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.
Restaurant year in review
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.
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.
Should local chefs wave the white tablecloth or dispense with it altogether? Mabel notes that the most formidable competitive element in the replication and transference of national nameplates is that these famous chefs have figured out how to do what nobody could do 10 years ago: keep standards up from location to location, all without the presence of the celebrity chef.
But therein lies the local opportunity. Sure, the days of the large, big-buck local chef-driven restaurant may be on the wane. Behold the emergence of the casual, intimate room of roughly 65 seats with the chef always present to spoon healthy helpings of undivided personal attention. It's the only way that the locals will compete with the star chef who parachutes into town with endless supply lines of legal tender, opens a large restaurant and then goes AWOL.
Yet foreign star power may not be as formidable as it seems. Il Mulino New York was felled this year by pride suffused with arrogance. Rumors circulated over the summer that Nobuyuki Matsuhisa and company were itching to scrub Nobu's lease with the Crescent because monetary projections weren't being hit. Anecdotal evidence (including ours) suggested diners were fed up with staff arrogance. Lunch was scrubbed last summer.
"This is what we do in Dallas: We eat out, and we shop," says Tracy Evers, executive director of the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association (GDRA). "We don't respond well to customer service that maybe works in other cities." Bice in the Crescent has generated a volley of negative anecdotes as well. Craft? So far the service is as flawless as the culinary simplicity, though you do have to hack your way through thick W Hotel bitchiness to reach your table.
Another indicator of foreign star power vulnerability is the recent demise of Smith & Wollensky after more than three years on the Dallas North Tollway. "I don't think that whoever they had working there identified with Mr. Dallas...the Dallas people," says Gene Street, chairman of Consolidated Restaurant Operations, which runs III Forks just down the strip. "Maybe this is not a real good location here on the Tollway. People avoid it. Destination-wise, it's difficult." Despite Tollway challenges, Street boasts III Forks will top $13 million in sales this year, making it one of the most lucrative restaurants in the state. "We work it," he says. "We hustle the business."
Increasingly, that hustle is moving north, which is bleeding the Tollway steakhouse strip. Consolidated is installing a Silver Fox Steak House at the northern tip of the Tollway. Christopher Barish, a nightclub mogul who made his fortune in New York and Las Vegas, has just opened Martini Park, a lounge/club with sophisticated finger foods and live music, in the Shops at Legacy. And former Sfuzzi and Rosewood Hotels & Resorts executive Kenyon Price just christened Isabella's, his new Italian restaurant in Frisco's Stonebriar Commons, with expansion plans targeting Uptown, Southlake, Austin and Newport Beach, California.
Street says the looming struggle up north is labor: finding it, training it, keeping it. "The [potential] staff is still too young," Yarbrough says.
Bulls 'n' Bears
Like the embalmers, restaurant midwives have been busy too. Kenichi, the Aspen-based highbrow sushi restaurant, is poised for a Victory entrance. Former Del Frisco's chef Frank Rumore opened Four Winds Steakhouse in Wills Point. Social opened in the Kimpton-managed Hotel Lumen while the quasi-French Bijoux took shape on West Lovers Lane. Chic From Barcelona, a highbrow rotisserie chicken joint, opened near Mercury Grill while Veuve with its adjunct lounge Nine 7 Two opened in Addison. Go Fish owner Mike Hoque will open Dallas Fish Market in the Jeroboam corpse and Lynae Fearing (wife of Dean) and Tracy Rathbun (wife of Kent) launched the ambitious Shinsei. And downtown was hit by the $6 million, 400-seat Luqa restaurant and Petrus Lounge.
Numbers suggest the business is booming and will continue to surge in the foreseeable future, further straining labor woes. The National Restaurant Association is forecasting a 5 percent jump in national restaurant industry sales to $537 billion nationwide. Texas is equally bullish. The Texas Restaurant Association is predicting a 6.9 percent surge in 2007 sales to $32 billion. "The last three quarters have really been booming here in North Texas," says Blaise Hadley, president of the GDRA and regional vice president of Outback Steakhouse. "Comparative sales over last year have been really strong here, especially over the last two quarters."
Yarbrough doesn't buy such optimism. He says the market gives him the willies right now, what with the closings and shifts and influx of national nameplates. It's difficult to tease out what's really going on under the surface, he says.
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The steak market may be a leading indicator. In addition to the demise of Smith & Wollensky, Wichita-based Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon has been beset with turmoil over the past year resulting in a $586.1 million buyout by the Dallas-based private equity firm Lone Star Funds. The publicly traded Lone Star Steakhouse, which operates Lone Star Sullivan's, Del Frisco's and Texas Land & Cattle steakhouses plus one Frankie's Italian Grille, cited a slate of negative market trends—including demographic shifts, higher gas prices and interest rates, market saturation and increases in taxes and labor costs—in its decision to put the company on the block.
Nevertheless, big pricey steak continues to pummel the North Texas landscape. N9NE Group, a Las Vegas steakhouse/nightclub partnership founded by Scott DeGraff and Michael Morton, is slipping a N9NE Steakhouse into the Victory project. Morton is the son of Arnie Morton of Morton's Steakhouse fame and brother of Peter Morton, founder of Hard Rock Café. Morton's is also reportedly scouring the Dallas landscape for another steakhouse to keep its West End location company: this after shuttering its Addison location in 2003 after it was open for nearly a decade.
And Popolos owner Steve Hammond has launched Park Cities Prime—billed as a boutique steakhouse, or the finest of the finest—in Preston Center.
"The price of prime beef has hit all-time highs," says Outback's Hadley. Let the shaking begin.