I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve stepped back in time and onto an ocean liner in a Turner Classic movie from the middle of the past century. Every clubby, subtly nautical design detail has been lovingly and expensively curated, from the deep blue velvet banquettes trimmed in brass to the Lalique crystal vases on the gleaming Makassar ebony tables. Peering down through the plate-glass wall on one side of the intimate room, I can imagine a frothy white wake unfurling behind us on a moonlit sea. Hypnotic background music only enhances the sense of being in a time warp. If Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr were to walk in, I wouldn’t bat an eye.
Bullion—as in gold bullion—is the first solo restaurant from Bruno Davaillon, the French-born and -trained chef who for six years presided over the dining room of Dallas’s prestigious Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek. He had arrived in 2009 with superlative credentials, having run Alain Ducasse’s Michelin-starred restaurant Mix, in Las Vegas (to name only his most notable post). When he left the Mansion to start his own project, with backing from a serious fan and former customer, business mogul Thomas Hartland-Mackie, he had a specific vision of what he wanted in a restaurant. “Yes, we will do the French classics, but I will put my spin on them,” he told me. “They will be lighter and use local products.” His inspiration, in a spiritual way, was his great-aunt’s simple but meticulous cooking. “I remember watching her make fruit tarts when I was a child—she even did the puff pastry from scratch.” It took two years of construction and frustrating delays before Davaillon’s dream became reality, but the doors opened at last just before Thanksgiving.
Five weeks later, I found myself at one of those gleaming tables, waiting for my friend Elizabeth to arrive—she was stuck in traffic—and happily nibbling an appetizer that Davaillon’s aunt would undoubtedly have endorsed, the little cheese puffs called gougères au Gruyère. I was just about to polish off the last fantastic one, still warm from the oven, when Elizabeth showed up, breathless and full of apologies. I insisted she have it—I should have eaten faster, damn it—and we settled in to inspect the menu.
As is the trend these days, more than half the items on Bullion’s bill of fare are given over to appetizers and shared plates. The first of several that caught our eye was the poached egg with black trumpet and chanterelle mushrooms in a sherry-like vin jaune sauce crowned with an exquisitely sliced snow-white mushroom as delicate as an origami flower. Next we directed our attention to a dish I hadn’t encountered in a long time: quenelles. Just seeing the word took me back to the first time I ever had those classic, cloudlike fish-mousse dumplings, decades ago at Oz, a restaurant that lit up Dallas’s dining scene like a Roman candle and then vanished as quickly as it had appeared. The silky ovals at Bullion equaled them in every way, as did a lobster sauce with luxurious, half-submerged slips of claw and knuckle meat.
Persuaded by our winning hand with seafood, we doubled down. Our luck held steady with the crudo, a still life of pale-pink raw fluke scattered with pine nuts, precisely cut squares of salty green olives, and dabs of sweet preserved lemon. By now we were totally superstitious: going with seafood yet again, we won big-time with Elizabeth’s entrée, diver scallops seared to a burnished, coppery finish and served in a classic Banyuls vinegar sauce kicked up with sassy slices of Spanish serrano ham. But the minute we deviated from seafood, our luck evaporated. Duck breast with parsnips and endive was an original, engaging combination of flavors sabotaged by less-than-ideal cooking, a slipup that was not helped by a timid orange-accented sauce. A French restaurant with too rare, borderline-chewy duck? End times are near.
One of the things you discover from eating out a lot, though, is that visits can deviate wildly. The next night, I came back with three friends, determined to try more terrestrial things. Decidedly earthy sautéed leeks came lined up like little logs prettily topped with goat cheese and toasty hazelnuts dressed in truffle vinaigrette. We quite liked the rich rabbit rillettes presented in a little canning jar topped with fried rosemary and an engaging splash of crème fraîche with dry niçoise olives. It took a bit of talking to get the whole table on board for the suckling-pig pork rib with blood sausage, and then I sort of wished I hadn’t been so persuasive. The rib meat, served off the bone, needed more time for the fat to render, and though the crispy-edged sausage patty had a bracing mineral flavor that I enjoyed, it also had way too much salt. It made me appreciate Texas’s barbecue masters even more than I already did.
And so it went with the other two- and four-footed critters. Chicken—including a moist, nicely roasted breast and a tender but textureless sous-vide-cooked leg—was better than the rather overdone veal sweetbreads in sherry vinegar–peppercorn jus, which broke my heart, because sweetbreads can be exquisite. But then we ordered fish, and as on the night before, it totally stole the show. The snowy filet of cod was superb, moist and sheathed in deeply browned skin atop a pert relish of confited tomato, capers, and teeny, crisp croutons.
By now we were winding down. My favorite dessert from the night before had been that mid-century showstopper baked Alaska (our server had expertly flamed it table-side, and for a few breathtaking seconds, the meringue-enveloped fig sorbet seemed to be covered in flickering blue flames). Tonight I was transported by something much more down to earth, a trio of arlettes, shatteringly fragile puff pastries spangled with vanilla sugar and sumptuously layered with vanilla-scented pastry cream. They were perfect just as they were, but I did have a fleeting thought that an even better setting to enjoy them would be the balcony of a hotel on the French Riviera, accompanied by a cup of café au lait on a lazy Sunday morning. Where did I get that idea? I don’t know, but there’s a pretty good chance I once saw something like it in a Turner Classic movie.