal, I discovered Blankenship pays special attention to the qualities of each side dish. Each one can stand up alone. Roasted cauliflower ($9) is dusted with za’atar. Polenta ($9) is given body and earthiness through the addition of shaved Reggiano. We sampled each of these and I recommend all of them. Quite honestly, a vegetarian could craft a meal from a selection of these dishes and feel well satisfied.
There are also fungi dishes among the sides. Oyster mushrooms ($9) come with brown butter. Roasted cremini ($12) are served with black garlic and oxtail. Trumpet Royale ($12) is served with fresh thyme and, for those seeking a combination, there is wild mushroom combo ($14). The Trumpet Royale is a triumph. Considerable quantities of aromatic fresh thyme envelop the mushrooms juxtaposing the taste of the herb with the meaty mushroom umami. This dish, in fact, has given me new ideas about how to serve mushrooms.
The menu has the usual sections: first courses, main courses (with a separate section for ‘Steak and Chops’) and side dishes. However it starts with a small plates section. These are ideal for someone in a rush or who does not want a full meal. We enjoyed the Grilled Octopus (white beans, black garlic, pickled red onion) ($12) immensely. The octopus (surely one of the most underserved pieces of seafood) is charred in an extremely hot pan, in the style of Paul Prudhomme’s blackened fish, and finished in the broiler before assembly with the other ingredients on the plate. The pickled red onion is an inspired tart foil to the earthy meatiness of the octopus.
Another small plate that wows is what Blankenship refers to as an homage to breakfast. Pork belly in a bowl topped with a whole poached egg. It is egg and bacon amplified to 11, invoking all the synergies of the classic breakfast combination with the fatty succulence of the pig. In Jalapeño Stuffed Quail Legs (smoked bacon, chipotle ale glaze) ($10), the jalapeno is hot and the glaze is sweet. It’s a Southwestern take on game and one leg per person is a great appetizer to start a meal.
Another great starter is a plate of Roasted Baby Beets (goat cheese, upland cress, honey vinaigrette). This is an astonishingly simple salad composed from colorful red, yellow and candystripe beets dressed in a caramelized honey vinaigrette and garnished with celery leaves and upland cress sprinkled with goat cheese. The flavors were gentle enough to attract the non-beet eater and the vinaigrette sparse enough to make it easy to pair with wine. An old favorite, Ale Steamed Mussels (roasted garlic, Chimay and fingerling chips) came with some toasted bread that served its important job of soaking up all that expensive Chimay.
Main courses took us to Braised Veal and Gnocchi (matsutake mushroom and pumpkin leaves) ($38). The slow-cooking allow the infusion of veal and mushroom flavors into the gnocchi. It is a perfect dish for a cold night and it ranks as a personal award-winning dish for me. The other main dish was a strong contender. The Sautéed Texas Redfish (pickled sweet peppers and lump crab casserole) $34, combines sweet, soft crab meat with the tightly flaked redfish. Add a piece of the charred skin for a smoky flavor plus crisp bite and it is harmony in the mouth.
The Steak and Chops section of the menu has some treasures. Dry-aged NY Sirloin ($42) for beef lovers. Also Filet Mignon ($38) and Bone-In Ribeye ($65). We, however, were treated to the other two dishes in this section: Seared Lamb Chops (braised white beans and gremolata) ($42) were deliciously medium rare and juicy with the lemon and parsley flavors of the gremolata accenting it in the mouth. Berkshire Pork Chop (kale, dried apricot and barley) ($40) may be best explained by the nearby picture. Slices of pork, pavé style, lapped with a demi-glace made from red wine with pork stock. This is served with chanterelle mushrooms, black kale (cavelo nero), and pearl barley. Be warned that the cross-cut slices of pork are more filling than they look.
Two desserts, from pastry chef Ruben Torano, included a homely Quince Blackberry Cobbler with Cinnamon Puff Pastry and a Shot of Vanilla Soda (with a blackberry submerged in it), and an indulgent Toasted Marshmallow Sweet Potato Bread Pudding, Spice Créme Anglais and a Cinnamon Tuille. Petit fours and coffee were offered as well.
Mention must be made of the wine list, which has been a major priority since the restaurant opened. In 2010 they were one of approximately 830 restaurants worldwide, and one of fewer than five in Dallas, to obtain the prestigious Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence. In 2011 they apparently forgot to reapply, as they are not listed on the Wine Spectator web site. They need to submit before February 1st to obtain it again in 2012, which should be easy because the list has over 600 selections including several verticals (multiple years) of major labels. An indication of the depth can be gleaned from a quick scan of the sparkling wine selection. It is filled with offerings from New Mexico. Oregon, Australia, Champagne (over 30 selections), Vouvray (Chenin Blanc), and Austria (Grüner Veltliner). They even divide the Champagnes by grape (separate sub-sections for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier). The by-the-glass selections total 24. Recall that Charlie Palmer was one of the first restaurants to present their wine list on a tablet computer. It was better than the conventional paper list in most respects except you had to learn how to use the computer. Good news: the computers will be replaced by iPads this spring, which ‘everybody’ already knows how to use.
Jeffrey Andrus picked out an interesting wine for our first courses: the 2006 Domaine Serene ‘Coeur Blanc’, Willamette Valley, Oregon, a white Pinot Noir and the first non-sparkling white Pinot Noir that I have tried. Although Domaine Serene know what they are doing, I had some initial skepticism that premature separation of the grapes from their skins would rob the wine of flavors. I need not have worried. While fruit and tannin were removed, the finesse and good acids remained. Our red wine was a 2003 Wild Duck Creek Estate Springflat Shiraz, Heathcoat, Victoria, Australia. It was a big, ripe, mature Shiraz that married well with the lamb, but could be drunk just as a quaffing wine.
Charlie Palmer appears to have a talent of retaining staff. Service was friendly and professional throughout. Our waitress even remembered me from the Big Red in October 2010 (I can’t even remember myself from that event!). I was also told that major expansions are afoot. An extension to the hotel is planned and this will include a ‘food court’ style service area (although they won’t call it that). We will report the changes as they occur.
Overall, Charlie Palmer remains in the top tier of Dallas restaurants. The new menu is bang on target for the season. The meat and fish are well prepared. It is distinguished by creatively chosen and prepared vegetables and mushrooms, and its wine list.