Are you ready to check into the Theodore?
The reception desk – a cloakroom-size cubby that looks straight out of The Grand Budapest Hotel, antique keys dangling from hooks on the wall and all – suggests not so much an extended stay as a dusty fling. No one's there to greet you? So much the better – ding! – you can ring for service.
The newest establishment from Tim Byres and gang (Turn the Tables Hospitality, which also owns Smoke, Bolsa, Chicken Scratch and more) thrums with quirky charm. On your right, ladies and gentlemen, as we make our way toward the main dining rooms, is the bar – high-ceilinged, airy and spacious. Ah, there's the famous Mr. Kyle Hilla – not a bartender exactly, but a liquid architect.
On your left, be sure to take note of the inviting sky-blue alcove whose rustic wooden farm table set for six affords semi-private dining under a disco ball. So perfect for a girls' night out, the manager comments.
You and your friends are shown to a table toward the back, where deep violet bookshelves display old books, a stuffed iguana, chinoiserie. Electric embers glow in a faux fireplace.
And you thought irony was passé.
OK, smarty-pants. What kind of decor would you suggest for a restaurant in a mall?
Yes, the Theodore – named for the 26th president, an object of obsession for chef Byres – holds down a prime parcel of real estate in NorthPark Center, within shouting distance of Nordstrom and Forever 21. The front part of the dining room opens right onto the mall. Bookended by potted areca palms, that area could even fool you into thinking you're dining at Tommy Bahama.
But that doesn't mean the food isn't serious – even if unevenness out of the gate had tongues wagging their disapproval for a week or three. "Have you been?" I kept hearing from friends and colleagues. "Terrible service." "Really disappointing." Everyone I knew, it seemed, had already been and felt compelled to share. That rarely happens; such is the popularity of chef Byres and company. Opening six weeks before Christmas in the splashiest mall in the galaxy no doubt ensured maximum exposure of early hiccups.
After my own delightful early visit – when house-made-sourdough toasts and broiled lobster implied a delicious future – I suffered one disappointing evening: cloying, aggressive service; clashing flavors (orange and white anchovy!); pasty meatloaf; unbounded oversalting.
There had been high points, though, like steamed chowder clams Manhattan-style. And how can you not love a frothy, lemony gin-and-Champagne cocktail garnished with a feather-tipped toothpick? I waited nearly a month before returning.
Ah, much better.
The menu, loosely based on American classics reinterpreted (the same one is used for dinner and lunch), has been rounded out appealingly.
Goodbye orange-anchovy-green-olive rafts, hello toasts heaped with house-made ricotta and crowned with melty leeks and giant white beans. Happily, my favorite sourdough toast, topped with horseradish-spiked egg salad and draped with dry-cured ham, remains.
Another fine starter, handmade cavatelli tossed with a sort of broccoli pesto and showered in Parm – lovely to share at dinner – would also make an excellent vegetarian lunchtime main course. Meatballs bathed in good red sauce came topped with melted cheese: a little too much bread in those big boys, perhaps, but not bad. Executive chef Scott Romano (whom you may remember from Charlie Palmer at the Joule) gives crudités an à la Grecque dunk in court bouillon to soften them a bit while preserving crunch, and sends them forth with three dips. Harissa sauce worked best; rosemary-scented hummus was too thick to dip, and crème fraîche was just crème fraîche.
Attention, ladies who lunch: One of my favorite dishes, a salad of roasted pheasant, pink grapefruit supremes, red cabbage and duck-fat croutons, comes to the table as a striking tower covered in toasted sliced almonds and pretty watercress leaves. A poke of the fork lets it tumble apart. A few more greens and an extra squeeze of grapefruit juice to balance the salad's touch of honey, and the salad could go from very good to excellent. (Side salads were also too sweet.)
There are sandwiches, like a splendid, overstuffed turkey club, all on house-baked bread. I'm kicking myself for not trying the gorgeous burger I saw sailing by in the last of three most recent visits. There are likable (if not quite lovable) pizzas, whose midweight crust is decently charred. One, topped with sliced celery and good pepperoni, might have been even better with celery leaves in place of Italian parsley.
