Sunday, August 26, 2007


Austin Ranch epitomizes perfectly the new era in urban/suburban living. A master planned community in The Colony, Texas, Austin Ranch is a seamless integration of apartment lofts, retail space, shops, offices, first-class amenities, and last but not least, restaurants. (WOW! I just sounded like a commercial, didn't I?) A gentleman named Trammel Crow was/is a real estate pioneer who once upon a time had a nifty idea: Why not talk to potential clients, both business and residential, and find out the kind of space that would attract their business and then give it to them? Mr C came up with this radical concept some 30-40 years ago, built an empire on it, and now his daughter Lucy Billingsly successfully carries on the tradition with, you guessed it, Austin Ranch.
My lovely wife the Rock Star and I live very, very close to the fine restaurants of this community (you might say we're within walking distance), and frequently take advantage of their excellent cuisine. At the time of this writing there are two bar/restaurants and one coffee shop/restaurant/hangout that call Austin Ranch home.


I would like to begin this review by stating categorically that the vicious rumor you may have heard is not true: You positively cannot buy auto insurance at Cafe Gecko! You can, however, enjoy drinks, pool, darts, video games, tv sports, lots of good companionship, and "foods from sunny latitudes" on the premises. The Rock Star and I are guests of the Windhaven (Austin Ranch) location as often as is financially possible, particularly during football season. We've enjoyed several of their dishes, which include Mexican Food, bar food, sandwiches, and burgers, but it's hard to pass up their excellent pizza. We get the build-your-own variety, featuring a fresh, just-out-of-the oven crust, excellent toppings, and a good balance of ingredients. (I usually get extra sauce, but that's just me.) A medium or even a small can easily be split between two people, with a box readily provided by the sweet and VERY talented waitstaff. (Simone, in particular, is quite good, but all the ladies are wonderful about making sure ALL tables are taken care of, not just their own.) If your not in the mood for pizza, try the Mexican: the sour cream chicken nachos are spiced just right and delicious, and the soft beef chicken tacos (order them spicy) are also excellent, and come complete with pico de gallo and tasty rice. (You might want to ask for a side of salsa.) Check out their website at All things considered Gecko is a great place to hang after work or start the weekend, even if the lizard on the wall doesn't talk like the commercials!


Zen Bar and Restaurant, like many All-American restaurants, serves Asian fare. (Actually their menu can best be described as eclectic, but I couldn't resist the joke. Sorry!) Pastas, burgers, sandwiches, bar food, Asian goodies, and more ambitious entrees such as Fish Tacos (served with a chipotle cream drizzle and thoroughly yummy!) are all on the bill of fare; however The Rock Star and I LOVE their starters and often make a meal of those. The Mississippi Fried Mozzarella is very lightly fried in tempura batter and served with a spicy diablo marinara. The Creamy Spinach Artichoke dip deftly combines veggies, smoked Gouda, Parmesan, and mild spices into a very appealing dish. (For me, I'd like just a touch more kick, please.) But, for us, the absolute standout dish of the Zen master chefs is/are the Thai Chicken Tacos: Hoisin marinated chicken breast topped with cilantro and Asian slaw and served with fruit chutney, and good enough to make a monk renounce his vows! (Well, not quite, but you get the idea.) All of this quality food is served in an ultramodern setting featuring outdoor tables, indoor tables and couches, and of course, lots and lots of flat-screen TV's. (Most new bar/restaurants provide these for their mostly twentysomething sport fan patrons and for the young-at-heart like yours truly. The Rock Star, for her part, will never grow old!!!) Their website can be accessed at, and if you are fortunate enough to live in Austin Ranch, they do deliver! (Quite quickly, I might add.)


