No location is irrevocably jinxed; there's always the chance that a restaurant with the right combination of food and magic can succeed where others have failed.
But boy, if any location has bad genes, it's the corner of Oak Lawn Avenue and Cedar Springs Road where Manuel's Creative Cuisine opened in March.
Located on the ground level of the Centrum building, this space has been home to a series of failed concepts dating back to the '90s -- who remembers Fabulosa! or Jungle Red? -- and more recently, Bengal Coast.
Although visible from the street, there's no beckoning signage and no drive-up parking -- just valet parking and a free lot under the building. Manuel's ambiguous "Creative Cuisine" name doesn't help its accessibility, either. That's a shame because chef Manuel Arredondo, who owns the place with his wife, Virny, does complex and often impeccable food. A native of Mexico, he worked for the Hilton chain for many years, and he has also worked in Europe. He has another Manuel's in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico, which is where a customer found him and convinced him to open a second branch in Dallas.
That background explains unexpected fine-dining perks, such as an amuse-bouche and a palate cleanser. They're not always effective; a coconut puree palate cleanser was weirdly sweet. But the food was very good, combining influences from Mexico, Italy and Asia, with plenty of fresh vegetables and carefully prepared proteins, plated with fastidious attention to detail.
Entrees included a pork fillet rubbed with cocoa and ground coffee ($24), with mashed sweet potato and sauteed spinach on the side. Each element showed skill. Sliced into medallions that resembled beef tenderloin, the pork's cocoa-and-coffee crust had a good, assertive presence. The sweet potato, soft as baby food, was formed into a hockey puck disc and the spinach was flawless -- tender but not limp.
Chicken mole ($22) was a fork-tender airline breast (with wing still attached), topped with a thick rust-tinted sauce and a sprinkle of sesame seeds. With the bone jutting out like a stem, it looked like a whole chile, a clever ruse. The accompanying risotto, soft and creamy, was coaxed into a sharply defined rectangle that acted as a platform for the chicken -- a precision that hinted of Arredondo's years with Hilton. The chicken still had its skin, an admirable move by the chef to keep the chicken moist. But the skin's stretchy texture didn't add anything good.
Soups and salads were big winners. Caesar salad ($10) was a cool and creative version of a Dallas staple, one whose Southwestern elements -- corn kernels, pumpkin seeds and avocado slices fanned out prettily -- evoked the Caesar they once served right next door at Star Canyon. Sweet corn "cappuccino" ($8) was an irresistible puree of corn, not too rich, topped with a cream foam and tiny edible flowers. A perfectly fried shrimp was another reminder of Arredondo's skills.
Service was sometimes clueless but so intensely earnest that you wanted to overlook any rough spots. The remodeling of the space is a nice job that makes the most of its innate brightness with sunny colors and white tablecloths. An open kitchen lets you see Arredondo at work, and that's really the best thing about the place. Cross your fingers that it's enough to counteract a location that has taken down many a predecessor.