At Pera Wine & Tapas, Making a Fast-Food Joint a Good-Food Joint
The white asparagus tastes like it looks: elegant and fresh.
There's no escaping it. When you gaze at the silhouette of the building that houses Pera Wine & Tapas from the parking lot, you're looking the shell of a decades-old fast food business. While a burger business or two and even a fish fry restaurant stand between them, what now is a quaint neighborhood Middle Eastern restaurant was once a burrito-shilling Taco Bueno. This is a house that beans built, though the smell of lard-laden pintos thankfully vanished long ago.
Inside, tables draped in white linen play host to small plates of salads, snacks and freshly grilled meats and fish. Two guitarists thrum nylon stringed guitars, maybe singing serenades, or maybe shredding an instrumental take on "Hotel California." Outside, potted plants do their best to seclude the patio from Belt Line Road, and fledgling grapevines reach for the trellis above. It's a nearly perfect transformation. Only the windows and doors recall the building's lesser past, with its plastic utensils and mediocre salsa bar.
Owner Habip Kargin is no stranger to reinventing restaurant spaces. Just two years ago, he took a sleek sushi spot in an unassuming strip mall in Far North Dallas and turned it into a quaint Turkish affair that quickly drew loyal fans, hooked on Kargin's freshly baked breads. That place, Pera Turkish Kitchen, wowed with sturdy grape leaves stuffed with rice that had bite, and eggplant so sweet and rich it evoked sultan's delight. The restaurant enveloped its customers in a menu of passionate Turkish flavors, and it quickly became a neighborhood mainstay.
At his second Pera, Kargin's mission is more difficult to discern. Flavors are predominantly Mediterranean, but they meander — sometimes into the land of great effect, and other times down the road to confusion. Take the bread service, which features four slices of a crusty baguette. The loaves arrive at the restaurant parbaked to be finished in the oven just before they're shuttled out to the table, giving the illusion of freshly baked bread. It's served with a dollop of labneh that sits in a shallow pool of fruity olive oil with chile flakes strewn about. The bread is beautifully crusty, with a light, spongy crumb and a sturdy chew, and with a crisp glass of wine you could easily make an afternoon of the gratis dish. Served with a stiff and uninspired hummus topped with shreds of dried pastrami, though, the bread starts to feel clunky. There's an eggplant caviar that sings with lemon flavor, but the dish is off-pitch with the baguette slices, too. Pita bread is thin and flexible for a reason: It was meant for scooping and pinching at dishes. Spooning a glistening eggplant salad onto thick medallions of French-inspired bread feels clumsy. The European loaves don't lend themselves to finger foods.
The menu at Pera II is neatly divided into two sections comprising $6 and $12 plates. Start with the value items on the left hand side, cold dishes and small, composed salads, and then work your way to the right for grilled meats and seafood that will make sure you leave sated.
Grab the caviar despite the bread issues, and an heirloom tomato salad with burrata that's as good as you would expect at the height of Texas' summer. A dish featuring white asparagus is even better. The colorless stalks bear marks from a hot grill and share space with wilted lengths of green onion and a perfectly poached egg. Try not to get caught up in the beauty of the plate. Make a mess of it, liberating that yolk with the tines of your fork and enveloping the other ingredients on the plate in the resulting golden sauce.
The same ezma salad that was served at the original Pera is alive and well here. The purée of tomato, red peppers and pomegranate is as vibrant as ever, but an octopus carpaccio, which is new, has room for improvement. The thin slices of seafood are overwhelmed by an astringent vinaigrette, and the tangle of arugula that also swims in the dressing arrives green and fresh one time, but sorrowfully wilted the next.
The flavors are unmistakably Mediterranean — dill abounds across many dishes, along with mint and basil, molasses and pomegranate — but the plates come together in unexpected ways. A lamb chop paired with a pea purée that's loaded with fennel would look right at home in a French bistro, complete with fava beans, while the filet mignon perched on a bed of lightly blended eggplant enriched with cream takes you right back to Istanbul.
Don't pass up the sardines, served on little crostini with a tomato sauce, if you're craving seafood, but watch out for the octopus, which arrives with a mushy, unpleasant texture at times. Execution slipups like these are what's keeping Pera No. 2 from outshining the original restaurant. The cooking is sharp and focused in Kargin's first kitchen, but here it seems dull and relaxed at times. The low price point makes some of this forgivable, but it's hard not to see the lost potential.
Quail arrives with flaccid skin and an overly sweet flavor, and that lamb chop would be easier to deliver cooked medium rare to a table if it were served double cut. And as nice is the parbaked baguettes turn out it's hard not to miss the fresh Turkish bread that comes out of the first restaurant's kitchen.
Still, Kagrin's efforts yield a marked improvement for the neighborhood, and it's hard not to fantasize about a national restaurant reform program in which withering fast food joints are carefully transformed into quaint neighborhood restaurants that nourish their communities rather than weigh them down with cheese and grease. Corporate tile would be replaced with warm, wood flooring, and plastic seating would yield to furniture that's actually inviting.
In the kitchen, stoves capable of cooking would replace steam tables meant to keep prepared food warm, and refrigerators would be filled with fresh ingredients. Imagine a world where every Taco Bell becomes a Mexican restaurant featuring dishes from Veracruz, and where every Pizza Hut is turned into a Neapolitan pizzeria. Pera Wine and Tapas may not be perfect, but it's way more Bueno than the alternatives.
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