By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
Above the storefronts rest pricey patches of residential housing, but mostly it's a shake 'n' bake metropolis. It's all part of The Village at Colleyville, a 28-acre out-of-the-box, instant downtown, complete with city hall and library (add concrete, ribbon cuttings and stir). "In The Village, you can live, work, play and entertain in a quaint, small-town atmosphere reminiscent of the romantic courtyards of a European village," gushes a promotional blurb. It took years to create bubbles this swell around Dallas, and we didn't get the romantic courtyards, at least not off private property. You can even secure pricey villas atop the quaint shops and restaurants, just like in a real city.
At least one of these development perches isn't a residence at all. It's Urban Tapas, a Soho warehouse loft-like eatery that skipped the warehouse pupa stage and blossomed directly into a kind of faux-metro monument to grazing. Second-story restaurants are rare in the Dallas area, and when they somehow defy the laws of North Texas culinary gravity they seldom survive. (Brian Black's Il Solé in Travis Walk and Blue Mesa in Lincoln Center are notable exceptions.) It's hard to get people to climb stairs in a town where valet parking is often offered in the middle of spacious parking lots.
Climb these stairs, though, and you get not the smells of scorched peppercorns or garlic-roasted free-range birds, but of the chalk, foam rubber and sawdust scents of new development. It's designed to look like aging urbanity: brand spanking new faux decay. Textured wall mud is peeled away at strategic points to reveal patches of used brick, like an adolescent framing premature age spots to squeeze past a nightclub doorman. Tables and chairs are simple.
The menu isn't. It's a collection of little plates absorbing influences from every notable corner of the world. Many have tried this trick before--Avner Samuel's Bibendum and Geode on McKinney Avenue come to mind--and haven't lived to profit.
Urban Tapas might. Because while Bibendum and Geode mostly featured clever rehashes, Urban stretches boundaries and breaks barriers, and it does so with logic. It doesn't always work, but the attempts provoke thought and even entertain.
Take calamari, the boiled-in-oil cliché du jour. Coated with a thick and greaseless sheath of corn meal, flour and panko bread crumbs zinged with cumin and musky ancho chile, these creamy, slightly coiled strips are pan-fried before they're deposited in a heap in the middle of a flood of spicy sambal (a South Asian condiment of chilies, brown sugar and salt). The fluid is held by a berm of green-olive tapenade. The meat wasn't firm, but consider the shrewd flavor confluence: relatively staid, coated calamari (exquisitely seasoned though it is) in a sambal lava pit offset with tapenade brininess that hints at the natural squid environment. It's a puff of marine tranquility slipped into the fiery sambal. Yum.
Alexander Kybett is the culprit. You may not know the name, but you most likely have slipped his craft into your trap at some point. Kybett, who has spent so much time earning stripes he hasn't had time to display any, has blistered his digits in some marquee kitchens, including the late Star Canyon, Salvé! and the previously mentioned Il Solé. He's also humped spatulas at the defunct Venus Steak House & Supper Club, The Mercury, Ellington's Southern Chop House (now truncated to Chop House), Fizzi and Ruffino's Italian restaurants in Fort Worth and The Bay Leaf in Deep Ellum.
What he's picked along the way comes out in ways so twisted it could flatten a whole glee club with the vapors if it didn't taste so amusing. From what part of his brain does hazelnut cappuccino venison carpaccio emerge?
"That's a dish I've had in my back pocket for a while," Kybett says. Think of the terrifying lint back there. For this number, venison is cured in a mixture of ground hazelnut coffee, garlic, shallots and black pepper for some 24 hours. Then the meat is seared and stripped of the grounds. Overlapping end-to-end, the thinly sliced meat is arranged on the plate with an eye toward hyper-symmetry, stretched in a perfect row, the edges never breaching the imaginary line on either side. The dark venison resembles slices of smoked quartz. They glisten. They stick together. They taste like a Starbucks grande. Though there's a pile of arugula fluff and parmesan shavings at one end of the plate, the dish doesn't have enough flavor complexity to hold this impression at bay. This treatment is clever, even gutsy, yet it barely tastes like venison. The meat flavors almost completely recede in the face of this java onslaught, leaving this beautifully arranged dish to mark the tongue as a palate gimmick. I'd be more intrigued if the cappuccino treaded far more lightly, leaving hints instead of trouncing the tongue.
Still, one wonders how such things are arrived at. Kybett admits he works mostly on the fly. "I end up saying, 'This sounds like it's going to taste good,'" he says. "So I'll work it out, go through the dish one or two times and then have someone follow me around with a pad and say, 'All right, man, write down exactly what I do.'"