So yes, those darned cherubs are gone. The decision to plaster over the putti on the ceiling was perhaps the most controversial step in the high-stakes makeover of the French Room in the Adolphus hotel. Old-schoolers harrumphed that Dallas' landmark of fine dining would be shorn of its history (never mind that the cherubs were not original, but rather an interpolation from the crass 1980s), and end up looking like a Pottery Barn.
Well, heck no. The French Room, which reopened in October after being shuttered for more than a year, is as formal and ornate as ever. The vaulted ceiling still soars and swoops overhead, the molding and trim are still gilded, the floor is still marble, the chandeliers are still Italian Murano glass. But everything has been spiffed up, brightened, made a little more comfortable, like the tired red velvet seats that have been replaced with pillowy white armchairs.
There is no other room quite like this in Dallas. And dining here still feels celebratory and special. You stroll through the wood-paneled Salon, a lounge scattered with modern sofas, chairs and ottomans, and mount a few steps to the reception desk as if approaching an altar. Are you early, or is your table not quite ready? You'll be led to the cozy adjacent bar, clubby with its leather and wood and its navy lacquered walls (but beware: The cocktails are wildly pricey).
And then you're escorted to the Room itself -- which, in contrast to some cavernous dining halls around town, actually seems somewhat small, if not intimate. It seats just 88 patrons, which means the tables are generously spaced and the service, by the gray-suited waitstaff, is lavishly attentive. You'll feel as if you have your own personal waiter for the evening.
Michael Ehlert, the talented young chef who has been prepping the French Room's relaunch for a year, offers two prix fixe options: a seven-course tasting menu for $135 or three courses for $85 (there's no a la carte). A cerebral cook, Ehlert has given a lot of thought to how the kitchen can balance tradition and modernity the way the remake of the dining room does -- how the food can be respectful of classic French technique but also be light, imaginative and new.
That means some dishes feel traditional, like the pheasant galantine, meaty disks of boned, rolled bird studded with pistachios. And it means some dishes are wild flights of fancy, like the "entrecôte" of eggplant, a sort of trompe-la-bouche that's meant to offer vegans and vegetarians something that's a lot like a piece of grilled prime rib. And it means some things are in between, like the seared halibut perched on a bed of choucroute, the Alsatian-style braised sauerkraut that's usually served with pork. It comes with another twist, a little roll of cabbage stuffed, not with ground meat, but with a halibut-scallop mousse. Desserts, like the apple tartine, are lavish. The menu will change with the seasons, and it will be fascinating to watch what Ehlert does as he settles in and continues his exploration of what French-inflected fine dining means in the 21st century.
1321 Commerce St., Dallas. 214-742-8200. adolphus.com/the-french-room.
Mark Vamos is a journalism professor at Southern Methodist University.