Not content with an existence as a mere caffine shop, this first-rate establishment also serves a mean breakfast and lunch (and now dinner)as well. Unlike Gecko and Zen, Unwind is a fast-casual place, which means order and pay at the counter, and your food will be speedily delivered to you at the table, couch or comfy chair of your choice. Also unlike the other two places, which currently feature two Texas locations each, Daily Grind boasts shops in no less than 119 locations, coast to coast; just visit their website at to see if there is one in your neighborhood. They, of course, serve a selection of coffees and teas that is truly Starbuckian in nature. (Yes this is a word---I say it is---My blog, my rules, and my Grammer is out in the kitchen making cookies!) Next time you stop in for your latte or fruit-flavored tea, why not try a delightfully flaky, melt-in-your mouth ham and cheese croissant to go with it? Or stop in early on a hot afternoon like the Rock Star and I recently did and enjoy the salad stuffer: one of those croissants just bursting with delicious chicken salad and served with chips and side greens with a choice of dressing. Their standout dish just happens to be the fabulous, almost legendary panini, particularly the beef and cheddar, dripping with bistro sauce and served on grilled flat bread. Your friend Bubba might find it too, too frou-frou (did I really write that?), but your cousin Hunter from Seattle would surely devour it and not leave a crumb. In this case, Hunter, not Bubba, really knows best! In the Austin Ranch location, you can take your food to go, enjoy it at one of the outdoor cafe tables, or as I said earlier, take advantage of free wi-fi access (all the aforementioned restaurants also feature this amenity) and plop down with your laptop and enjoy. You could also take advantage of the books, newspapers or board games thoughtfully placed by management in the dining space for your use. In sum, take advantage of Cafe Gecko, Zen Bar, and The Daily Grind Unwind ASAP, and remember:


Saturday, August 25, 2007

Quickie Review #4: Paradise Bakery & Cafe

Paradise Bakery & Cafe first opened in 1976, selling freshly baked cookies and muffins in Long Beach, California. Today, they sport 40 different locations in ten states in airports, mall food courts, and freestanding stores. My wife the Rock Star & I were on our way to a movie, and stopping at the food court sounded like a better possibility for a quick lunch rather than just munching on movie popcorn. Mall food courts can sometimes be quite an adventure, but luckily Stonebriar Mall is upscale and the choices were quite interesting. Since my wife is still in her its-summer-so-I'm-eating-lite-cool-food phase, and I like salads and sandwiches, we decided to try Paradise Bakery and Cafe (plus, the line was short!)

The Stonebriar location menu, like most mall menus, is shorter than a regular location, nevertheless sandwiches, pastas, soups, salads and tempting baked goods are offered. Since we had just over half an hour to showtime, we needed somthing quick, cheap, and easy to eat. Suddenly, we spotted a sign for a menu combo that we just love: the Salad Trio. Three salads for one low price. How could we go wrong? We made our choices, ordered at the counter, and were quickly dining in the expansive court. My wife chose the Caesar, a typical mix of Romaine, Parmesan, one large, very tasty garlic crouton shaped like garlic toast and Caesar dressing. Well done, but nothing special. I selected the Exotic Field Greens: a delightful mix of greens, tomatoes, bleu cheese crumbles and vinagrette with the same colossal crouton. Again, very nice but the crouton was once again the best part. Then, we turned to our other two choices, which were the same for both of us, and it was here that we indeed achieved Paradise. The Albacore Caesar was plenty of fresh, delicious tuna molded with just the right amount of mayo, and since we are tuna fanatics we were quite happy. But the true standout was the Chicken Walnut: Luscious, finely chopped, top quality chicken salad molded with walnuts, mayo (I think), and just the right amount of seasoning which gave our mouths the kiss of sheer pleasure. Bravo! Portions were generous and the final tab was well under $20, a bargain for such a quality lunch. We happily finished what we could, trashed the rest (be sure to keep the food court clean), and made the movie with ten minutes to spare. It will definitely be our pick when lunch and a flick are in the offing, and remember:


Sunday, August 19, 2007


Every August, Dallas diners eagerly anticipate the coming of KRLD Restaurant Week. This charity event is argueably the premier culinary event of the Metroplex, as patrons salivate in anticipation of dining in some of the cities high-end palaces, such as III Forks and Ruth's Chris, for just $35 per person for a set menu. Most participant businesses see this event as a loss leader: a chance to do something good for charity and maybe pick up some new customers in the bargain. My lovely wife the Rock Star and myself were looking foreward to revisiting one of our favorite places and made the much-sought-after reservations accordingly.

