Chow, Baby is getting its hopes up for Magnolia Avenue again. Yes, yes, it’s already “one of Fort Worth’s most vibrant restaurant rows,” as the Dallas Business Journal likes to say in a presumably non-condescending way, home to such culinary aces as Nonna Tata, King Tut, Spiral Diner, and Benito’s.
But Chow, Baby is going for total world domination. Wouldn’t it be cool to be name-dropping in Paris (France) and have some beret-wearer exclaim, “Ah, oui, we’ve heard of your charming Magnolia Avenue bistros and admire them tout much”? Or even better, Austin. Lili’s Bistro, which just took over the Servant’s Kitchen’s space at 1310 W. Magnolia Ave., could well be the tipping point. It’s open just for lunch now, but personable owner/chef Vance Martin promises yummy dinners as soon as the liquor license comes through (maybe as early as July), and Chow, Baby predicts long bustling lines for them. That’s a gimme prophecy, because in fact Lili’s is already bustling, and not just because of the location.
For one, Vance’s fans from his Café Panacea days have followed him here, craving his old wedge salads with fresh-made chicken salad or tabouli ($8). Two, he’s got a new invention, the baked roulade ($7), in which he turns a Reuben or a muffaletta into a calzone, sort of; it’s already so popular that Chow, Baby didn’t get to try one – they were sold out by 12:30. Three – though actually these are in no particular order – the space is bistro-neat, with the religious signage of Servant’s Kitchen replaced by antique adverts of Mrs. Baird’s Bread (a religion in its own right, in these parts), and the Christian rock replaced with a fun audio mix ranging from Motown to Frankie to the Monkees.
There’s a nifty counter where lunchers can watch the cooks at work. At the dozen or so tables, service is friendly and patient, even with Chow, Baby. Four, and most important, Vance’s inventive twist on comfort food is delicious, albeit with room for tweaking. A big wow was that day’s soup (cup $3), thick and hearty black bean and sausage: perfect. Almost perfect was an appetizer/side of seasoned waffle fries ($6.50); the sprinkling of gorgonzola was crumbled but not melted, so Chow, Baby had to do a tiresome scooping and stacking maneuver to get the right balance of crisp potato, tender potato, cheese, black pepper, and green onion. A three-cheese burger ($7) was not cooked to order; our server offered a re-do, but with some encouragement from the beloved (“Oh, just eat the damn thing”), Chow, Baby found that even at medium-well the half-pound burger was juicy and quite tasty. Lunch entrées include grilled tilapia, a stylish King Ranch chicken, and a lightly breaded, pan-fried “classic Texas steak” ($8), which satisfies like chicken-fried but doesn’t force a nap afterward.
Popularity struck again at dessert time: The delicious-sounding chocolate almond torte ($4), topped with a warm ganache … mmm … was all sold out. On second thought, it strikes Chow, Baby that there would be a serious downside to such luscious haunts becoming world-famous. Maybe we should just keep Magnolia Avenue our little secret.
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