Dallasites supposedly don't like restaurants imported from other states.
Tell that to the folks crowding the noisy foyer as they wait for tables at Paul Martin's American Grill on a weeknight.
My guests and I were three of those people on a recent Wednesday. We'd arrived on time for our 7:15 reservation, but the restaurant was packed and we had to wait for a table. Near the hostess stand, would-be diners waited in low-slung chairs arranged like living room furniture as a server carrying a tray loaded with glasses of red and white wine offered them complimentary glasses. The sprawling 90-seat dining room, dimly lighted with spots trained on the tables, was way oversubscribed.
The Oak Lawn restaurant is the first Texas incarnation of an upscale chain founded by Paul Fleming in Roseville, Calif. (near Sacramento) in 2007. This is not Fleming's first national chain: He also founded Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, P.F. Chang's and Pei Wei Asian Diner, megachains all.
The 2-month-old Oak Lawn Avenue dining room, with its warm woods, brick walls, ceiling fans, squared bar and open kitchen, evokes another upscale California-based chain — Houston's — and particularly the superpopular upper-upscale Hillstone iteration of the Houston's chain across from Preston Center.
There's a reason for Hillstone's enduring popularity with Park Cities movers and shakers: The food is good — and reliably so — and the service is outstanding.
At Paul Martin's, not so much. The Turtle Creek-adjacent location draws a similarly well-turned-out crowd, and the place certainly looks suave and polished, but the service and food are anything but.
Take the botched handling of our reserved table on that Wednesday evening: During our 45-minute wait to be seated, we hover in the entry waiting area, as there's no room at the bar. Nevertheless, we're passed over (several times) by a server offering complimentary wine to others waiting. No apology for the limbo or the snub is offered until we're finally seated, at which point an awkward and hasty attempt at hospitality comes as a manager announces we'll get complimentary appetizers. (I decline one and pay for the other.) Could be I've just been busted as a critic.
In any case, that's not the moment you want to hear "Have you dined with us before?" The cocktails my guests ordered are slow coming out, then a server brings just one — the wrong one. When the right ones finally land, I'm informed that the wine I ordered — the $67-per-bottle California pinot pushed by the waiter — has "just sold out."
Timing errors are chronic. One night the salad on a three-course dinner special arrives long after the main course (and only after I mention that it never came). Another night only two of us get our starters; one of my guests has to wait. We're only halfway done with appetizers when his main course lands, along with a side dish — not the one we ordered, though. We urge him to begin so it doesn't get cold, but he has no utensils.
When my hapless friend finally gets a fork, he gets a bad surprise from his vegetable pasta dish: Spicy hot! Chile flake overkill! Get the palate extinguisher — and a different vegetarian main course! Oh, wait — there isn't one. (But wait, where's the lemon fettuccine in the lemon fettuccine? Must be here somewhere ...)
And the kitchen struggles with cooking times, as with a hoisin-marinated double-cut pork chop. "Chef recommends it medium," says the waiter.
"OK," says my husband. "So that's a little pink inside?"
"Yes, a little pink."
It's barely cooked when it lands, and has to be sent back — something my husband didn't bother doing on our previous visit, when his cedar-plank salmon, smothered by a salty, rich, heavy blob of caramelized shallots and bacon, turned out to be equally rare. Spinach dip and mac and cheese were both weirdly liquid; tortilla soup was inedibly salty.
Not everything is terrible. Salt-and- pepper shrimp came to the table crisply fried and nicely seasoned more than once, though its pesto aioli, which tastes like a little pesto stirred into mayo, is not an improvement on either pesto or aioli.
I also enjoyed a Sunday prime rib special: tender, juicy, perfectly medium-rare as requested and served with straight-ahead mashed potatoes. At$25 for three courses (salad first, house-made ice cream for dessert), it's a good deal, as long as you're not put off by the overly sweet vinaigrette on the salad.
At lunchtime there's a fresh and satisfying classic main-course Asian chicken salad, lightly sweet and crunchy with julienned snow peas and Marcona almonds. The Tuesday special fried chicken is decent, if a bit underseasoned. And a burger — thick patty, perfectly medium-rare as requested, served with parsley-flecked skinny fries and nicely dressed with lettuce, ripe tomato and pickles — hit the spot, too.
Yes, simpler dishes tend to come out best: straightforward hanger steak frites sauced with red wine jus; a gently blackened fillet of redfish served with sautéed spinach and a slice of grilled lemon.
Pork chile verde enchiladas didn't fall into that category: Filled with plain and underseasoned shredded pork rather than the luscious braised dish we think of as chile verde, they were bland and soulless, sauced with undersalted salsa verde.
Desserts were simple, and usually fine, especially a classic crème brûlée that got a happy lift from lemon supremes laid on top. Banana cream pie in a nearly impenetrably tough crust one day was more tender the next.
One thing we came to count on over the course of four visits: Servers — including one at lunchtime who was otherwise excellent — continually interrupted our conversations.
The kinds of mistakes that were repeatedly made are actually easy to address. Perhaps the kitchen can achieve consistency over time. And maybe when the frenzy dies down, managers can whip the service into shape.
If not, it's hard to imagine that the crowds will keep on coming.
Paul Martin's American Grill (1-star)
Price: $$$ (lunch starters and salads $9 to $18, main courses and sandwiches $14 to $21; dinner appetizers, soups and salads $9 to $17; burgers and sandwiches $14 to $18; main courses $16 to $37; desserts $8 to $10)
Service: Often stressed, inexperienced or otherwise challenged
Ambience: A handsome, sprawling, high-ceilinged dining room with open kitchen, busy bar and a wall of wine bottles. It's kept very cold; consider taking a sweater.
Noise level: Very loud when busy
Location: 3848 Oak Lawn Ave., Dallas; 214-521-0116; paulmartinsamericangrill.com
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 11a.m. to 9 p.m. Brunch Saturday-Sunday 11a.m. to 3 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar. An uncommonly dull one-page wine list has plenty to offer if you like overpriced, hit-you-over-the-head, overly sweet fruit bombs from California.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor