Mod­ern French cui­sine meets kitsch at Bul­lion

Food, ar­chi­tec­ture crit­ics weigh in on golden-scaled Bul­lion

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - By MARK LAMSTER and MARK VAMOS

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.

Pho­tos by Tom Fox/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

Pho­tos by Tom Fox/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

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