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Fancy restaurant cred doesn't always taste best

Posted 10:50am on Friday, Oct. 19, 2012

When a restaurant opens with a lot of hype, a fancy pedigree and a showy location, it had better bring the goods. By that, I mean the food, service and setting need to be stellar, across the board.

How disappointing when this isn't the case. How annoying when you go with high expectations, hoping for an exceptional experience, and go away thinking only about how you wasted time and money. I, for one, am much happier when I head into a restaurant with moderate expectations and come away most impressed at how food, service and atmosphere left me feeling that I'd gotten a bargain in my investment.

This dichotomy came into focus just recently over the course of three days. Brunch at a much-anticipated new Dallas restaurant left me hugely irritated, while lunch a few days later at a relative newcomer in Grapevine gave me a lift - so much so that I didn't even mind fighting all that crazy Highway 114 construction traffic.

My case in point: A few days after Ocho Kitchen + Cocktails opened in the Park Cities, I met a friend there for brunch. I believed we had reason for high hopes, as I've certainly enjoyed former Dallas restaurants from Ocho partner Brian Black, most especially Mi Piaci. This time, he's partnered with a chef whose work I've loved, Eric DiStefano, a Santa Fe star culinarian with Geronimo and Coyote Cafe to his credit.

But little that I experienced at my Ocho brunch reminded me of the good experiences I've had at other businesses attached to Black or DiStefano. The food was unimpressive to merely adequate, the servers barely trained and the setting, not especially warm.

I wish it had anything to do with opening jitters. It's easy to tell when a restaurant has hiccups associated with newness, but this felt like a disjointed business with no caring or cohesion.

The bloody mary, usually a delightful brunch starter, was no better than the premixed kind from a bottle. No flair, other than an olive. And as Ocho is meant to be a marriage of Tex-Mex and Santa Fe-inspired Southwestern, I was excited about the menu. Alas, the blue corn cheese enchiladas, overbaked so that the cheddar filling and corn tortillas had melded into a mush, were disappointing, though the fried eggs on top were properly cooked and the red and green chile adornment held the proper balance of flavors.

My friend's choice, Eric's New Mexican Meatloaf, was equally humdrum. What should have been a textural delight in a mixture of veal, pork and beef with fired green chiles was an indiscernable brown mass, particularly when laden with cheddar mashed potatoes and chorizo gravy. Were it not for a fluff of greens on top, the dish would have been slightly more attractive than a bowl of oatmeal.

Service put us off, as well. After the host tried to seat us next to a loud, bright service area - not once, but twice, in an otherwise empty restaurant - we finally settled into a table of our choosing. Throughout lunch, we noticed owner Black moving between his table and the coffee station, never stopping to greet any of the few guests dining at brunch, never inquiring how their visits were going.

While our server was very sweet and most attentive, he mustn't have been trained for long: When we asked how the meatloaf compared to the version served at Geronimo, our server was a deer caught in headlights. And he didn't seem compelled to go ask someone who would know. The overall vibe made me in a hurry to leave.

Two days later, I met a friend for lunch at Mi Dia, opened perhaps a year ago on the south end of Grapevine's Main Street, next to Bob's, Winewood and Fireside Pies. I had the kind of middling expectations you reserve for the better-than-average chain places clustered together in up-and-coming areas.

While it feels a bit chainish, in that it's owned by the group that encompasses the aforementioned neighbors, Mi Dia - which brings together flavors of old Mexico and New Mexico, with hints of Tex-Mex - has legitimate local roots, as the owner is a Texan and the chef comes from Grapevine and Irving restaurant families, namely, Esparza's and La Margarita, respectively.

Chef Gabriel DeLeon's passion and focus both shone in just a one-hour lunch. My grilled Scottish salmon - a lovely filet, cooked exactly to medium-rare and swept with a mango-lemongrass mojo - was crowned by swirls of finely shredded chayote (squash) and rested over rice flavored with bits of roasted poblano.  Simple, light, darn near perfect.

My friend's combination lunch featured an enchilada, stuffed with fresh, sauteed spinach, wrapped within a tender corn tortilla and covered with a red chile sauce; a cup of chicken tortilla soup, full of veggies and thin tortilla strips; and a huge, beautiful bowl of mixed baby greens tossed with jicama, roasted corn kernels, tomato, pickled red onion, queso fresco, candied pepitas and avocado in a simple vinaigrette.

Our server made informed recommendations, and one of the managers stopped briefly to say hi. And though Mi Dia was jam-packed, with staff rushing to and from the kitchen, there was a cheery spirit in the air, an exchange between servers and guests. Sunshine poured through soaring windows, and I left wishing I knew when I'd have reason to return.

In the end, each meal cost about $45 with beverages, tax and tip, for two. The fancier pedigree brought nothing to the earlier experience, which is too bad - Ocho has a fabulous Park Cities location, and the clientele would welcome something terrific. My best guess is they'll be running back to Mi Cocina.

Me, I'll be coming up with reasons to fight the traffic on 114 to revisit Mi Dia for duck carnitas and pepita-crusted sea bass. I'm pretty sure my expectations will be met, too.

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