|Restaurant review: Dali Wine Bar and Cellar|
|Restaurant review: Dali Wine Bar and Cellar|
|Written by Bill Addison (Restaurant Critic)|
|Thursday, 19 March 2009 00:00|
Best 2008 spots
Dali Wine Bar and Cellar
Paul Pinnell has cracked the code on how to open a universally appealing wine bar. His stylish perch at One Arts Plaza lures wine geeks with an ever-rotating list that includes everything from classic French indulgences to wonderfully odd choices by rogue Italian vintners and beyond – all priced below market.
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Rudy Mikula stands in front of our table at Dali, his mere physicality dismantling any lingering stereotypes of sommeliers as pompous, unapproachable snobs.
We've asked him for an adventurous wine to match with an appetizer of chardonnay-steamed scallops. He folds his arms around himself, bends forward slightly at the waist and vanishes into deep thought. He blinks his eyes in an alternating rhythm, rocking his curly mane in a back-and-forth staccato. He looks like an engrossed composer arranging and rearranging chord structures in his head.
Then he flashes a conspiratorial grin. "I have something," he says.
He returns with a bottle of 2007 Mas Igneus Barranc dels Closos from the Priorat region of Spain and breezily discusses its mix of four grapes as he pours it into our glasses. The wine hits the palate crisply, then, by my account, splits into two flavor directions: gently herbaceous (like thyme) and maple sugar candy.
Most important, the wine has an alchemical effect with the scallops. The orange butter in the dish is heightened, the scallops are flattered, the accompanying sunchoke and hearts of palm salad gains earthy backup.
It's a moment wine lovers seek out, when the food delights and the wine engages the mind, but together they create a sum more rapturous than the parts could ever be solo.
But, wait. You just wanted to swing by for a glass of bubbly and a nosh before the theater? No problem. Dali is, after all, a wine bar.
The idea of wine bars is hot throughout the country right now, perhaps because of their diverse and mercurial nature. In walking cities like New York and San Francisco, a wine bar may be a tiny place that offers a short list of intriguing pours, and not much else.
In driving cultures like North Texas, where an eating and drinking establishment is often considered an evening's destination, most businesses subscribe, at minimum, to the Italian enoteca philosophy of small, simple plates (cheeses, salumi and such) offered to satisfy hunger while you sip prosecco or sample a flight of wines.
Dali belongs to a more ambitious, though no less accessible, school of thought: It is as much of a restaurant and as much of a wine bar as each customer chooses it to be.
Credit owner Paul Pinnell, a longtime veteran of the Dallas restaurant community, for Dali's visionary formula. Occupying the northwest corner of One Arts Plaza's restaurant collage, its location on the downtown-Uptown divide has already made the 3-month-old venture an enticement for varied crowds. I've noticed decked-out couples dash in and out on their way to events, but also seen a party of six settle in for a leisurely birthday dinner.
Dali's size may surprise first-timers: It's modest, with a relatively short bar and a room that fits about 12 tables of different shapes. In considering the name, the look is really more minimalist than surrealist. Two exceptions: the flamboyantly hued sinks in the restrooms, and the curvy bar itself, which is made out of resin in which scores of corks were embedded in suspended animation, like unfortunate souls in a sci-fi flick. Oh, the tabletops are also artfully splotched with color.
In any case, Salvador Dali did purportedly enjoy his vino and vittles and, aesthetically, I'm sure he'd appreciate the restaurant's high ceilings, and the way the backs of the surprisingly comfortable plastic table chairs look like slices of lotus root dyed black.
Mr. Pinnell takes a papa bear role in the operation – raising blinds as the sun sets to reveal a geometric view of the Dallas skyline, greeting devoted restaurantgoers he's known for two decades – while letting his dynamic duo (Mr. Mikula, the wine director, and Joel Harloff, the executive chef) shine in the limelight.