To our horror, this establishment (which I will not name) sent back a response saying that the time we had selected for our reservation (7PM Saturday night) was unacceptable for the Restaurant Week menu, and that if we wanted said menu, we would need to rebook before 5:15PM or after 8:30PM, or else pay the regular price. I feel that while such a request is understandable (they want to accomodate patrons who wish to pay full fare), it seriously violates the spirit and intent of this charitable gala, and regulates such patrons to the status of second-class citizens. Therefore, my wife and I shrugged our collective shoulders, vowed that this businesses loss would be another restaurants gain, and accordingly resolved to try Steve Fields Steak and Lobster Lounge, which accepted our booking without reservations (pun intended).

Steve Fields is the brainchild of the owner of the same name, a 23-year veteran of the Dallas restaurant wars. His head chef is Johnny Carino, best known as the creator of the chain of quality, affordable establishments known as Johnny Carinos Country Italian. After dining there on a recent Saturday evening, I'm pleased to report that Steve Fields has gained two new customers.


The decor of Steve Fields can best be described as contemporary steakhouse, clubby yet surprisingly intimate and informal. Sinatra (what else) was playing, although a first-rate female piano/vocalist started her set shortly after our arrival. We settled comfortably into a two-person booth along the wall, and perused the menu.
Like many Restaurant week places, Steve Fields offered the guest a choice between a few soup-or-salad choices, half a dozen beef or seafood entrees, and a selection of three desserts, with an optional appetizer for a nominal charge.


If the charity menu is indeed representative of the main menu, then its clear Steve Fields is a top-tier restaurant in the area. My wife and I started with the appetizer, a delightful mini crab cake with plenty of real crab and little filler topped with a spicy saffron tartar sauce similar to remoulade. We quickly inhaled it in a few bites and eagerly awaited our next dish. The Rock Star has become particularly fond of Caesar salads; how appropriate, since she is married to a Caesar (Czar)! Hers contained plenty of excellent romaine, cheese, dressing, and just a touch of anchovies. Bellisimo! As a newly-converted soupaholic, I opted for the lobster bisque, a sumptuous blend of real Maine lobster with more than a touch of carmelized sweetness. Since both steak and lobster are mentioned in the name, I tried to convince my bride to opt for the lobster tail, but to no avail. (It seems women have minds of their own. Imagine that!) She instead decided on the Atlantic salmon, which came topped with a plethora (wow!) of lump crabmeat. She was very satisfied with its flaky-fresh taste, although she confessed she would have preferred her own beloved Alaskan variety. (In her other life, she is a frequent visitor to Anchorage.) For myself, I could not pass up the filet, which was six ounces and perfectly cooked medium as requested, in its own juices and fork-tender. Both entrees were accompanied by tasty smoked cheese mashed potatoes, and julienne vegetables (yellow squash, zuchinni, and red pepper). For an extra $15 per person, our courses each came with wine pairings, which included a pinot grigio, Moet White Star champagne (the dryness of which cut the sweetness of the bisque very nicely), chardonnay, and cabernet sauvignon (I WAS having steak!): all were simply marvelous. We finished our marvelous meal with a delightful raspberry cheesecake and a butter, caramel, and chocolate cream cake, whose buttery, brown-sugary goodness rivaled any dessert we have ever tasted, both for flavor and intensity. In fact, the Rock Star was quoted as saying, "It was so good, it was almost inedible. Almost." That may sound strange, but I knew exactly what she meant. (We husbands are sometimes good at that!)


Throughout our meal, our waitress Sammie balanced our needs with her responsibility of turning over the table very nicely. This gracious welcome was in sharp contrast to our treatment at another well-known Dallas establishment during Restaurant Week several years ago, where a very rude and condescending waiter turned us against the place, probably for life. We have not been back since.


The site should be, but my recent attempts to access it met with failure. Perhaps you'll have better luck, or call 972 596-7100, and ask if this is a temporary situation.


Steve Fields has definitely earned our repeat business. Also, if you'd like to see the concept of Restaurant Week in your town and none is in the offing, why not pester your local radio station or newspaper to start one? In the meantime, while in the Dallas area, visit Steve Fields Steak and Lobster Lounge, and remember:


