At the French Room in Dallas, a chef elegantly walks on eggshells 

A dinner at the French Room begins with the smallest of gestures: a tiny amuse-bouche, entirely in shades of white, with a barely set quail egg resting on a cloud of cauliflower gel and crowned with a fluttery, Parmesan-rice tuile that looks as if it just may fly off into the rafters. It is a subtle bite that arouses curiosity, and it makes a good epigram for a meal at the new French Room at the Adolphus Hotel, the Dallas palace of fine dining that recently emerged from its own cocoon after a series of fits and starts.

The quail egg amuse-bouche

I never dined at the old French Room, so unlike many of the natives I have no laments about the cherub murals that were painted over, or respected Dallas chef Michael Ehlert, who helped oversee the two-year renovation only to be dismissed along with the hotel's general manager months after the splashy 2017 reopening. The new executive chef, Anthony Dispensa, arrived without fanfare last summer, bringing a curious résumé for a chef at one of the city's landmark restaurants.

He was previously a chef de partie, or line cook, at Dinner, Heston Blumenthal's Michelin-starred, modernist restaurant in London, and before that had a career that spanned everything from a chain of seafood franchises called Slapfish, to stints at prominent restaurants in Boston and New York City, to starring in a reality television show called Say It to My Face! About the only thing not on the résumé was heading a restaurant the caliber of the French Room.

After months of keeping a low profile — serving Ehlert's old menu and not even venturing into the dining room — Dispensa debuted his modern French menu last October and promised to shake things up.

And in some ways, he has. He introduced the first a la carte menu in the restaurant's 106-year history, in addition to the traditional tasting menu. The excellent wine program, with one of the deepest and most compelling lists in the city, loosens its tie with Three-Liter Thursdays, when a prize magnum is poured by the glass. The vaunted beaux-arts dining room has lately become a backdrop for Instagram influencers, apparently visiting during the perfect afternoon light, when the restaurant is closed. There's a very good lobster roll in the bar.

Dispensa was correct when he said that the French Room, stunning as it is, needs fresh energy. But so far, he has been timid about the changes and has even scaled some of them back. No more oyster service, beckoning you to stop by for a quick bite. No bistro-inspired menu in the chic French Room bar, though he says he will relaunch it soon. After three months and a change in seasons, his original a la carte and five-course degustation menus are still intact, offering the same lineups of highly refined, modern French dishes.

Veal sweetbreads with carrots, pearl onions and salsify

The a la carte menu lists only five first courses, called entrées, and five main courses, or plats. The most delicious starter, veal sweetbreads, looks like a delicate still life, with golden breaded and fried sweetbreads, petals of charred pearl onion and a swirl of carrot gel nestled beneath a tangle of fresh herbs and flowers. A lushly flavored chicken jus holds the elements together without overwhelming any of them.

The globe artichoke has a similar naturalistic feeling, with the braised, pared hearts offset by the freshness of celery and a condiment Dispensa calls gentleman's relish, a version of bagna cauda involving poached garlic, anchovies, lemon and mayonnaise. Wisps of a fernlike herb called citrus branch provide the flavor bridge here.

Globe artichoke with celery branch and gentleman's relish

There's a also a luscious foie gras torchon, marinated 24 hours in Cognac and brandy, and served simply as a disk adorned with a sprinkle of Maldon salt, a scoop of complex fig jam and triangles of toasted, orange-scented brioche.

By comparison, the beet risotto looks like a showstopper, its bright fuschia covering the entire surface of a dinner plate and dotted with horseradish gel, pickled beets and pickled onions. But the flavors disappoint: The rice is chalky and undercooked, and instead of the comforting creaminess you'd expect, the bright pink liquid is actually an off-putting beet gel. Spread thinly across the large plate, it cools quickly, and it's hard to shake the idea that you're eating lip gloss.

Beet risotto with pearl onion and horseradish gel

At this point, you've noticed that Dispensa relies heavily on gels, a technique he learned from Blumenthal that involves using a product called Gellan Gum F to suspend flavors in a smooth, unnatural consistency, almost like warm Jell-O. It can make sense in a modernist dish, where textures and flavors are not what they're expected to be. But the appeal of Dispensa's cooking is classical and driven by great ingredients, and often the gels read like a highly unnecessary gimmick.

The main course of Long Island duck, for example, is a beautifully cooked rectangle of breast meat, with crisp skin and rare, juicy flesh. The shiny scoop of butternut squash gel beside it makes a strange contrast in texture and appearance, like an unwelcome visitor from 2013.

When Dispensa leaves the gel in the pantry, the difference is remarkable. The Crystal Valley Farm chicken, from Indiana, is formed into a long cylinder like a mini baguette, a visual trick that makes it a more obvious match for a gel. Instead, Dispensa pairs it with a much more compelling counterpart: a rich parsnip purée, made without the woody core of the root vegetable and studded with vertical squares of crisped chicken skin, an incredible combination of flavor and texture that lifts the entire dish.

Crystal Valley Farm chicken with parsnip purée and savoy cabbage

Other main courses include two steaks, a filet and a rib-eye, both from Meats by Linz in Chicago, for $65 and $70. The presentations are straightforward: Both get buttery, Joel Robuchon-style mashed potatoes and a bordelaise sauce. While both were cooked to medium-rare, as requested, on the night I had the rib-eye, which is billed as dry-aged, it had a livery flavor and a texture more like a wet-aged steak.

