Shoving my way through the crush of patrons in Dallas' joey's -- the six-month-old restaurant owned by Joey Vallone, 24-year-old offspring of Houston dining doyen Tony Vallone -- I noted that my companion, a real head-turner, was the target of even more appraising looks than usual. When I commented on it at our table a few minutes and a few crushed toes later, she said, "Honey, in Dallas, everyone's a head-turner. And everyone looks."
So how is it that in Dallas, a city notorious for its effluence of big hair and citizens who obsess over their wardrobes, a restaurant where some of the customers actually wear jeans, and which has actually been described as fun, quickly became one of the places to see and be seen?
According to the ebullient Joey, who honed his skills by running his dad's La Griglia and by opening the second Anthony's, Dallas was hungry for a Houston kind of restaurant: a place where fine dining and bonhomie could co-exist. That's what inspired him to plaster the columns supporting joey's ecclesiastical-height ceilings with kaleidoscopic tile mosaics; it's also what encouraged him to bring in artist Jan Parsons to create the neon-hued, R-rated murals she's made a Vallone trademark. Unfortunately, it also seems to have encouraged him to crowd the tables in his long, narrow space so closely together that the derriere of your neighbor's waiter hovers only inches away from your head; that sort of friendliness I can do without. I could also have done without his positioning the bar just inside the restaurant's entrance. At peak barhopping time, an escort by a couple of Jerry Jones' blockers would come in handy if you're headed toward the host stand.
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I didn't notice any similar glitches in the dining part of the equation, however. An appetizer of three miniature avocado pancakes that, just like a good avocado, were deep green and wet inside, came off as soothing, mild and homey. They were perked up just enough with a spoonful of tart crab meat pico de gallo and an antenna of thyme. A salad of semi-wilted greens was ripe with gorgonzola and dulcet with bits of pear and a pear vinaigrette. A main dish of four oblongs of heartily breaded and browned capon stuffed with a gooey mixture of Italian sausage and fontina cheese was surrounded by a bitter pile of steamed spinach. The perfectly medium rare tuna steak on another entree was hidden beneath a melange of vegetables that included a surprisingly mild bite of dime-sized, cooked ginger. As a fitting end to the meal, a harp made of caramelized sugar graced the edge of a ramekin of eggy, smooth -- not slippery -- creme brulee, and a banana bread pudding -- a glorified banana muffin, my companion called it -- came swimming in a comfortingly tame white sauce.
The junior Vallone has obviously learned his lessons well. Given a little more time, he might just teach Dallasites what Houstonians have long known: yes, appearances count. But taste counts more. -- Kelley Blewster
joey's, 4217 Oak Lawn Avenue, Dallas, (214) 526-0074.
joey's: avocado pancake, $7.95; invaltini of capon, $15.95.