Saturday, August 11, 2007

Quickie Review #3: Tony's Pizza & Pasta

Looking for true New York style street pizza while in the Far North Dallas area? Consider Tony's pizza & pasta. First, you can dine in, although it's a small spot (just 6-10 tables). Second, the kitchen is open, so you can watch them create your little slice of heaven (pun intended) right before your eyes. Third, Tony's has literally TONS of different entrees, salads and subs for such a small place and can even handle parties if given 24 hours notice. Fourth, they have a cool website: that includes a club where you can sign up for email delivery of specials (including a totally FREE pizza, not just a bonus pizza) or you can download their existing coupons. Fifth, their pizza dough is made FRESH every day. And last but not least, THEY DELIVER!!! Suffice it to say, your friend The Food Czar and his lovely wife The Rock Star have enjoyed their cuisine numerous times. Both of us LOVE THEIR PIZZA, which is rare since she is an extra-cheeseaholic and I love extra sauce. Nevertheless, there is an excellent balance of ingredients that pleases us both so we can actually order just one pizza for the both of us. If these six reasons are enough, then get online and/or pick up the phone and place an order today, and as always, remember:


Sunday, August 5, 2007


Let's face it: We guys love our sports! Most of us do, anyway. It took the restaurant business years and years, but once they introduced the concept of the sports bar, it did not take too long to realize they had a runaway hit on their hands. Nowadays, it seems you can hardly go into a bar, restaurant or brewpub without at least one big-screen (flatpanel) TV, which is most oftened tuned into ESPN, NFL Network, or Fox Sports Channel.

At first, these eateries were not renowed or patronized for their culinary expertise; their diners simply wanted good, unpretentious, cheap bar food. More recently, however, some of the newer, better quality chains have started upgrading their menu selections, much to the customers delight. My lovely wife the Rock Star and I decided to journey to our local outpost of one of these chains, Fox Sports Grill, one recent Saturday evening. This restaurant, with locations already in half a dozen states, represents current state-of-the-art in atmosphere, food, and service.


Fox Sports Grill has the sleek, ultramodern look of a brand new drinking facility: lots of soft, blue lighting in the chic and expansive bar area, and plenty of very comfortable chairs at the numerous tables in the restaurant proper, which makes the interior seem very inviting. Everywhere you sit, you are within site of a flatpanel TV, tuned to a variety of sports programming and channels. We arrived at seven on a Saturday evening, which in most establishments guarantees a lengthy wait for table, but Fox Sports Grill is so large we were able to be seated immediately, despite the many diners already enjoying their dining, sports, and companionship. In other words, reservations not necessary, and I can envision this place only getting really crowded when a live, primetime sporting event (such as NFL Football) is under way.


Sports bars and beer are usually a perfect match, and Fox Sports Grill can certainly help you there, yet the Rock Star and I often enjoy wine with dinner, and were promptly brought a wine list. Unlike many such establishments, Fox Sports Grill can boast an excellent wine list with great breadth and value, including numerous selections by the glass. We chose a Foille a Deaux Meritage, an outstanding red blend, whose supple yet bold mix of Zinfandel, Merlot, and Cabernet paired very well with our cuisine.

We decided on a light repast this evening, and The Rock Star selected the Pear, Blue Cheese, and Pecan salad for her entree. (Does this sound like standard sports bar fare to you?) She was rewarded with an enticing mix of Romaine and baby greens tossed in apple cider vinagrette and topped with blue cheese crumbles, candied pecans, market-fresh pears and dried cranberries for the perfect blend of sweet and savory. This delightful dish was served with a hunk of warm cornbread, both moist and sweet, and very much the way we like it. I chose a bowl of the Filet Mignon Chili, a fabulous concoction of filet mignon and black angus beef simmered with red, black, and pinto beans and garnished with green onions, sour cream, and shredded cheddar cheese for a light, yet immensly rewarding dinner. We ended our repast with dessert, namely Granny's Apple Pie, flaky pastry filled with caramel braised Granny Smith apples, baked golden brown and served with Dreyers vanilla bean ice cream and warm caramel sauce, which finished off the meal in style.


Our waiter Justin proved both very capable and personable, easily entering into our discussions of wine, food and sports when called upon. With ample staffing and a low tables-to-waitstaff ratio, it was easy to see that other diners were easily well cared for by the knowledgeable and friendly staff.


Visit for hours, locations and other pertinent information, including individual menus for each restaurant of this (hopefully) rapidly expanding chain.


Fox Sports Grill more than fills the bill, whether for a quick round of brews with the guys, or for a more adventurous meal with the ones you love, if you so desire. Visit soon, and remember: