Antipasti (and snazzy cocktails!) can save the day at Americano, new at the Joule (1 star)
When the sexiest hotel in a sophisticated city with a great dining scene opens a new restaurant, expectations run high. When the hotel already has an exciting four-star dining room, even more so. And when it's an American-Italian place in a town deprived of decent Italian cooking, food lovers might even fall to their knees and start praying.
So it was with a great deal of hope -- bolstered by my usual hungry optimism -- that I excitedly ventured into Americano, the 2-month-old new-wave trattoria in the Joule Hotel.
If you're a fan of Campari, the bitter-sweet, bright red Italian aperitivo, this place is for you. In fact, the restaurant takes its name from a classic Campari cocktail (just add sweet red vermouth and a splash of soda). The bar makes an admirable one, along with a couple variations. An aperitivo called Death in Venice, served in a graceful coupe, celebrates how enchanting Campari and grapefruit bitters can be when lightened up with fizzy prosecco.
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You might think of Americano not so much as a restaurant, but as a stylish Campari theme bar. A parade of taps offers not just beer, but also wines and two Italianish cocktails. Grab a perch at the white marble bartop, which runs nearly the length of the open dining room, order one of those snazzy red aperitivi along with a snack or two -- maybe some warm marinated olives flecked with herbs and fennel pollen, or gently sweet-and-sour caponata, a delicious eggplant dip to spread on warm pizza bread -- and life is grand.
Swivel around, and there's the dining room, whose vibe hovers somewhere between cool and cold: la dolce vita through a minimalist 21st-century lens. Plywood is everywhere -- lots of plywood, with bold tomato-soup-red accents here and there. "IT'S ALL IN YOUR HEAD," neon letters glow chartreusely on a green wall. The lighting is a little eerie, a little A Clockwork Orange. With a wraparound wooden bench standing in for a banquette (the pillows help), a corner of the dining room on the enclosed patio feels more inviting, if a bit chilly this time of year.
Chef Matt Ford's small plates can be delightful. He turns out good Roman-Jewish-style baby artichokes, crisply frying them and sending them out with lemony garlic mayo. He sets arancini, fried risotto balls filled with melty Taleggio and porcini, on a zippy pesto. There's commendable house-made salumi, if that's your mood, or classic meatballs in a thick red sauce. Better yet: a delightfully zingy and original salad of raw shaved cauliflower shot through with golden raisins and pistachios. Bull's eye!
Come pizza time, do yourself a favor and ask for the white one (ricotta and mozzarella) with pumpkin blossoms and basil leaves. With its lightly crisp, puffy-edged crust, it's splendid.
Go deeper into the menu, and unfortunately the cooking starts to fall apart, particularly when it comes to the pastas, all made in-house. Butternut squash tortellini's noodles were thick and tough. Spaghetti was mushy. Bite-sized, twisty torchio, a special -- tossed with chicken confit, rapini, preserved Meyer lemon and Parmesan -- got the noodles just right, but too much salt in the confit ruined the dish. Kale and mushroom lasagna, sliced and run under the broiler for a bit of crunch on the edges, was somewhat better.
Among the "large plates" (Italophiles would call them secondi), I had more luck with simple seafood dishes than with the rest. Grilled swordfish set on roasted fennel and a smudge of black olive purée came with blistered cherry tomatoes and a dab of pesto. Well priced at $26, a whole roasted branzino satisfied, though its garnishes -- a Castelvetrano olive and parsley salad, and braised leeks that got lost under the fillet-it-yourself branzino (you'd better know how!) -- didn't commune with the fish. A big bowl of cioppino loaded with squid, mussels, clams, rock shrimp and swordfish, with a slice of good sourdough toast for sopping up the broth, didn't disappoint.
You might think of Americano not so much as a restaurant, but as a stylish Campari theme bar.
But there were far too many disasters throughout the menu. Terribly salty and overspiced Italian wedding soup suffered from half-cooked white beans and nearly raw carrots in its mirepoix. Too much salt also spoiled a Calabrian chile sausage pizza. Artichoke risotto was a mush. Osso buco, the classic Milanese dish, wasn't improved by using a beef shank instead of the traditional veal, even it's good beef from 44 Farms; whomping it with a heavy reduction sauce didn't help, and its bed of herb-flecked rice masquerading as risotto added insult to injury.
The dish that sounded most interesting in the not-terribly-enticing main course lineup was awful: undercooked quail filled with pasty fennel-and-raisin stuffing on sticky-sour reduced balsamic vinegar with oily charred Brussels sprouts.
With the exception of a tartlette marred by mushy pine nuts and chocolate ice cream that didn't work with the honey-pine nut idea, Ruben Torano's desserts are generally decent, if sometimes silly. (What do wads of toasted bread add to a sour cherry semifreddo?)
Here's the good news: Americano is probably fixable. The waitstaff is earnest, friendly and efficient. A wine list printed on the back of every menu (a plus) offers mostly Italian bottlings that make sense with the food, with many offered by the glass or half-carafe as well.
Clearly the kitchen needs to get its act together in terms of execution, and the menu needs work. More enticing main courses would be a start -- and even more essentially, some clarity about the aesthetic vision. Does Americano want to be American-accented Italian, as in the meatballs and the cioppino? Or inventive modern American-Italian, as in shaved cauliflower or pumpkin-blossom pizza? The latter would certainly be in keeping with those stylish cocktails.
Apparently there have been complaints about noise in the dining room. It wasn't an issue during my three recent visits, but last week, the management installed noise-absorbing panels, according to the restaurant's publicist.
Honestly, the bar for Italian dining is not so high in Big D. At an establishment with the resources of the Joule, getting there should be a no-brainer.
Americano (1 star)
Price: $$$ (lunch starters and small plates $4 to $12, pizzas, sandwiches and pastas $11 to $16; dinner starters and small plates $4 to $19, pizzas and pastas $11 to $16; large plates and main-course-sized pastas $16 to $75, for steak Fiorentina for two; desserts $8)
Service: Friendly, attentive and earnest
Ambience: A minimalist dining room with bare tables, plywood walls and a long white marble bar. An enclosed patio is somewhat more inviting.
Noise level: "The din is unbearable on a Friday or Saturday night," a waiter mentioned, though it wasn't noisy the nights I dined there. Sound-absorbing panels have since been installed on one wall.
Location: The Joule Hotel, 1530 Main St., Dallas; 214-261-4600; americanodallas.com
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight, Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar, with wines, cocktails and beer offered on tap. A one-page wine list offers mostly Italian bottlings, with many offered by the glass or half-carafe as well. If you're not happy sipping a $72-per-bottle 2010 Napolini Montefalco Sagrantino from tumblers, a server will cheerfully provide fine stemware.