A restaurant at the level of the French Room should also have its own pastry chef. So far it hasn't hired one, but Dispensa has called on a New York-based pastry chef, Tai Chopping, to collaborate on that part of the menu. There's a rotating selection of four classics, each with a nice twist and prepared with perfect technique. The pavlova is split in half to reveal a scoop of quince sorbet, poached quince, and blueberries doused in blueberry purée, while the lime posset, a creamy citrus custard made without eggs, is embellished with lemon and coconut gels, a dark sesame tuile and coriander flowers. There is still a chocolate soufflé, of course, finished with glazed raspberries and fennel ice cream.

Troy Wierman pops the question to Michlind Wilson over chocolate souffs.

The dishes on the five-course tasting menu are different, but so close in their aesthetic that they feel interchangeable with the a la carte offerings. There is a cauliflower risotto, not made with trendy cauliflower rice, but with actual rice in a cauliflower gel dotted with caviar and several preparations of cauliflower. The Atlantic halibut is cooked simply and accompanied by beet gel, braised fennel and horseradish cream. The beef course — squares of A5 Satsuma Wagyu from Japan — is also accompanied by those buttery Robuchon potatoes and bordelaise sauce.

It is a tasting menu meant to please, with good dishes flowing well from one course to the next, but it's missing any risk-taking, originality or surprise. That's a problem — especially after three months, when the menu is in need of at least a seasonal refresh, and when prices have crept up from the original $110 to $135.

The service, overseen by general manager Victor Rojas, a veteran of the Dallas dining scene, is a flawless blend of professionalism and warmth that brings the room to life, guides you through the menu without condescension and can make a formal evening a fun one, too. That's especially true for the wine service, where sommelier Leslie Hartman's obvious enthusiasm for the list is infectious and inspiring.

So many of the moves at the French Room are in a good direction. And it's easy to understand Dispensa's caution with the menu, given the long history of the restaurant, the high expectations among Dallasites and the abrupt dismissal of his predecessor. But what the French Room needs now is more adventurousness and risk-taking, a menu that matches the confidence of the looser formality of the service and a wine list that seamlessly skips from old Burgundy to experimental natural wine. It's time for Dispensa to set aside the modernist gels and trust himself to do something more personal and genuinely modern. The glimmer of talent is there.

The French Room

Rating: Two and a half stars

Price: $$$$ (Dinner starters $12 to $28, mains $32 to $70, desserts $15 to $18. Degustation menu $135; $200 with wine pairing, $265 with premium wine pairing.)

Service: Expert and professional, tempered with enough warmth to humanize the grandeur

Ambience: The 106-year-old restaurant in the Adolphus Hotel downtown has been restored to its beaux-arts glory, with a dining room of creamy whites and gilded edges, towering floral arrangements, cheese and caviar trollies, and all the trappings of old-school fine dining. Last fall, a new chef, Anthony Dispensa, introduced an a la carte menu alongside the traditional five-course tasting, both as refined and quietly French as their surroundings.

Noise: Quiet (59 decibels)

Drinks: The remarkable 60-page wine list is filled with excellent vintages from Burgundy, Bordeaux and the classic wine regions as well as strong selections from the New World. Prices climb from $48 to almost $6,000, with most in the $80-$200 range (2014 Belle Pente Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley is a good choice at $78, as is a 2013 Josef Högl Grüner Veltliner Ried Schon Federspiel from the Wachau for $68). By-the-glass wines are equally compelling, as are sophisticated cocktails such as the Aperitif, made with génépy, manzanilla sherry and orange bitters.

Recommended: Veal sweetbreads, globe artichoke, Crystal Valley Farm chicken, cheese service, pavlova, lime posset, degustation menu

GPS: Tables along the wall of windows offer the best view of the dining room. Avoid the alcovelike area on the far end of the room, unless you're looking for a more private space.

Address: The Adolphus Hotel,1321 Commerce St., Dallas; 214-651-3615; thefrenchroom.com

Hours: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., tea Saturday-Sunday from noon to 2 p.m. The French Room Bar is open Tuesday-Thursdayfrom 5 to 11 p.m. and Friday-Saturday from 5 p.m. to midnight.

Reservations: Accepted

Credit cards: All major

Health department score: A (99, January 2018)

Access: Elevator from hotel entrance to second-floor lobby. A concealed ramp connects to the French Room Bar, where a second elevator ascends the additional steps to the dining room.

Parking: Free valet parking with validation

Ratings Legend

4 stars: Extraordinary (First-rate on every level; a benchmark dining experience)

3 stars: Excellent (A destination restaurant and leader on the DFW food scene)

2 stars: Very Good (Strong concept and generally strong execution)

1 star: Good (Has merit, but limited ambition or spotty execution)

No stars: Poor (Not recommended)

Noise Levels

Below 60: Quiet. Maybe too quiet.

60-69: Easy listening. Normal conversation, with a light background buzz.

70-79: Shouty. Conversation is possible, but only with raised voices.

80-85: Loud. Can you hear me now? Probably not.

86-plus: Tarmac at DFW.

Prices

Average dinner per person:

$ -- $19 and under

$$ -- $20 to $50

$$$ -- $50 to $99

$$$$ -- $100 and over

Updated on Jan. 31, 2019 to clarify that the hotel general manager, not the restaurant general manager, was dismissed shortly after reopening.

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