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Grub It Is--and Ain't

October 29, 2000|CHARLES PERRY | Charles Perry is a staff writer in The Times' Food section

WHICH STATES, HAWAII ASIDE, WERE EVER INDEPENDENT nations? Just California and Texas. We're a small club that thinks big, so it was inevitable that California cuisine would spur Texas to come up with its own avant-garde style of food.

The cooking of esteemed Texas chefs such as Stephen Pyles and Dean Fearing is often described by casual observers as New Southwestern, for its use of Mexican ingredients and culinary concepts in novel ways. But Texas cuisine is more than that. Texas is also a Southern state, so the Texas avant-garde also plays with biscuits and pecans and such. And the state's very symbol is the cowboy, which is where Reata fits in. The restaurant, the 9-month-old branch of the original in Alpine, Texas, runs to the red-meat side of the nouvelle Tex-Mex spectrum.

The decor resembles the cattle baron look: lots of tan wood and wrought iron, fancy saddles posted here and there, and vivid murals based on Frederic Remington paintings cover some of the walls. The soundtrack runs from C & W to merengue music, and if you ask to take your leftovers home, they're put in a cardboard box elaborately patterned after a tooled leather saddlebag.

There's even a gift shop where you can buy cowboy hats, Texas tchotchkes and the cookbooks of chef Grady Spears, once a cowboy himself. The story goes that he opened the original Reata not far from Terlingua, home of a famous chili contest. Texas foodies discovered him, and he followed up with a steakhouse in Fort Worth. I'd be surprised if Spears really serves this sort of food to his fellow cowboys, at least if they're anything like the cowboys I've known. They might go for the huge portions of red meat, but miniature cornmeal muffins with garlic-infused dipping oil definitely don't fit the category of grub, delicious though they are.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 7, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Reata restaurant--In the Oct. 29 Los Angeles Times Magazine review of Reata restaurant, the executive chef was misidentified in a photo caption. Jim Abbey is executive chef of Reata.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 26, 2000 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 6 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
In the review of Reata restaurant that appeared in the Oct. 29 issue, the executive chef was misidentified in a photo caption. Jim Abbey is executive chef of Reata.

Reata is on North Rodeo Drive, and it's appropriately huge--like Texas itself. The J-shaped suite of dining areas extends halfway around the ground floor of the Rodeo Collection building. If every chair were filled, it would seat 400, but that sort of stampede is rarely likely, certainly not at dinner, when Rodeo Drive is mighty quiet. Ordinarily, you can get a private room decorated with ten-gallon hats and wagon-wheel chandeliers without any trouble.

Shortly after you sit down, a waiter brings those walnut-sized muffins. They have an appetizing, gamy aroma, which might be due to the chunks of onion in them, but makes me think of mutton. The "bread basket"--a galvanized iron bread pan--features cookie-sized sourdough flatbreads and good floury biscuits studded with pecans.

The first appetizer I order practically makes me decide never to come back, though. The tortilla soup is the worst sort of fusion food, a rich, bland chili-like sauce garnished with pieces of chicken breast and about five tortilla chips. Fortunately, the rest of the appetizers are much better.

The stacked quail enchiladas stand a couple inches high. Tortillas alternate with a filling of quail meat, cheese and nopalitos. There are two sauces: a dark-red mild chile sauce and an excellent, tangy tomatillo sauce. You have to work a little to taste the quail flavor, but all enchiladas should be this good.

An appetizer sampler platter (for two people) provides four items that also can be ordered separately. Calf fries--deep-fried calves' testicles--are beautifully fried in a light batter. One suspects, though, that this very mild organ meat, sometimes known as prairie oysters, is mostly served for bragging rights. The platter also includes bacon-wrapped shrimp and chicken tamales that must contain pecan chunks. They're finished off with squiggles of red sauce and sun-dried tomato sour cream.

But the best of the four samples is wild boar ribs. They're meaty, juicy and tender, and they come with a peanut dipping sauce that makes them a sort of Lone Star satay.

On the entree list, buffalo is the wildest dish--huge ribs cut across the bone, flanken-style. The meat is so soft that it's evident the ribs are braised a long time, and they're like extra-big beef ribs with a faintly gamier flavor. They come with a terrific sweet-sour barbecue sauce and fried onion rings so big you could wear them as bracelets.

Steak is the specialty here, with a good portion of the meat coming from the ranch of one of the restaurant's owners. Perhaps to appeal to the tastes of Beverly Hills diners, the beef is on the lean side. This means the tenderloin in Port wine glaze is relatively healthful, but not the most flavorful. The T-bone steak has real T-bone flavor, but somehow the kitchen doesn't trust it on its own, because it's topped with a cheese enchilada and comes with excellent fresh guacamole.

The best steak is the rib eye, which, unfortunately for people watching their fat intake, is not lean. In fact, the menu warns that it's generously marbled. It's pricey--$1.95 an ounce--but it is a magnificent steak, and the kitchen serves it simply.

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