Imagine that the two main restaurants at the venerable Adolphus hotel are members of a royal family. The revamped French Room is, of course, Her Majesty the Queen. While she's bending a bit with the times, she's formal and a little stuffy, as well she should be: She has traditions to uphold and expectations to meet. And that makes the other restaurant, City Hall Bistro, the young princess. Less weight and history are on her shoulders, which means she's free to be herself: new, fun, a little naughty -- and a crowd-pleaser.
You'll get this the moment you step into the restaurant. After a multimillion-dollar (and seemingly endless) renovation, the hotel lobby is still heavy on dark wood paneling, plush furniture and marble stairs. But cross the threshold into City Hall Bistro and you enter a different world. The walls are covered in gleaming white subway tiles. John Fogerty and the Rolling Stones are on the sound system, at high volume. Hipstery servers, some with quite imaginative facial piercings, bustle about in black T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "You can't fight City Hall."
There are big empty spaces, and lots and lots of blond: blond wood floors, blond wood tabletops and butterscotch quilted-leather banquettes. There's a big open kitchen in the front dining room, something that probably would have uncurled Adolphus Busch's elaborate mustaches. Like the rest of the hotel redo, the restaurant's design is the work of a small Dallas-based firm called Swoon, the Studio. Depending on your taste, you will find it bright, airy and hip, or clattery, a little sterile and coffee-shoppy.
Either way, you will probably like the food. It started out quite good, but it's gotten even better under Jeramie Robison, who signed on to run the kitchen last fall. Robison, an up-and-coming young chef whose résumé includes Oak, Uchi, Shinsei and the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, has revamped the menu, ditching some items and sharpening or adding others while keeping the overall pan-Mediterranean vibe: Spanish-Italian, with a faint breeze from the Levant. He plans to keep things seasonal, and a number of new dishes will be appearing for spring, several of them seafood-focused.
Fortunately, the paella Valenciana will be sticking around. It's a beautiful, big pan of bomba rice cooked just to the point of doneness, deeply flavored with shellfish stock, smoked paprika and saffron. The rice is studded with chicken thighs, clams, mussels and a trio of sweet, enormous head-on prawns, all dressed up with strips of red pepper and shredded basil. Enough to feed four, it's a lovely rendition of the dish, though it's missing the socarrat, the crunchy layer of toasty rice on the bottom.
Those fine, fat prawns -- a half-dozen of them -- turn up in another entree, roasted and swimming in tomato monté, a rich, thick butter-and-tomato sauce spiked with Aleppo and cayenne peppers. You'll be using the accompanying ciabatta bread to wipe up every drop of the intensely tomatoey, slightly spicy and smoky sauce.
There's lots of other seafood here as well, things that turn up variously on the dinner or lunch menus or both (as a proper hotel restaurant, City Hall also serves breakfast and weekend brunch). The requisite bowl of mussels -- every Dallas restaurant has to serve them, doncha know? -- is made a little more interesting than usual thanks to a broth amped up with roasted piquillo and Aleppo peppers and accompanied by crusty potatoes bravas. Another dish that's showing up all over town, grilled octopus, is carefully done here: The perfectly tender, nicely charred legs come topped with grilled frisée, plus an herby chimichurri sauce. There's also a straightforward branzino fillet, austere and almost naked except for a little shaved fennel and arugula -- and a tad dry.
With a menu that's very much of the moment, City Hall doesn't hew to conventions like appetizers, but is divided instead into categories like "greens and grains" and "for the table." The former includes the smoked duck salad: It features beautifully rosy, intensely smoky slices of breast meat fanned alongside grilled radicchio and slices of slow-stewed peach. Besides the mussels and the octopus, dishes for the table include an outstanding beef tartare, the prime strip finely diced instead of ground for a little textural interest; it comes atop grilled ciabatta that's been graced with smoked marrow butter and a drizzling of cava vinaigrette for an intriguing, bracing note of tartness.
Another offering for the table is the meze, a board of treats that include quite lamby lamb-sausage meatballs in a crock of that tomato monté; another crock of creamy sweet-potato purée; a tangle of blistered shishito peppers with little roasted nubs of cauliflower; a smear of that to-die-for smoked bone marrow butter; and, yes, grilled ciabatta. Each element of this spread is carefully made and complexly flavorful -- a shoutout to that bone-marrow butter! -- but the assemblage doesn't quite work because once you've fished out those meatballs you're left with two repetitive-feeling purées.
Just about everything else here is carefully thought-out and well-executed. That includes desserts like the unctuous, chocolatey crème Catalan. It's accompanied by pools of sweetened whipped cream and segments of fresh orange. Another creative sweet is the fried churros drizzled with olive-oil caramel and joined by a crock of saffron gelato.
City Hall also offers some fine house cocktails, including the dark and intriguing Bitter Night, a concoction of rye, vermouth and coffee-steeped Campari; and Lilly's Tonic, with gin and house-made tonic. An especially thoughtful touch: The wine list, although brief, features several available by the quarter-bottle (about a glass and a half) and by the half-bottle, a really nice option if, for example, you want white with your starters and red with your mains. It's a customer-friendly gesture from a place that, like many a younger royal, knows a thing or two about playing to the public.
Mark Vamos is a journalism professor at Southern Methodist University.
City Hall Bistro (3 stars)
Price: $$$-$$$$ (Lunch starters $9 to $21; main courses $14 to $21. Dinner starters $9 to $21; pastas and paellas $16 to $32; main courses $24 to $38; desserts $7 to $8. Breakfast and brunch dishes $5 to $22.)
Service: Friendly and casual, if sometimes a little slow: There can be lengthy lulls between courses.
Ambience: The snazzy, modern, highly designed dining rooms are a world apart from the formality of the Adolphus. Tables are well-spaced, and there are comfortable quilted-leather banquettes everywhere. The front dining room is anchored by the open kitchen, and offers a nice touch for solo diners: a communal bench table where they can dine while watching the cooks.
Noise level: Loud when dinner service is at its peak and the baby-boomer soundtrack is blaring off the unforgiving subway-tiled walls.
Location: 1321 Commerce St., Dallas (the Adolphus hotel); 214-651-3686; cityhallbistro.com
Hours: Breakfast Monday-Friday 6:30 to 11 a.m.; lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; brunch Saturday-Sunday 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Sunday-Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Most recent health department inspection score: 97 (Jan. 17)
Alcohol: Full bar, with some intriguing house cocktails, and a brief but customer-friendly wine list that includes several offerings available by the quarter- or half-bottle.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor