Dinner at Five Sixty by Wolfgang Puck is always, literally, an elevated experience—the exotic food, the lively atmosphere, and the rotating nightscape of the Dallas skyline would dazzle even the most blasé diner. But put all those things together with a Chinese-themed New Year dinner, and you’ve got the makings of some serious dining theater.
When about ten of us sat down at a media table, I read the description of “The Snake Person” across the top of the menu: “The Snake Person is a Smart Person. They think Of Clever Schemes In A Cold Calculating Manner. Some People Find Them Attractive Because Of Their Swift Movement and Slender Silky Beauty.”
Well, after reading that, I felt rather inadequate as a Rabbit, being only “kind” and showing “good taste.” But I supposed I’d have to make the most of what I’ve got.
Settling into my amuse of Lapsang Souchong Tea Smoked Snakehead, I asked the person seated to my right what was her Chinese zodiac.
“I don’t know,” she said, looking a bit wide-eyed.
“What about you?” I asked my companion to left.
“I don’t know,” he responded, and a short interlude of phone googling ensued as they researched their Chinese zodiac.
Right then, I admit, I felt the sting of the generation gap. Apparently, young folk these days have no experience with your basic cheap Chinese diner, complete with red paper lanterns and “Lucky Cat” smiling down from the bar. You know—those places with the gooey egg drop soup, the scorching hot egg rolls, and the crafty paper placemats that tell you all about your Chinese zodiac. I guess Gen Y types grew up with Pei Wei, all sleek and free from frou-frou.
I digress. Back to the Five Sixty dinner.
All evening, Chef Wolfgang was making the rounds, schmoozing and checking in. As the sun sank and the restaurant lapsed into semi-dusk, I could still see his teeth flash as he turned his high-voltage smile on various diners. I did get to shake the hand of the great Chef himself, but I didn’t try to pin him down conversationally when he had a room full of luminaries to wrangle, including a party of Trammell-Crows next to us.
For added entertainment value, there was the infamous “Lion Dance,” the puppet with the big head and long body, prancing around the circular space with its own percussion section. The puppetiers made the rounds a couple of times, which was just the right amount of frolicking—any more, and it might set a few well-heeled diners on edge. Maybe even landed it a chopstick between the eyes.
The servers brought the wine ahead of each course—and with five courses, it goes without saying, the conversation was well-lubricated. I’m always fascinated by how well a Riesling, an Austrian Riesling at that, works its magic with a spicy-sweet dish like the Chinese Dumpling Dough Knot Soup. That’s just so darned precocious.
All the courses were amazing, but my personal favorite was a Wok Fired Maine Lobster with Xo Chili Sauce and Fried Rice. The demi lobster tails were absolutely silken, plump, and practically liquified, they were so moist and tender. Even the fried rice was a revelation, with mysterious little bits of something sweet—candied ginger, maybe? I’m not sure, but I know whatever it was, it measures the difference between someone like me, who is a pretty good cook, and a super chef who can spin noodles into gold.
Chatting with general manager Bruce Wills, I asked him how things were going, what with the big boss in house, and he said everything was running like clockwork. GMs are always a marvel to me. In one of the best restaurants in Dallas, they have to handle 100 things simultaneously while wearing an expensive suit and looking unruffled. They are the unsung heroes of haute cuisine.
After all that dizzy deliciousness, I finally pushed away from the table and made my way back home. At the valet stand, I was surrounded by a group of people lifted from the pages of Esquire. The valet brought around a brand-spanking new Ferrari, and a glamorous pair got in and drove off. I thought, “That’s the kind of power couple a cagey chef like Wolfgang Puck can pull down.”
And as I drove off in my slightly less luxuriant 350Z, I felt pretty flush myself.