At Deep Ellum's Local, the Food Outshines the Trend

Sara Kerens

Local, the sleek little restaurant in Deep Ellum, opened late in the winter of 2003. It was met with tempered praise from this newspaper, which lauded the elevated simplicity of chef-owner Tracy Miller's modern American cooking, touting her brilliance with fish and gently spooning other praise on a "restaurant unsullied with pretensions."

A lot has changed in the eight years since, especially to the word that's etched on Miller's chef's coat, a word that has been injected with meaning and fattened with importance by critics and chefs alike. But Miller didn't have all that in mind when she named her restaurant, and despite watching the word transform into a trending topic, very little has changed in her restaurant. That's not to imply a stale menu in need of invigoration. Instead it describes a restaurant that has remained steadfast to its original concept.

In an amuse bouche, for instance: a tiny porcelain cup, perched on double-stacked plates, filled with a rich, warm puree that tastes simply but richly of cauliflower. Restraint does not preclude refinement. The soup tastes honestly of one single and soulful ingredient, supported not with stock but a simple simmered mirepoix and supplemented with just a touch of heavy cream.

The resulting texture is rich and thick, like soft silk on the palate, offset with crunchy wisps of carrot suspended atop the liquid. This is a soup that draws an audible sigh, and each time I visited I ditched the dainty sugar spoon that delivered tiny tastes like a tease and instead downed the soup in one swoop like a shot at last call.

Many fine-dining venues offer tasting menus, and Local falls in line. But while most chefs use them to showcase new, rare ingredients, combat boredom and keep their kitchens fresh, Miller exercises restraint with her degustation. Instead of constantly hunting for new techniques and presentations, she looks inward to her existing menu, miniaturizing her favorite dishes and, when the mood strikes, supplementing them with a little something extra. The result is a culinary journey through a large swath of Local's offerings, compressed into a single meal.

A butternut squash soup followed my amuse. It was redundant not just as a second soup but also as a puree, and it was topped with crispy parsnips that recalled those delicate carrots. The culinary déjà vu would seem tiresome if the second soup weren't even better than the first. Squash, slow roasted until the natural sugars in the gourd concentrate, lending their own subtle sweetness, is pureed with a soft touch of cinnamon and brash black pepper. Its texture is velvet. The soup is a work of art.

Elsewhere on the menu, several dishes use different ingredients to work a similar riff that showcases Miller's strong suit: high-quality proteins, handled carefully and supplemented quietly with a supporting preparation that is more often than not a starch.

A perfect caramelized crust graced both sides of tender scallops, which retained their translucence and were well supported by a bed of finely diced potatoes turned risotto. They were almost as good as the tenderloin steak, a cut I normally discount as boring and flavorless. Miller brought it to life with a mustard-laced reduction that's at once earthy and bright. I sopped up the remaining sauce with Miller's stiff, Anson Mills grits; if only the hot cereal at my local diner could pull off something near this. I'd be a regular.

These plates might sound stuffy, but they're not, which is precisely the charm of the place: a polished, detail-conscious restaurant that still feels like a comfortable neighborhood joint, a place to become a fixture if your wallet allows — exactly what Miller set out to create when she designed the space.

In the 15 years since she signed the lease at the Boyd Hotel and converted the historic landmark into a restaurant, the term "local" has been gobbled up by trend-setters in the food community. A single word that defined a culinary movement, paces ahead of "organic" and "sustainability," "local" became the pinnacle of popular food culture. But while Miller is fine with ingredients sourced nearby, they're not at all her focus. Instead she works to bring the best ingredients to light, whether it's fish from California or duck liver from New York.

Over time, "local" became an overburdened buzzword on menus across Dallas and beyond, paying mostly lip service to the movement. Meanwhile, Miller simply worked toward what she calls the "consistency in the collection of the details experienced when you visit her restaurant" — from the person who seats you (often Miller herself) to the flickering candles that dot the room to that mirepoix that forms the base of many of her soups.

Consistency in service and food and space is a goal that every good restaurateur strives for, but through her staff, Miller achieves this tenet in spades: in a sous chef who's worked the kitchen for the last eight years, and in employees who have remained far longer than average in an industry known for its high-speed revolving door. It's these people who execute her restaurant's mantra, which was never meant to describe an ingredient or trend but rather a tone and space and experience.

That's how Miller has created a place where you can comfortably sip on a fine French white burgundy and pick at a panko-crusted sea bass with your fork while your fellow diner downs an ice-cold Budweiser and tears into one of Dallas' finest burgers.

It should be fine, by the way, considering the price tag: At $20 it's one of the city's most expensive burgers. But a deep black char encases a juicy ground beef patty that's full of flavor, making the splurge more than worth it. Don't dare order it a hair past medium-rare; the kitchen can be a little heavy handed when cooking the beef.

I wish I could praise the supporting panko-crusted potato croquettes, but they let me down, smelling of spent oil. I'm never one to leave fried spuds to fallow, but these mock tots died on my plate.

Other dishes missed, too. November is far too late for any Thomas Keller disciple to be plating heirloom tomatoes, especially on the heels of what has been a dismal season for the fruit. And a lobster cake was almost too delicate. While pushing my fork through the soft, breaded and fried puck of seafood, I was overwhelmed with filler. I could smell lobster. I could taste it, too. But the shellfish couldn't be appreciated in any tactile sense. The bright Meyer lemon cream sauce laced with fresh dill served with the dish, however, was as sexy a tartar sauce as I have ever tasted.

Miller's foie gras plate, on the night I visited, stumbled as well. Pairing sweetness with earthy duck liver is a classic flavor play, but Miller's sugary vanilla bean reduction inundated the toast points where the seared liver sat. The dish was cloying; the liver was better on its own.

These flubs, however, are few and far between, and the execution is in full form for dessert: a stellar semifreddo on one visit, rich with pumpkin but light on size — a perfect portion, like a tiny gift, sweet but not saccharine in three tiny bites shaped by a melon scoop. Aliza Shier, who's been at the restaurant for five years, starting as a hostess before moving to the back of the house, is responsible for those sweets. Miller has done well to give her the task.

All meals should end like this, whether the ingredients that comprise them were sourced nearby or not. While locavorism is an important, welcome trend, it's not a panacea for our food issues or the sole front of a food revolution. What's more important are restaurants that serve well-crafted and thoughtful cuisine. That's what Tracy Miller set out to do when she opened eight years ago, and it's exactly what she's doing today.

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2936 Elm St.
Dallas, TX 75226-1596


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