"We want this to be upscale, but approachable," Danilo Di Nardo tells me. "This is a neighborhood restaurant." Out front, sure, there are Ferraris and Rolls, but I cast my eye over the menu. The prices are nowhere near the eye-watering ones at so many new arrivals on the Dallas dining scene. Like Di Nardo says, approachable.
Decked out in a light green suit and crisp white shirt, Di Nardo is Lombardi Family Concepts' vice president of operations. It's a day before the opening of Maison Chinoise, the latest concept from famed Dallas restaurateur Alberto Lombardi, founder and owner of the company that bears his name. Collin County residents are more than familiar with the Lombardi restaurants Kai, Toulouse Cafe & Bar and Lombardi Cucina Italiana, among others.
Restaurants are not only expressions of food and drink but of people. "If the prices are too high, you niche yourself out," says Di Nardo. "You become a place that isn't populated by regulars. And Mr. Lombardi's philosophy has always been to serve the neighborhood." This is a local restaurant. That's the intention.
Out front, there's a covered patio, which even on this seasonably hot August evening, is cool thanks to sweet, sweet air conditioning. Inside the restaurant, peonies cover the walls, wooden tables are fitted with wicker-backed chairs and a long marble bar is tastefully illuminated. A glass-walled dumpling station gives a peek at the culinary delights that await.
"You must try the dumplings — two of our dumpling chefs are from China," says Di Nardo, adding not to miss the desserts. Noted, will try the dumplings and save room for the finale.
"I'd say that 30 to 40% of the menu is stuff the American palate is accustomed to, with a modern spin." The rest, Di Nardo adds, are contemporary takes on traditional dishes, all of which are conceived by Chef Ivan Yuen, Lombardi Family Concepts' corporate chef. "He puts an aesthetic focus on everything." As appetizers go into the main courses, one hundred percent of what is served is tasty. What makes Lombardi restaurants truly interesting is how they both pay careful homage to tradition and, at the same time, push the boundaries.
The cocktails are a perfect example, doing interesting things like mixing whiskies in the same drink or adding rum with cognac. Plus, there are custom garnishes, like vanilla pepper or Szechuan peppercorns, as well as intricate and house-made syrups — all designed to help the drinks pair with the food.
"So much R&D time went into the cocktail menu," says Director of Beverage Andrew Stofko. At other places, all this could easily be translated into higher prices. Not here. "One thing that Mr. Lombardi always pushes back on is price gouging. It's something I really respect."
On the opening night's eve, Maison Chinoise already has a seasoned feel — a cool neighborhood spot where you can grab a meal or a drink. Like at all Lombardi restaurants, there's a certain confidence and, perhaps more important, humility. The experience is approachable. It is enjoyable. And it is delicious.
As our meal finishes, after a round of delicious desserts, we head out the door when I see Alberto Lombardi still greeting guests, going table to table, tirelessly, with warmth. Welcome to the neighborhood, Maison Chinoise.
Located on 4152 Cole Ave in Dallas, Maison Chinoise opens today, Aug. 11. As of writing, the restaurant is overcommitted for opening night as well as Aug. 12. For reservations, check the official site.