For the wine program, the principals agreed on several approaches right from Dali's conception: Make the wine list uncommonly affordable, no gouging markups. Find unusual, creative but approachable wines to sell. Offer a retail component allowing customers to buy, at competitive prices, wines often allocated strictly to restaurants. And the giddiest perk for wine geeks: If customers commit to drinking at least two glasses from a bottle, the restaurant will open almost any selection on the list.
This plan, it turns out, works swimmingly for everyone. The by-the-glass options, at 60-plus strong, allow casual drinkers and independent types to peruse worthy options, from all over the wine-growing globe, starting at $5. Mr. Pinnell hired a sharp service crew to support this venture. Beyond gracious attention to the meal, they've been trained to hold their own when it comes to wine recommendations, which they do commendably.
For those who opt to experience what Mr. Mikula will curate for a meal, he'll take you on quite the tour. He's particularly savvy with obscure Italian wines, a rare skill, though he spins great yarns about winemakers from all over.
The bottle list is also rich with Rhone and Rhone-style varietals, a current favorite of Mr. Pinnell's. And as a devotee of white burgundies, I'm personally elated to see price points in that category at $30 to $40 lower per bottle than at most other restaurants around town.
In such a wine-soaked environment, it would be only too easy for the food to receive second-rate status, or to be overwrought and steal focus from the vino. Mr. Harloff, whose previous gigs include executive chef positions at the Landmark Restaurant and Mi Piaci, navigates these potential challenges with intelligent poise.
His succinct dinner menu reads way busier than it tastes. The vegetables, starches and seasonings in his compositions have a way of supporting the central ingredient without drawing too much attention. The chardonnay and orange notes in that scallop starter are so subtle. When I look at the description for pan-seared quail, its sides of caramelized spring onions, goat cheese polenta, jalapeño jam and sage pan sauce sound overwhelming. But in thinking about how the dish tasted, I remember the quail's pleasant livery quality without much distraction. It's a marvel these fillips come off understated.
Needless to say, this knack also facilitates wine pairings.
For a light meal, consider the scallops or the quail or perhaps the warmed mozzarella wrapped in crisp pastry and drizzled with hibiscus honey. Then, close your eyes and point to choose one of the four salads. They're all lovely: bibb lettuce with pear, avocado and (catch this) salmon bacon in citrus vinaigrette; duck confit with mizuna, spinach and radish (very wine-friendly); frisée with roasted tomatoes, shiitakes, warm pancetta vinaigrette and, for a hint of funk, Taleggio croutons; and an easygoing arugula number with pecorino, pine nuts and Granny Smith apples, dressed in balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil.
If you're in full dinner mode, substantial entrees continue the same unobtrusive theme. It should be stated that main courses would be wholly enjoyable without a drop of wine, but rack of veal with grilled shrimp and black pepper risotto seems tailor-made for a left-of-center quaffable (maybe a South African pinotage?). Try the pan-seared halibut: The dill in the sauce tends to spark Mr. Mikula's imagination (we received splashes of a peach-tinged Schiopetto Pinot Bianco from Italy's Friuli region and a hard-to-characterize Nicolas Joly Savennieres).
Desserts don't work quite as well as the savory courses: Butterscotch pudding, for example, needed a stronger salty presence to balance the sweet, and its texture was a bit too mousselike. Consider the cheese plate route instead, which lends itself to a breadth of sparkling, late-harvest and fortified wine options to rouse the evening to a honeyed conclusion.
By this time in the review, inveterate stargazers will have probably noticed the overall four-star rating of Dali in conjunction with the three-star rating for food. Yes, if Dali were being rated as a restaurant, it would earn three stars for its solid, smartly executed food.
But, since Dali is, at its core, a wine bar, and since we don't have star ratings for wine programs, I will hereby declare: Dali is a four-star wine bar, an absolute gem among its kind. Mr. Pinnell ignited some serious chemistry when he assembled this team. May his venture (and its inventory) age gracefully.
Published in The Dallas Morning News: 09.05.08