Sunday, January 11, 2009
Restaurant reviews: Soley! and Sushi Axiom
Restaurants like Soley! and Sushi Axiom put Henderson well on its way to destination-dining status.
Poor Henderson Street, long central Dallas’ underappreciated destination neighborhood. This lazy, winding thoroughfare has suffered the indignity of being neither fish nor fowl: Without the hipster clubs of Lower Greenville, the distaff side of Knox-Henderson — tony, upscale Knox Avenue, west of 75, the gets the glamour — Henderson has endured a reputation as more of a working-class, hunker-down-and-eat kind of place. What model of car you drive is irrelevant… as is your cultivated street cred and tough-guy posing.
But over the last few years, that has begun to change. First there was Hector’s on Henderson, restaurateur Hector Garcia’s cozy fine-dining kitchen. Then Hibiscus, Fireside Pies, Cuba Libre, Tei Tei, The Porch — all, not coincidentally, within eyeshot of North Central. On the far end, only the straight-guy institution Louie’s was able to maintain a crowd.
Then came Café San Miguel, and the dodgy end of the street seemed more lovable. But things really got rolling last year with the development near Belmont. Suddenly, even far west Henderson started to stake a claim to foodie attention.
While not yet as hoppin' as its big brother down the street, restaurants like Soley! and Sushi Axiom put the block well on its way to destination-dining status.
For a decade now, fusion cuisine has been hotter than a Benihana wok, with North Texas pioneering some blends of its own — notably, Fuse’s Tex-Asian cuisine. In Dallas, where Tex-Mex is rey, it seems inevitable that someone would have found a way to reinvent Mexican dishes in a manner that hadn’t occurred to Stephan Pyles yet.
In retrospect, the concept is so disarmingly smart, it's a marvel nobody tried it before: infuse French techniques with south of the border ingredients, and voila! But Soley! doesn’t just gussy up Mexican cuisine; it gives Gallic food a Mexikick in the pantalons.
There’s pechuga de pato (crusted duck breast with a spinach sauté — very French but with a Spanish name), but also boeuf et crevette (a filet with chipotle potatoes — more froggie food, only with grilled jalapeno adding a distinctly New World element) and escargot with tomatillo salsa. Appetizers include ceviches and tartares: by any other name, lightly marinated raw meat or fish.
The intriguing way the menu mirrors competing cuisines sets it apart on one level, but so does the deft preparation and quality ingredients that chef Jose Vasconcelos incorporates.
“Do you have any specials tonight?” we asked our waiter. He simply pointed back at the menu. “It’s all special,” he said. A good line, with the added benefit of being quantifiably true.
“Fresh,” my dining companion said after carefully considering what word best expressed his mouthful of food.
Fresh, yes — the al dente diced vegetables in the chiles en nogada ($14) were as crisp and amazing as the pepper itself — but also sly and flavorful. Chile rellenos tend to arrive brutally battered and deep-fried into a slightly soggy, gooey goulash of cheese, meat and vegetables. But this poblano pepper, arriving split on top like a Christmas present bursting to give forth its riches, was elegantly layered with the traditional walnut cream and pomegranate, but also tasty duck confit tickling the tongue as slivered almonds and diced carrot add crunch.
Nowhere is the creative melding of styles more evident than in the onion soup ($8). Typically made with Swiss gruyere, the version here uses Oaxaca cheese instead, with bits of avocado floating on it. Under the canopy of baked cheese, the onion broth gets a surprising taste of citrus from lime. My dining companion was taken slightly aback, but once you realize the intention, it’s hard not to get lost in it.
The foie gras ($18), a thin lobe of enriched liver, comes couched atop spiced slices of cooked apple and warm diced beets. The apple and foie gras complement in each: first the savory, delicate film of the liver, rolling into a cascade of carameled fruit. Add the tang of the guava reduction, and you’ve got a hit (the frisee salad, washed in truffle oil and fleur de sel, adds too much saltiness to the mix).
The interplay of flavors — savory, sweet, citrusy — marks the style. Scallop ceviche combines fennel, orange, basil and vanilla — vanilla! — for a soothing profile, while the salmon tartare tastes unusually heady, owing to a glaze of truffle oil that created a meaty heft, with Serrano peppers punching up the heat.
Our seared sea bass ($30) arrived beautifully cooked with a crisp outer layer sealing in the flavor, and a bite from cilantro cream. A mild artichoke broth served as an ideal accompaniment to the red snapper perched on a nest of cilantro-jalapeno risotto ($27), although you should leave the artichoke hearts to themselves in the bowl: they tend to overwhelm the fish.
Nothing could overwhelm the T-bone of lamb ($28): tender and moist, it’s a classic French preparation with an unexpected puree of plantains hiding beneath a scattering of lentils and fire engine-red cubes of chorizo.
Despite Ron Guest’s elegant but low-key design — exposed brick walls and beams, open kitchen, beautiful but understated dishware — the price point tends to the high side. But for the excellent service and quality of food, Soley! easily warrants crossing over 75.
Brilliant concept and execution of French techniques with Mexican sensibilities, this is one of Dallas’ true gems.
Overall: 4 1/2 Stars
Food: 4 1/2 Stars
Atmosphere: 4 Stars
Service: 4 stars
The food at Sushi Axiom represents its own kind of fusion cuisine, what you might call “new sushi:” Westernized, edgy, unconventional. You can experience a similar style at other Japanese restaurants (Sushi Zushi, The Fish) — the Lone Star ribeye roll ($14), for instance, a beefy alternative to traditional tuna — but execution at Axiom is full of sophistication.
Yes, that also means you still have to abide that most intrusive of modern restaurant design elements (that futuristic dystopia of omnipresent televisions, constantly broadcasting sports and news), but you also enjoy its airiness, oversized booths with contemporary fixtures and a Zen-like lavatory while being served darned fine sushi at good prices.
The flounder chips are exactly what they sound like, only better: deep-fried strips of fish, served nacho style with spicy avocado, as were the tuna and crab nachos ($6). You feel the fusion with the Axiom chicken wings ($6) — big and crispy, but surprisingly light.
On our first visit, we were almost overwhelmed by the generosity of portions. The shrimp and vegetable tempura ($9) was kingly in size, more than enough for two, and we still had sashimi to come.
We weren’t disappointed with any of the rolls, sushi or sashimi, although service was spotty on one occasion, even though it wasn’t busy.
The signature tower of Pisa ($14), an architectural layering of tuna, crab, cucumber and rice, wasn’t nearly as pretty when our waiter mashed it down as when it arrived, but the blend of sauces and fresh seafood made the demolition worth it.
Several entrees — the Chilean sea bass ($28); the “dancing beef” ($16) of cubed tenderloin; the seared pepper tuna ($14) — flawlessly combine familiar Asian elements (a wonderful, delicate miso glaze on the bass) with Western sensibilities and ingredients (avocado and cilantro sauce). There’s even a choice of pad fusion for Thai enthusiasts.
Does the portmanteau approach detract from the authenticity of “real” sushi? Not if your idea of style isn’t constrained by traditional expectations. Sushi Axiom plays its part in reinventing Japanese cuisine with true flair.
Westernized sushi make with fresh seafood and enough non-raw fish for all appetites.
Overall: 3 Stars
Food: 3 1/2 Stars
Atmosphere: 3 Stars
Service: 2 1/2 Stars
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