Bolsa: Delicious "Slow Food" Without the Smug.
Years ago, in response to a seeming onslaught of prepackaged goods and quick-service chain restaurants, a few activist gourmands began spouting the moral superiority of "slow foods." Not just organic or free-range, mind you, but also locally grown and "sustainable."
Forgetting that in the days when people ate natural foods by necessity—say, the glorious 1600s—life was pretty much nasty, brutish and short, some of the more demanding of this group moved beyond personal smugness. For example, a certain famous California chef—let's call her "Alice"—once complained in an interview about low produce costs and the year-round availability of vegetables. 'Twould be better, apparently, for those pesky lower-middle-class peasants to suffer scurvy all winter.
Or just drop dead completely.
Now, there are a couple of ways to take advantage of a following. One is, of course, adopting an air of self-righteousness. Then there's the tried-and-tested Jimmy Swaggart method—preach family values while privately partying it up and wail "I have sinned" to adoring audiences when caught—that still pays dividends in red states. But the folks behind Bolsa chose to ignore both. Instead, the little Oak Cliff restaurant appeals to trendy sensitivities without turning its back on the common, everyday and affordable.
For example, while they purchase as much as possible from nearby farms or fishing boats plying Texas waters, the owners also interpret "local" to mean Lone Star Beer, on tap. The "Fall Classic" salad from their lunch menu includes apples, fennel, greens and golden raisins, atop which sit several strips of pork, pounded wafer-thin, rolled in meal and pan-fried—a schnitzel for the health-conscious, but at the same time something worthy of the season.
Hog-killing time came to the old South once temperatures dropped low enough to ward off insects. This was also the last of the apple harvest and the days when dried fruits first appeared. Perhaps that's why the combination feels so natural: crunchy pork schnitzel, tasting of nuts and butter with a gentle meatiness in the background; crisp fall fruit; raisins as dense as port wine; the unique sugary-salty-sour rush of apple-maple vinaigrette. If there's a weak spot in this otherwise well-considered salad, it's the rather timid mound of greens which, though colorful, contribute little more than filler.
But few dishes better illustrate Bolsa's sophisticated yet simple, trendy but comfortable, kitschy-without-losing-touch-with-the-neighborhood vibe. The owners—a quartet of former bar grunts—fashioned a look that speaks of "wise use," reinventing an old auto repair shop into a cool and airy dining space while keeping the original structure intact. Chef Graham Dodds relies in large part on seasonal ingredients, carted in daily—the restaurant has no walk-in freezer, and storage space is at a minimum. Thus butternut squash recently replaced tomato on one of their bruschetta offerings, lending a softer tone to the underlying basil and goat cheese. Caprese disappeared in favor of something called "Bolsa Bibb," a toss with watermelon radish in yogurt dill. And, of course, December is not generally kind to leafy green vegetables.
A few weak spots pop up on Dodds' ever-changing menu, however. His Carolina-style pulled pork sandwich lacks the sharp, vinegar counterpoint one expects in that particular style of barbecue. Beef stew spiked with Lone Star beer took on a strangely vigorous sweet and tangy character, as if the kitchen resorted to molasses in order to thicken the broth—not necessarily a bad thing, although the reeking sugar eventually wore on my palate until it refused to accept other flavors (such as beef, sliced carrots and potatoes). Bruschetta topped with smoked salmon, pickled onions and bright crème fraîche stood out on one visit, thanks to the fish's acrid baritone. On another occasion an over-eager dollop of very good honey washed every nuance away.
For the most part, Bolsa beats other establishments in its price range. Seared scallops present the brisk taste of shellfish under a rakish veneer smacking of burnished pepper, charred meat residue and anything else that falls under the "caramelized" heading. Balance this against late fall's side of citrus-infused quinoa and the soothing earthiness of chestnuts and you get hurdy-gurdy flavors, flying upward and down, constantly cackling and buzzing, yet always under control. Earlier in the season, those same beautiful scallops found more rustic kinship in a hash of potatoes and bacon. Mussels now steeped in red sauce were previously presented in a Texas version of a la marinière, substituting Lone Star and ginger for the usual white wine-shallot combination, and to good effect. Flatbread with Jimmy's sausage plays up the meat's savory side with a spread of herbal tomato paste, redolent of oregano but also slyly sweet. Splotches of porcelain-white mozzarella and surprisingly potent banana peppers help turn this cracker-thin "pizza" into something memorable. Bisque of butternut squash is so intense it risks redundancy as you slurp through spoonful after spoonful. But they offset the buttery earth tone with an undercurrent of pepper, a cool balsamic drizzle and the eclectic patter of herbs.
No wonder wait times of up to an hour for tables are common some nights—and that people are very keen on preserving the restaurant's reputation.
One afternoon I met a food critic counterpart for lunch on Bolsa's beer garden-style patio. During our meal, an SUV pulled up at the light, the driver waving frantically for a waiter's attention. Now, critics conduct an often futile battle to remain anonymous, and this particular character stays under wraps better than most. But we found out the high-strung driver called to inform Bolsa's management of his presence. A few weeks later, the very waitress who worked our table cornered me in a bar, demanding to know what I thought of the place.
"You'll find out soon enough," I told her.
The restaurant combines a sound concept—trendy enough for the moment without being overly cute—solid kitchen work and a manageable menu. They shun deep-fried items but turn out stunning schnitzel. Light dishes look to dominate the daily listing. Bruschetta topped with prosciutto and wine-dark medjool dates or Fuji apple slices and pine nuts over P'tit Basque cheese fit the Bishop Arts vibe. However, the kitchen generally offers some form of steak—Eden Creek Farms tenderloin on one occasion (with a whimsical spaghetti squash carbonara), the suddenly popular flat iron presentation another—as well as a decent burger. When they falter, it's not off the edge: a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich tortured...I mean, subjected to harsh interrogation techniques...by unnervingly tart pickled onions but calmed by smoky meat and decent arugula for this time of year; wines sometimes brought out at the wrong temperature, though not unsippably so; service that seems aimless on occasion.
Every good restaurant has its moments, after all. I'm just happy that Bolsa hasn't fallen prey to slow food's snark side.
614 W. Davis St., 214-367-9367. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, noon-10 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$
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