From the moment last spring when the owners of Proof + Pantry announced a new project in the works -- Madrina -- the place had promise written all over it.
Proof's Kyle McClelland, one of the most creative and talented chefs in town, was to run the kitchen. The idea was thoughtful and original: French-inspired Mexican cooking. The Oak Lawn space they had secured previously housed two high-profile restaurants, one of which was a five-star establishment that enjoyed a splashy seven-year run.
The dishes McClelland was imagining for the new place (bandied gleefully around the blogosphere) sounded bold and intriguing. Hay-smoked foie gras with plantains, pepitas and coconut. Okra and bell pepper ratatouille. Steak tartare with pickled papaya and dried jicama. Who dries jicama?!
It was shaping up to be one of the most highly anticipated debuts in an unusually ripe season of highly anticipated debuts.
Sometime between the announcement and Madrina's opening, McClelland fell out of the project.
There was a certain logic to his replacement, Julio Peraza. The 35-year-old chef had held executive- sous-chef positions in Las Vegas at David Myers' Comme Ça -- serious French cred there -- as well as at Michael Mina's American Fish therebefore heading to Salum and Komali in Dallas as executive chef. Komali added Mexican expertise to the El Salvador native's résumé.
Madrina opened, in the former Aurora-then-Nosh Euro Bistro space in the Shops of Highland Park, in mid-September.
Take a seat in the stylish dining room, design firm Breckinridge/Taylor's interpretation of a modern French kitchen, and there's only one thing to say: What???!!! I can't hear you!!!
Yes, the place is loud. It's so loud, with acoustics so bad, that if I hadn't been there to review it, I would have walked out -- without even sampling the food I was so excited about.
My friends and I hung in, though, and at some point halfway through dinner, one of the owners came to the table to apologize for the noise and tell me there are imminent plans to mitigate it.
OK, what's to eat? The most delightful tastes are appetizers, beginning with wild setas. In this case, setas (Spanish for mushrooms) means hen-of-the-woods, royal trumpet and beech mushrooms. Peraza cloaks them in a super-light batter, fries them crisply, piles them on a wonderful cilantro-scented poblano cream and sends the dish out with excellent handmade corn tortillas.
A snow crab salad crowned with slices of ripe avocado, plus celery leaves, micro cilantro, shaved radishes, flower petals and more, was as beautiful as it was delicious. I also loved something Peraza calls pibil rabbit rillette. Traditionally,rillettes are France's answer to pulled pork, served as a rich, pâté-like spread; here the chef slow-braises rabbit in the Yucatán style of cochinta pibil, wraps a log of it in speck (smoked cured ham) and serves it with a not-too-sweet apricot compote, an array of pickled vegetables and toasted slices of baguette.
Among Peraza's striking presentations is his clever spin on esquites, the toasted-corn-kernel street snack that's sometimes referred to as elotes: What looks like hominy kernels at Madrina are actually small slices of baby corn. Peraza cloaks them in a zingy, creamy dressing spiced gently with pequín chile that does a wonderful texture dance with the baby corn. The balance of lime and crème fraiche is just right; cotija cheese adds a bit of depth.
Much less successful were a dull potato tamal topped with mushy caviar and served with a limp arugula salad, and an overly sweet and thin-tasting guajillo corn chowder.
Unfortunately, among the main courses, there were few hits. I have a hard time resisting bouillabaisse, but Peraza's adobo-spiked version was more like a pale-flavored, oily fish soup garnished with fancy seafood than the richly flavored, soupy seafood stew the dish is meant to be.
Lobster "en croute" was somewhat better. Rather than being encased in puff pastry, chunks of (slightly overcooked) lobster and root vegetables, all bathed in rich lobster bisque sauce, were served atop a tortilla-like thin, crisp pastry layer. Did it live up to its $48 price tag? I'm afraid not.
That's another problem at Madrina: the prices. I couldn't bring myself to order the $26 goat taco (yes, really) or the $155 tomahawk steak (meant to share); instead I went for the $18 enfrijolada, three cilantro-flavored corn tortillas folded over shredded duck confit and set atop black bean purée. It's a carefully prepared and pretty dish, dressed up with micro-herbs, shaved radishes and queso freso, but not terribly interesting and perhaps better-suited as a shareable appetizer.
Herb-crusted rack of lamb ($39) was a gorgeous dish that unfortunately came to the table blood-rare rather than the medium-rare requested. A $39 8-ounce filet was perfectly cooked, but kind of boring, with its dab of chimichurri and confit potatoes.
Pork dishes made more of an impact, particularly a succulent $31 chop that made quite the funny statement, as it appeared to have crashed, bone up, into its pad of sweet-potato purée ringed with vegetables escabèche and fresh herbs. I couldn't resist ordering lechón -- roast suckling pig. The family-style portion, large enough for two or three to share, was more reasonably priced at $56, and the big chunks of crusty, juicy, flavorful pork were wonderful. But the garnish -- sautéed broccoli and broccolini, slightly undercooked pearl onions, baby turnips, heirloom carrots and potatoes -- seemed to belong to another dish, as did its small pool of timid white wine sauce. The corn tortillas it came with were just the thing, though it cried out for some salsa or other vibrant sauce.
Though the restaurant has a real, live pastry chef, Greg Barber -- an alum of Spago Beverly Hills -- only two desserts are on offer at the moment; a flavorless mango tart in a cardboardy shell was wisely removed from the menu. A ganache-enrobed devil's food bar was much improved from my first visit, when the ganache was too heavy and sweet. Even better is a stack of barely sweet churros, fried super-light and crisp. Wonderfully custardy inside, they're topped with violet-scented whipped cream drizzled with chocolate sauce.
It's tough to assign a star rating to Madrina, especially before the noise issue is addressed; such a problem can be difficult to solve. The service was excellent and the dining room and bar are strikingly attractive. There's plenty to love on Michael Martensen's wine list (he's one of the owners), but it's very expensive. His cocktails were well-mixed, but not particularly exciting or different.
Peraza's best dishes would be at home in a four-star restaurant, but at these prices, the cooking seems too uneven even for a three-star dining room. One hopes that with time things will improve.
Madrina (2 stars)
Price: $$$$ (lunch starters $6 to $15, main courses $14 to $39, desserts $3 to $9; dinner starters $12 to $18, main courses $14 to $155 for a tomahawk steak to share, desserts $11 to $12)
Service: Thoughtful and professional
Ambience: A strikingly attractive, sleek and modern dining room done in stony earth tones, with comfortable banquettes and an open kitchen
Noise level: Earsplitting, headache-inducing loud
Location: 4216 Oak Lawn Ave., Dallas; 469-513-2505; madrinadallas.com
Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner Monday-Wednesday 4 to 10 p.m., Thursday-Saturday 4 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5 to 10 p.m.; brunch Saturday-Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar, with a well-chosen, mostly French wine list that also pulls from California, Oregon and Washington
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor