Ava: A restaurant so good, Dave Faries might consider moving to Rockwall for...Nah.
Just why would anyone drive all the way to Rockwall? I mean, unless they happen to be stuck to a mortgage there.
Yeah, there's the big reservoir, but if you venture out on the water some weekend, you're probably not decked out in your Dallas clubbing best, right? So you'd think the folks at AVA (they indeed spell it with all caps, as if shouting via e-mail) would be used to the ragged shorts and T-shirt look.
Granted, my outfit one Saturday evening was a bit on the mismatched side, topped by a rather disturbing silk-screen of Inter Milan coach Jose Morinho in puppet form, which takes a little explaining, but is no excuse for the hurry-up treatment I received. Better-dressed guests learned from servers of the restaurant's brief history, how chefs Randall Copeland and Nathan Tate teamed to introduce the fresh-local-sustainable ethic to Dallas' chain-mauled outer reaches, how they scour farmers markets, grab stuff from Spicer's almost daily, purchase free-range chicken and hormone-free beef—that sort of thing. My waitress tossed a menu on the table and backed away. No spiel, nothing. Others were handed a cocktail and wine list, but not me. All I got was "do you want the salad and appetizer at the same time" question in an urgent tone.
The message was clear enough: Eat and get out, you Sears & Roebuck scum.
A few days later I slipped into something a little less comfortable (but far more presentable) and convinced one of the city's pretty people to come along for the ride, figuring slacks and a pleasant face would surely appease the servers. We left in the midst of evening rush hour and crawled along for an interminable stretch. But, damn it, I would happily bump through traffic on LBJ with my A/C on the fritz, call up exes who now despise the very sight of me (through no fault of my own, obviously) and subject myself to a few hours of wrath if I needed a dining companion—hell, I might consider moving to Rockwall just to make AVA part of my regular circuit. Copeland, Tate and crew are that good.
You know it the instant their amuse bouche arrives at the table. One time this traditional wake-up call for the palate consists of Canton peaches, just on the market, chopped coarsely with red onions and a particularly mild feta—all designed to underscore hidden complexities in the bursting fruit. On another visit, they present a dollop of pulled pork topped by blue cheese slaw, the combination speaking vibrantly of tall pines, sandy soil and everything Carolina. A top-notch kitchen puts some stock into the little starter bites, understanding that an amuse should stir anticipation for what's in store. These guys take things a step further.
"We come up with [the amuse bouche] that day based on things I find at the farmers market," Copeland explains.
To dress orders of halibut one evening, the chef picked tomatoes from his own house, creating an emulsion with olive oil and garlic that cast an earthy-tart and even smoky sheen over the firm white flesh, an impression so intricate it barely flirted with the clean flavor of halibut, yet so intense as to cause a series of "wows" with each bite.
Such is their commitment to the local and seasonal ideal. The mix of greens sparking tortellini depends upon whatever Tom Spicer's market has available that particular day. When peaches from the state's spotty crop became available, Copeland and Tate ditched the side of grits accompanying wood-grilled pork chops and replaced it with a savory peach salsa and a rich peach gastrique. This fruit-two-ways approach finds the compatible natural character of the meat while streaks of ash that scar the chop's surface force their way through the sweetness, dragging ripe flavors with them. Free-range chicken seems to explode from underneath a simple, home-style veneer, crisp and golden and barely flecked with salt. Although not as dark and gamy as birds from more established free-range farms, it's surprisingly plump and extraordinarily tender. Restaurant staff bakes all breads, even crumbling day-old buns into a coating for fried squash. They cure bacon and grind meat for burgers in-house, as well.
For those with a sense of nostalgia, AVA serves mussels via a recipe stolen from the old Green Room. Copeland got his start in the famous (and famously cramped) Deep Ellum kitchen after the departure of Marc Cassel, so he knows the drill well. It's nothing tricky—just sautéed shiitake mushrooms, ginger, some garlic, a little spinach and jalapeño forming a chunky mirepoix. But with a lot of butter and many splashes of sparkling wine, the broth reaches a crescendo, contrasting sharp and chalky notes with a rush of heat rounded out by bitter undertones, yet also creamy and effervescent (another unexpected contrast) and thoroughly captivating. You don't want this dish to end.
The secret—if there's a secret—is in the bubbling alcohol. "You just can't get the same result with white wine," Copeland says.
Of course, much depends on the crop brought in that day. Spinach salad suffered one evening thanks to dull greens. A dense balsamic and that house-cured bacon, which puffs like cracklings into smoky, meaty air, were enough to restore interest, however. Fried green tomatoes succumbed to face-scrunching tartness, which a meandering sauce was too timid to corral. And the aforementioned tortellini reaffirmed my belief that one should rarely spend good money on restaurant pasta.
The restaurant occupies a space adjacent to the old Rockwall square, a cluster of low brick buildings left over from the days when this suburb was a small and distant town serviced by farm-to-market roads. It bears the scars of this past life proudly, showing off walls of dated brick broken sometimes into irregular lines by time and settling. Yet exposed aluminum ductwork and a lounge area give the space a sleek, industrial edge, as well. The only chores here are drive time and service.
Well, the time I brought along a fashion-conscious friend, our waitress happily allowed her to sample several different wines before making a selection—then returned with a Texas-sized pour.
My turn: "I'll have a Bombay martini, uh..." She had already started back toward the bar. Did I want Sapphire or the original stuff? Olive or twist? Dry, perhaps?
Copeland admits they're in continuous training mode. "Most of the people we hired had no fine-dining experience," he explains.
But you can put up with worse just for a meal here. One time, in fact, fading traffic slashed drive time in half, causing me to arrive an hour before opening. So I strolled around the square four or five times, walked into a nearby 7-Eleven to kill a few moments under the spell of air conditioning, explored the neighborhoods that slope toward the lake and paused to pretend I was engaged in an important text messaging session.
No matter how foolish this appeared to passers-by, I knew the end result would be worth it. From the amuse bouche on, dinner at AVA is a nearly unbroken series of "wows," "damns" and indecipherable sounds ending in "that's good."
AVA 108 S. Goliad St., Rockwall, 469-698-9920. Open 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. $$$
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