The "full plates" (main courses back in Teddy Roosevelt's day) often delighted. One night I asked our server if the brick chicken was half a chicken; no, he said, it's two breasts. I ordered it anyway: Half a chicken it was, juicy, well-seasoned and nicely browned, served on wheat berries with a smudge of harissa sauce, golden raisins and chunks of roasted carrot. Some greens on the plate (rapini? herb salad?) would have made it even better.
There are saucy, luscious braised veal short ribs: The flavorful, unusual cut is served with glazed shallots and elephant garlic on celery root purée. And another favorite: a split-and-broiled whole lobster swathed luxuriously in coconut butter and dressed up with cilantro, braised celery and beautifully roasted fingerling potatoes. It's large enough to share, but I'm dreaming of sneaking in solo and keeping it all to myself.
Beef Wellington was beautifully cooked, but too salty when I tasted it (that off night). Meanwhile, I loved the lamb shank pie: It looks like a medieval meat pounder, the end of the shank bone as its handle at the top. Pierce its crusty surface and a savory, tender, deep-flavored lamb stew is the saucy treasure inside.
Pastry chef Marlene Duke proposes a couple of terrific desserts: a moist and sticky toffee cake topped prettily with a poached crab apple, and a baked Alaska that looks like a mini meringue-covered beehive, circled with honey and filled with grapefruit ice cream. Her dark chocolate tart is silky and rich, but it cried out for an ice cream accompaniment more dynamic than more chocolate -- orange? coconut? hazelnut?
You can also order her house-made ice creams and sorbets by the giant scoop. I enjoyed most of the flavors I tasted (except silly-sweet "birthday cake"), but found their commercial-like texture wanting. There's a prize on the plate, though: a fabulous chocolate-filled vanilla tuile "cat tongue," like a fragile, slightly chewy and crisp handmade Milano cookie. The Theodore makes a good cup of coffee, too, in case you're thinking of stopping in for java and a sweet to gild an afternoon of shopping.
I suspect the Teddy Roosevelt theme will go over the heads of most diners; I'm sure I wouldn't have picked up on it without the help of a press release. My guests at lunch one day puzzled over the Roosevelt Rough Rider hat outlined in neon on one wall until I explained it.
Nothing in the restaurant narrates it as convincingly as Hilla's cocktails, many of which are named for national parks. At a time when-craft cocktail fatigue is feeling endemic (see your doctor about CCF), his sometimes wacky-sounding creations are often thrilling. Who wants a frozen cocktail in midwinter? You do! If it's Hilla's Everglades, that is: a slurpilicious rum punch gone highbrow with celery, sexy with green Chartreuse and delightfully silly with ginger pop rocks. Eventually the weather will warm up, and that will be delicious on the patio.
Meanwhile, at 21/2 months old, the Theodore, where service has ranged from annoyingly amateurish to top-notch professional, seems to be a work in progress. As we go to press, brunch is just being rolled out, along with some chilled seafood dishes. House-baked breads, cookies (with those cat tongues coming soon!), croissants and other pastries are starting to be sold from a bakery window.
All the more reason to stop back in soon.
The Theodore (3 stars)
Price: $$$ (appetizers and salads $6 to $19; sandwiches and pizzas $13 to $15; main courses $18 to $34; desserts $7 to $9)
Service: All over the contiguous 48: It ranges from annoyingly amateurish to top-notch professional.
Ambience: Quirky Americana through the monocle of Teddy Roosevelt
Noise level: Very noisy, even when not terribly busy. Sounds like a bustling cafeteria.
Location: NorthPark Center (north entrance, between Macy's and Nordstrom off Park Lane), 8687 N. Central Expressway, Dallas; 469-232-9771; thetheodore.com. Complimentary valet parking; be sure to validate.
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., with pizza oven serving till 11 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Credit cards: AE, DC, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar, with some of the most compelling and original cocktails in town. A one-page wine list offers a well-chosen global selection from $30 to $120 per bottle, with typically high markups. Eighteen are available by the glass as well as the bottle.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ -- $14 and under
$$ -- $15 to $30
$$$ -- $31 to $50
$$$$ -- More than $50