The French Room: at the Adolphus Hotel, Dallas – Dallas, TX

The French Room: at the Adolphus Hotel, Dallas – Dallas, TX – 1997 Fine Dining Hall of Fame

Ron Ruggless

They don’t build rooms like this anymore.

“What makes The French Room special? asks William Koval, corporate chef for Noble House Hotels & Resort of Seattle, which owns the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas. “It would have to start with the room itself.”

Adolphus Busch, who made a fortune in St. Louis by fermenting hops and grains, built the eponymous 435-room hotel in 1912, creating The French Room as a setting worthy of European kings and queen as well as modern-day beer barons.

In fact, the baroque decor suggests an 18th-century chateau, with painted cherubs flying across murals on the 35-foot-high arched ceilings and crystal Italian chandeliers twinkling in the room’s glittering light. Trivia buffs should note that the murals were painted by Alexander Rosenfield, who painted sets for the original stage production of “Mame” in Philadelphia and the portrait of Laura in the movie of the same name.

Renovated in 1981 and refurbished in 1993, The French Room remains distinctive, lending its je ne sais quoi to a culinary experience enhanced by a menu that’s classified as Neoclassical French.

“The room is a jewel,” says Brent Wuest, executive chef for the Adolphus Hotel. “And the menu always has had a strong, dominant French foundation, from the way the sauces are made to all the preparations.

However, earlier this decade, the restaurant lightened the menu and updated the flavors.

“We’ve taken a lot of changes in the past couple of years, which were kind of risky, to push it out on our own cutting edge to see how adventuresome people were,” Wuest says. “The food has evolved even more into intense flavors. Guests will find maybe two types of confit on the plate, or the brown sauce has been steeped in cardamom and has this great flavor.”

While the dishes show influences of Pacific Rim and Caribbean, he adds, “we keep as strong foundation of French cuisine.”

A recent top menu item, for example, was an amalgam of classics, neoclassics and just plain imports: a seared black grouper with golden Belgian endive, caramelized onions and paper-thin apple-ginger chips. The menu changes seasonally, with a weekly chef’s menu also available. The room’s staff of seven in the kitchen and 15 in the dining room provides service that remains classic, down to the silver cloches that cover each plate.

That is a integral part of The French Room’s mystique.

“We don’t give the whole mystery away in the menu verbiage,” Wuest says. “When the food is put before you and the cloche comes off, you see the eyes light up. We try to put the `wow’ onto the plate.”

Koval adds that the kitchen’s goal is to impress the guest without getting too froufrou with the “good, honest” food. “It’s clean. It’s light,” he says. “That’s our niche, from how we make our sauces to the meat and fish we buy. We try to let the product speak for itself without adding a whole lot of flavors. People at restaurants, especially here in the Southwest, can be overpowered by the peppers, strong herbs and moles, And our food isn’t four feet high.”

Such philosophy has brought The French Room high honors, including a “Top 50” restaurants-in-the-United-States distinction from Conde Nast Traveler magazine. And since reopening in 1981, the room has had such distinctive chefs as Jean Banchet, Philippe Mouton and Kevin Garvin on staff and as consultants.

“It was one of several restaurants that opened at that time that really raised the bar for the fine dining across the board in Dallas,” says Kim Pierce, a food writer and restaurant critic at the Dallas Morning News and a former editor of the Zagat Survey for Dallas-Fort Worth. “It brought a level of cuisine, ambience and service to this area that had almost never been seen before. It was definitely on the forefront of real fine dining of Dallas, bringing the nouvelle cuisine to the city.

“The baroque finishings, the paintings, the level of elegance was unsurpassed,” Pierce says. “There simply was nothing like it in ambience. In the modern era no room had ever been decked out like this.”

Koval, whose background is in the Ritz-Carlton hotels, and Wuest, a Californian who has been at the Adolphus for five years, are carrying on the tradition of their predecessors.

“Our challenge is to keep the sanctity of the room and keep it polished and clean and crisp and new and not let it fall into just another fine-dining room,” Koval says. “We make you feel comfortable. All the menus are in English; there is no French whatsoever. It’s not intimidating at all. And we make sure it’s worth every penny of it for the customer.”

While The French Room’s customer mix is 40-percent locals and 60-percent guests of the 21-story hotel and other out-of-town visitors to the city, Koval and Wuest see part of their jobs as keeping interest in the dining.

“Where food is going more to the bistro style — more laid back, no suit coat and tie — we in The French Room have to be on the edge,” says Koval, explaining how they distinguish the hotel’s fine-dining venue.

“Casual places are packed all the time,” Koval says. “Customers don’t necessarily want to have a coat and tie on, and our challenge is to provide them a reason and an occasion to do so.”

The team’s management philosophy is to empower the staff. While the kitchen is classically French in layout, square with each station distinctly delineated, Wuest says, “We emphasize freedom of expression for everybody in the kitchen.” Koval adds: “We want you to leave your ego in your pocket when you walk into the kitchen. We’re not yellers or screamers; we’re here to help each other.”

They also highlight specialized service, working over several days to develop menus for customers’ special dinners. Wuest also works at watching food costs, which at one time ran 41 percent of sales, with truffles and foie gras. He says food costs now, however, are around 32 percent to 34 percent. “We charge a little more, but you’re getting quality,” he adds. He works with The French Room’s purveyors to help keep those costs in line.

The small Noble House chain has 14 properties, and eight of them have fine-dining restaurants. The French Room, though, is the crown jewel.

“People still think The French Room is `up there,’ kind of stuffy with tableside service,” says Wuest, explaining that both the front-and the back-of-the-house emphasize making the guests feel comfortable. “The captains and maitre d’ will bring the chef in and talk with the guests. They are in our house. And when someone comes into your house, you want to give them a great time. When they come into this room, we want them to have an experience.”

RELATED ARTICLE: The French Room

1321 Commerce St., Dallas (Adolphus Hotel) (214) 742-8200

Owner: Noble House Hotels & Resorts of Seattle

Chefs: William Koval, corporate chef; Brent Wuest, executive chef

Year opened: 1981

Cuisine: French

Seats: 90

Check average: $75.

RELATED ARTICLE: Menu Sampler

Roma tomato and lobster consomme with ruffled shrimp and crab ravioli $8.50

Lightly smoked loin of ahi tuna sliced over a composition of fresh pea sprouts, field greens, crisp lotus root and jicama served with an oregano cayenne vinaigrette and tobiko caviar $9.50

Sake-marinated Norwegian salmon with fresh sauteed spinach on a hot-and-sour red curry sauce with a crisp potato ringlette $30

Peppered loin of New Zealand venison or caramelized Bermuda onions and rosemary spatzle and cranberry Port wine-sauce $8.50

Hot chocolate cake with cream center and Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream on an Amaretto creme Anglaise $8.50

COPYRIGHT 1997 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

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