As an independent restaurateur, Gamal Hamza is playing the most serious game of his career, sinking his dough and his reputation into a venue that's already seen three other restaurants come and go over the past decade. It's not a bad location, close to the Crossroads District, but all of the changes there have left some diners confused. After all, even when the name changed -- from Café Barcelona to Carmen's to Don Pepe's Classic Spanish & Italian Cuisine -- the menu really didn't.
Like his predecessors, Hamza offers a menu that's an international hodgepodge of European-inspired dishes, mostly Spanish and Italian. He's even held over a few greatest hits from the repertoire of Jose "Don Pepe" Fernandez, who operated the kitchen in two of the restaurant's incarnations. Don Pepe's paella is still on the menu, as are scallops in saffron cream sauce and chorizo-filled empañadas.
"But my empañadas are different," Hamza insists. "I use different dough, different chorizo."
What isn't different, alas, is the dining room's hideous décor -- tangerine walls trimmed in sickly plum -- which might work for a perky juice bar but is a little garish for the continental "bistro" ambience Hamza aspires to create. That's OK, though, because Hamza is a real artist in the kitchen.
But a true artist can't be rushed, and if there's one glaring flaw at Gamal's, it's in the timing. Dishes come out at a nearly glacial pace, which was only mildly annoying on my first visit because the evening was all about enjoying a long, leisurely meal with three friends. A couple of nights later, I planned an early dinner so I could make an 8 p.m. curtain at a nearby theater, and this time the languid pace was nerve-racking.
Maybe Hamza wants his namesake restaurant to be the whole show. He does venture out of the kitchen every so often to gab with guests and to show off two hefty photo albums crammed with snapshots of past masterpieces: towering wedding cakes sprinkled with flowers, buffet tables piled with appetizers. Hamza learned his way around special events during a long stint as executive chef at Meadowbrook Country Club.
It's a long way, literally and metaphorically, from Meadowbrook to Southwest Boulevard, but Hamza has high hopes that Euro-lovers all over the metro will find their way to his place. "I liked this building because the dining room is small," he says. "I wanted a cozy, intimate restaurant. People could come, drink wine, eat and relax."
That was certainly what happened on my first visit, with Bob, Yvette and Carol Ann (the fussy interior designer who was much more scandalized by the stained drop ceiling than by the dining room's obnoxious paint). It wasn't particularly cozy -- we had the whole room to ourselves for most of the night -- but it was definitely laid-back.
Carol Ann wanted to try one of the menu's three "Moroccan dips," particularly the black-bean hummus. "It sounds so much more interesting than the chickpea variety," she said. And it was -- a creamy, pale-violet purée surrounded by wedges of puffy, seasoned pita. Even better was a jagged jumble of sautéed shrimp and crunchy fried potato straws splashed with sweet red-pepper vinaigrette. The appetizer listed as a mushroom strudel would have been better described as a portabella puff; the phyllo pastry ball was filled with meaty mushroom slices and a satiny gorgonzola sauce. Not very easy to share, but we all agreed it was delicious.
Hamza prides himself on his lamb dishes, so the ladies went straight for the sheep: a rack of lamb generously crusted with chopped hazelnuts for Carol Ann, and the boneless lamb leg rubbed with herbs and mustard for Yvette. Beef-loving Bob toyed with the idea of chicken spiedini, but our server urged him to try Hamza's beef tenderloin crusted with black pepper and dripping with a heady gorgonzola-brandy demi-glace.
I sampled everyone's dinners and was very impressed, but I was happiest with my own thick filet of salmon, grilled with a light crust of mild horseradish. It was all wonderful and comforting and probably too much (Yvette and Bob requested take-home boxes), though we did get tempted into dessert. (I had seen Hamza's pastry album.)
Hamza is a genius when it comes to a fudgy, flourless chocolate cake topped with a sleek layer of ganache, or a superb mocha-and-meringue torte, or a silken cheesecake laden with fresh fruit. We were less entranced by the crème brûlée, sodden under a pond of brandy and soggy brandied bananas, chopped mango and strawberries. "We flambé it in the back before we serve it," Hamza explained proudly, but that didn't make us any more enthusiastic about the messy dessert.
On the night of my pre-theater supper, I was joined by Lou Jane, who was eager to try Hamza's stuffed artichoke (its clipped leaves steamed and crammed with prosciutto, crabmeat, shrimp, fontina cheese and bread crumbs) and a "fondue" that turned out to be a chewy concoction of baked cheese and chopped artichoke. Not a fondue and not even particularly good, but it was at least interesting.
The same couldn't be said for a bland vegetarian paella, the saffron-scented rice in a ho-hum broth with an even more forgettable assortment of chopped vegetables. Lou Jane's pork loin was equally disappointing, slightly overcooked and blanketed in a sage-cream sauce that was far too heavy on the sage.
Hamza scored at the last minute, however, with a couple of great desserts, including a replay of the wonderful mocha torte and that night's pastry special, a layered chocolate-and-passion-fruit cake. They were seductive enough to keep me lingering at the table instead of making my way to the theater on time.
The restaurant was busier this night, which was a good sign. With a little more practice, I'm confident of Hamza's future success in the restaurant game.