Modern French cuisine meets kitsch at Bullion
Food, architecture critics weigh in on golden-scaled Bullion
Bullion, which debuted in downtown Dallas in November, makes big culinary and design statements.
Bullion, which opened in mid-November, is probably the mostanticipated restaurant debut in Dallas this year.
It’s the brainchild of a Michelin-starred French chef, and the centerpiece of an over-the-top renovation of a 30-year-old downtown office tower — have you seen the golden Star Trek shuttlecraft that crashed into the side of the building? So it makes big culinary and design statements.
Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster and dining special contributor Mark Vamos compare notes on their recent visit.
Mark Vamos: The last time I saw Bullion, almost exactly a year ago, it was still a raw mess of concrete and drywall. I was walking through the space with the chef, Bruno Davaillon, who had left the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek to open his own place. He’s probably the most talented chef in town right now, and he was proposing to bring modern French cuisine to Dallas, where it’s sorely lacking. So I was really excited that we were going to get a chance to see how it all turned out.
Mark Lamster: I’ve also been curious, because this was happening right across the street from our old offices, which we only just departed, so I have been watching development with deep trepidation.
This restaurant was part of a broader renovation of the Belo Building, now 400 Record, a handsome modernist tower designed by Omniplan Architects that was, admittedly, pretty unfriendly at street level. The new owners have
gone way overboard in their renovation —the architecture work is by Gensler, who remade the old Dallas library as our new headquarters — with Bullion being the most ostentatious of their alterations.
It is a golden-scaled lozenge propped up on mirrored columns, and this object is jammed onto the restrained gray obelisk. The two have zero relationship. They speak totally different languages. By all rights, I should hate it. Architectural purists will hate it. It is, on the merits, terrible. But I love it anyway.
Let me explain. Bullion is the closest thing we have in Dallas to something from Miami, to the kitschy hotels of Morris Lapidus, the architect of the Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc who titled his memoir Too Much Is Never
Enough. Let’s be honest. Dallas has a tendency to boring, corporate design. We’re a corporate town. The headquarters of corporate headquarters. Outlining a building in LED lighting passes for architectural creativity here. So I’m saying yes to shiny golden lozenges, yes to a little kitsch, yes to too much, even if the taste is questionable. But here I go prattling on. What did you think of the experience?
MV: I agree with the prattle. Bullion feels like it sets you up for one kind of evening and then delivers a series of pleasant surprises. I mean, that menu: pâté en croûte, pot-aufeu, sole meunière, and, heaven help us, canard à l’orange? These dishes were already clichés in French restaurants of the 1950s. So you start by thinking Davaillon is playing it preposterously safe.
But the thing is, he’s mostly using those classics as themes that send him off on imaginative variations. That duck isn’t some sad, over-roasted half-bird slathered in sweet orange goo. It’s a beautiful slice of mediumrare meat under crispy skin, with a delicate brown duck jus kissed with orange. It comes with braised endive, roasted parsnips, supremes of orange and — yes! —microgreens. It’s about as far as you can get from the duck you’d find at Chez le Warhorse.
I’m venturing into your territory here, but I thought the design pulled the same sort of switcheroo. The relatively restrained, comfortable interior was quite different from what the cartoonishly opulent exterior would lead you to expect. Do you agree?
ML: Actually, the interior seemed cartoonish to me, as well. One member of our party described it as art deco meets The Jetsons. To me it suggested a debauched financier’s yacht. It is a cushy space, tightly enclosed, with lots of hand-tooled leather and chrome. The menus are so big I accidentally knocked over a table lamp. As you note, Davaillon is taking the most formal and traditional French dishes, but adding a modern sense of play. This is white-tablecloth cuisine, but there are no tablecloths at all; it is a clubby environment, with a rather invasive soundtrack.
For dessert, I had a baked Alaska, which seemed a good encapsulation of the entire design experience: it came as a near perfect teardrop of ice cream wrapped in fluff, and no sooner was it set down than it was theatrically lit on fire by the server.
This seems very on trend. In other disciplines, postmodernism has been making a roaring comeback. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, just held an exhibition on Ettore Sottsass, the Italian designer of cartoonish furnishings. The Bullion project — the food, the architecture — seems essentially postmodern to me, in its serious-playful appropriation of the past. Everything old is new again.
MV: Serious-playful appropriation of the past is right! I’m thinking of those cocktails — the Rob Roy, the Corpse Reviver, the French 75. When was the last time anybody had a Rob Roy, let alone one that comes in a grandmotherly etched-crystal coupe? But Bullion’s is made postmodern, as you say, with 12-year-old Glenfiddich and Carpano Antica Formula vermouth. It was so good I stirred up a Rob Roy at home last night.
At the same time, I thought some of the best stuff on the menu made fewer references to the past. That fabulous crispy-seared cod with lemon-caper sauce on its bed of creamy brandade, for example, felt purely modern French. And I have to say the baked Alaska was a real misfire: theatrical, yes, but it ended up with a burnt-paper reek.
Lately, I’ve been eating a lot of food that has seemed overthought and overwrought. Davaillon’s food strikes me as smart, but also well-prepared and mostly delicious: the garlicky escargot ravioli, the classic pâté en croûte, the little glass jar of creamy rabbit rillettes you couldn’t seem to get enough of. It was all really good to eat. You’d think that should be a given at a high-dollar place like Bullion, but it often isn’t.
ML: Agreed. I was impressed with the way Davaillon plays with French cuisine on its own terms — there’s no pretension of “farm to table,” he’s not adding smoked brisket because we’re in Texas, he’s not raiding the Asian grocery to make some kind of artificial cross-cultural cuisine, because that’s what they’re doing on Top Chef.
And yet it’s not overly serious or precious. I can’t help but compare the Bullion experience with what I’ve heard of Vespertine, the Los Angeles restaurant where high modern culinary formalism achieves a heretofore unexplored level of pretension, with a $250 tasting menu in a bespoke tower designed by the architect Eric Owen Moss. That whole neo-modern approach, with its hyper self-regard, seems dated to me. Bullion, on the other hand, seems to have found something new in tradition.
MV: Yes, indeed. Davaillon was never a fusion guy (thank heaven), but he did seem to feel some pressure at the Mansion to give his French cooking a bit of a Texas accent. That’s why it’s so interesting to see what he’s doing now that he’s the boss. His technique is exquisite, as always, but now it’s in the service of food that’s more inventive, more casual and more ingredient-focused than traditional French cuisine.
It’s what you’ll increasingly find in good restaurants in Paris these days — and now, luckily for us, in Dallas.
Mark Lamster is the architecture critic of The Dallas Morning News, a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington School of Architecture.
Diners arrive to the golden-scaled French restaurant Bullion on Record Street.
A Rob Roy cocktail in an etched-crystal coupe is made with a postmodern twist.
The Necklace of Dreams sculpture by Jean-Michel Othoniel lines the circular staircase at Bullion.
Left: Leather and gold-colored rivets make up the menu at the French restaurant Bullion in downtown Dallas. Right: A dining alcove accommodates a large party.