Urbane oasis

Tillman's Corner's small-time charm belies its sophisticated menu

Ricky Tillman--another urban pioneer, but on the real frontier in the Bishop neighborhood of Oak Cliff--is working out his neighborhood challenges in another way. He's closed on Monday evenings, he says, not just because his staff needs the time off, but because that's the big night at Vitto's, the pizza restaurant just down the block. Ricky Tillman's philosophy is, when the pie is small, you gotta share it, and he's right that the folks who find out about Vitto's are likely to come back to try Tillman's.

Tillman's Corner is the name of a real place in Alabama, the home of Ricky's dad, who was one of 26 kids. Its Oak Cliff namesake, owned and run by Ricky and his wife, Sara, feels like a smalltown cafe, decorated with odds and ends, flea-market finds, and genuine charm. It sounds like a smalltown cafe, too, with the sound of conversation shuffling off the wood floor and high ceiling. Tillman's is so far from the frenetic pace and hyperdesigned feel of most Dallas restaurants that its recent change to an all-day menu seems especially appropriate, because time slows down a little here.

The menu is far from seeming smalltown, though. Ricky Tillman's career as a cook in the best kitchens of Dallas, including a long stint with the Fairmont and then Rosewood, working at The Mansion and then the Crescent Club, means the food here has a polish, a sophistication, and an imaginative flair you wouldn't expect from the low-key surroundings. Some of the dishes sound as if they are straight from the most chic, trendiest rooms in town--the crabcakes with orange chipotle sauce, for instance, the smoked chicken-roasted corn soup, the Cobb salad, wild berry creme brulee, and the planked salmon. But Tillman's serves a good hamburger, too, and a club sandwich, good baby back ribs, and onion rings. Tuesday is catfish night, when for one price you can get all the catfish you can eat, your choice of whole headless fried or blackened fillets, plus it's happy hour all night long. In a way, the menu harks back to Ricky Tillman's training in hotels, where you don't showcase a chef as much as attempt to appeal to a wide range of tastes, all day long. So you could have a catfish po' boy here, with cole slaw and fries, or, if you've got your pinstripes on, start with almond-crusted eggplant, move on to a salad of baby greens, settle in to grilled pork medallions with horseradish potatoes and roasted chili sauce, and finish with double chocolate cake with chocolate bourbon sauce.

One day we tried the oriental chicken salad--a plate filled with cool vegetables, smoked chicken strips, and crispy noodles, with overtones of sesame and sweet in the dressing (which we could have had without the chicken if we were vegetarians); and on another day the individual pizza du jour, the little round of crust topped with probably leftover pork tenderloin and so much cheese it flowed down onto the plate. The specials are reliable picks, as they should be with this kind of experience in the kitchen, and a piece of sauteed swordfish was unusually good, the rich treatment softening and offsetting the usually stiff meat.

It's up to you, your mood, outfit, and company how big a deal Tillman's is going to be. It's the ultimate user-friendly restaurant, a too-tired-to-cook place you could drop into on a weeknight, but also a destination dining room for special occasions. It's even easy to imagine coming for lunch and staying for dinner, with a long conversation and cocktail hour in between.

--Mary Brown Malouf

Tillman's Corner, 324 W. Seventh, 942-0988. Open Monday 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday 5 p.m.-10 p.m.

Tillman's Corner:

Pizza du Jour $7.95
Oriental Smoked Chicken Salad with Sesame Vinaigrette $7.95
Crabcakes With Chipotle Sauce $5.95
Blackened Catfish Filet with Basmati Rice $7.95

 
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