Bones to Pick

Is the 2006 invasion of culinary foreigners killing off our local character?

They're relics: Stephan Pyles' bone-in cowboy rib eye and Dean Fearing's lobster tacos. They cling to evolving menus like vestiges from a bygone era when Texas mattered.

Southwestern cuisine is dead. It went out with a wheezy whimper. The city's SW power trio—Dean Fearing, Stephan Pyles and Avner Samuel—who were part of the pioneering Gang of Five, along with Anne Greer (now McCann) and Robert Del Grande, that slapped Southwestern on the map—aren't doing it anymore. Pyles dazzles with what he calls New Millennium Southwestern Cuisine, or more simply "a global tapestry of tastes, flavors, aromas and textures from Texas, South America, Spain, the Middle East and the Mediterranean."

Fearing will do his thing at the Ritz, which will presumably move beyond tortilla soup, and The Mansion has tapped New York-bred chef John Tesar to sweep the Southwestern cobwebs from the Mansion's whips and cleavers while leaving the lobster tacos and tortilla soup in place. Meanwhile, Samuel is back to serving "a bowl of my mother's salad" at his new Urban Bistro restaurant in the Park Cities and North Dallas and braised rabbit loin filled with foie gras and Medjool dates at Aurora—not a jalapeño to be found. But this old news is not important now. What is important is the invasion of foreigners.

Dallasites love their steak, but they didn't love Smith & Wollensky enough: The steakhouse closed after three-plus years on the Tollway.
Karlisch
Dallasites love their steak, but they didn't love Smith & Wollensky enough: The steakhouse closed after three-plus years on the Tollway.

Hyper Flare

Forbes online recently assembled a list of the world's 10 weirdest restaurants. Dans Le Noir ("in the dark") in Paris, London and Moscow serves food in a lightless dining room from a blind and visually impaired staff under the theory that food is more satisfying when relying on senses other than sight. In Brussels, Dinner in the Sky offers a gourmet spread to guests while suspending them several stories in midair by a crane. At Chicago's Moto, chef Homaro Cantu prints his fare on edible menus and hawks his dishes on edible advertisements. Linger Lodge in Bradenton, Florida, serves chunk of skunk and road toad a la mode on its road grill menu.

There's nothing like this in Dallas. Some observers lament that in the absence of emerging home-percolated cuisines, Dallas is suffering creative impotence. Latin Fusion petered out. Soldering assorted Asian elements to every ethnic foodstuff one can wrap their mitts around has gotten tired. Creative doesn't feel creative anymore. Let's face it: Eating in the dark or dining suspended in midair from a crane is stupid. Maybe flare hasn't really evaporated from Dallas menus. Maybe it's burbling in the murk, waiting to be noticed by the discerning—like a stiletto-less girl with a great personality.

"Authenticity has beaten fusion," says Matthew Mabel, president of Surrender, a Dallas management and hospitality firm. "Ethnic food is more interesting...There's a time just to have a clear, clean flavor of a basic piece of food and still make it special."

As evidence, Mabel points to the success of Trece, the Mexican restaurant opened in the former Sipango space by Sfuzzi Chief Executive Officer Robert Colombo with pro golfer Tommy Armour III and former Sfuzzi partner Billy Solomon. Central 214, the restaurant feeding lodgers in the Kimpton-managed Hotel Palomar, features hearty and approachable yet finely tuned creations by longtime Dallas chef Tom Fleming. Amuse, the 70-seat American bistro with a "funky aluminum lounge" near Southside at Lamar, offers grounded casual fare by chef wunderkind Doug Brown. Nothing to wow. Nothing to dazzle. Just a damn good meal that arouses taste buds without blurring the eyes with ethnic crossbreeds.

The Invasion

They're coming from places such as New York, Las Vegas and Aspen. Nobu. Bice. Craft. BLT Steak. Kenichi. N9NE. Each is attempting to harvest riches by tilling our dry, brown clay. And there will be blood in the water: theirs, ours or, more likely, both. "It's the Stephans and the Deans versus the famous people on TV," Mabel says. "One of the big changes that we've had over the last couple of years is we haven't had the chefs from out of town coming here at the high end like they do in New York or in California or in Vegas or in Chicago. We haven't had a famous chef drop in out of the sky to open a Nobu or Craft."

But they're here, and they're exerting seismic pressure on the local chef talent pool. Not only does it seem impossible for Dallas-bred chefs to make noise on a national stage these days, they're having a hard time generating excitement on their home turf. The stand-alone restaurant governed by a local chef is suddenly beset by formidable culinary divisions from abroad—national names allied with hotel partners who not only foot part or all of the staging bills, they fill seats with guests from the 200-plus guest rooms upstairs.

Thus our culinary questions get ever more provincial: "Is Dean going to cannibalize Stephan?" asks Jeffrey Yarbrough of Big Ink PR and Marketing. "Is Dean going to focus on the young and hip or the old and blue?"

Blood in the Bath

It hasn't been a good year for local chef-driven restaurants. Spaces that have long feasted on accolades and loyalty have dried up and moldered. Whit Meyers made valiant efforts to save Green Room and Jeroboam after plunging them into Chapter 11 bankruptcies, only to have the IRS and Texas taxing authorities pull the feeding tubes. Gershwin's shuttered after 20 years. George Brown's ambitiously creative George seemed felled by its own esoterica. Though the food was often remarkable, Tim Byres' second stab at Standard never caught on and was most probably brought low by persistent shoddy service. The restaurant-lounge embalmers were busy: Chris Svalesen's Sage, Dralion Restaurant & Lounge (aka Drae Restaurant, The Drae, etc.), Aqua Italian Bistro & Bar, Dolce Oliva and Tutto. And then there was Sense, the much-heralded trend-setting quasi-private nightclub for quasi middle-agers.

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