This is what former New York Times food editor Raymond Sokolov has to say about meat loaf:
Meat loaf...is a kind of joke. In fact, I can think of two funny things about meat loaf right off the top of my head. One is an off-color parting wish you have already remembered. The other is a rock star, the Texan known as Meat Loaf, who once was referred to in an important newspaper as Mr. Loaf.
This isn't all Sokolov has to say about meat loaf. He notes the term was first recorded in print in the United States in 1899, in Britain in 1939. He also mentions that the use of loaf as a descriptor is appropriate as most recipes include soft bread crumbs and it's shaped like...well, the guy who sang "Paradise by the Dashboard Light."
Crayton's Restaurant and Bar also has plenty to say about meat loaf, or rather its "gourmet meatloaf with garlic mashed potatoes." The terms are lush. Arriving sliced, the meat loaf is moist and hearty and is maybe a little too filled with the loaf part: bread crumbs. But this doesn't really matter because of the sauce. Instead of ketchup or tomato paste smeared over the top, this loaf is soaked in a rambunctious tomato sauce with very slightly cooked--blanched is my guess--chunks of tomato bumping through the watery, acidic silt. Wreathing this rusticity is a dab of deliciously smooth and stiff garlic mashed potatoes.
Crayton's is the work of Ronnie Crayton, a founding partner of Bay Leaf, the Deep Ellum restaurant that made a name for itself with its clever New American-Asian breeding before it went under. After he peeled from Bay Leaf, Crayton packed his restaurant chops and shuttled down to Fair Park, just catty-corner from the Women's Museum, to launch his urban New Southern dining room. Crayton's is a strangely dark and sultry place. It looks like the victim of a busted chocolate-sauce sluice gate; from its hot fudge sundae-stained concrete floor to its milk chocolate fondue tin ceiling. It also has gauzy curtains, loud paintings and off-white vinyl tablecloths that behave like dollops of whipped cream topping the Hershey's floodwaters. Plus, the air conditioning doesn't seem to work very well.
Compounding this heat is the service, which is warm and attentive, if a little slow and plodding. Flatware is picked up with dirty plates and promptly replaced. On one visit, our dinner concluded just as the clouds outside were bursting. A manager shuttled us to our vehicle under his umbrella. Classy, that.
Crayton's is like a dank jazz cave with flickering votives and Miles Davis trumpet blurts. To this it adds lithe, Southern-scented New American cuisine.
And what scent is more Southern than fried green tomatoes? Crayton's has them, and they are perhaps the best you're likely to find in Dallas. Three discs slumber upon one another along one edge of the plate, while at the other end a fluff of greens dances with three grape tomato halves. The slices, cloaked in a dirty bronze fry coat, are striped with ribbons of mustard sauce while a few Maytag blue cheese crumbles add a sophisticated strain. Unlike many versions of this dish, which can be tepid and mealy, the green slices are juicy and ripe.
Many of us who frequently lounge our tongues on sushi or foie gras or lunches involving hummus forget how fun it is to peel off fried catfish coating. It's a way to get more intimate with the fillet, like peeling off a camisole to note if there's an innie or an outie to be teased for the evening. This catfish fillet had deep groves in it and tracts of cream that go from pale gray to near dark. It oozed juice. It flaked.
Fried catfish is almost always unsurprising, which is a good thing. It has fat. It has protein. It has carbs. These elements occupy the gullet while they free the mind--unless the catfish leaves a pond-scum skid over the tongue on the way down.
But Crayton's isn't satisfied with simple gestures. It wants to tease the mind, too. The blunted bottom of the crispy fillet, opposite the pointed tip, wades in a sauce; a tangy étouffée coarsely speckled with tight curls of racy crawfish tail. The fillet leans on a humped sprawl of dirty rice--separate, fluffy grains the color of a crude spill. It's fragged with bits of spicy sausage.
The catfish sauce is similar in composition to the gumbo. A small bowl of it--a honey liquid with rice scattered over the surface like snow--is saddled to the half-sandwiches arrayed at lunch. The seafood gumbo is tame, but with a smooth, tangy richness. Shrimp po' boy is tame, too, but with a crowd of tightly coiled and coated blond fried shrimp (the same coat on the catfish would be the guess) that tumbled out from the roll and the greenery within. Like the catfish, they're greaseless and crisp. Unlike the catfish, they taste like soap.
Perhaps it's best to gauge Southern comfort food by the white meats: the regular and the other. Crayton's bacon-pecan stuffed pork chop flirts with sweetness, but it is relegated to a sly wink in the presence of the savory sage pan gravy. The chop is juicy and full-flavored with a strip of fat, slightly crisped, hugging the rim to edge the flavors in brittle richness. But that chop's sweet wink becomes a shameless pass in the form of an orange dab of swirled sweet potatoes perfumed with maple and rum flavors.
This heightening of the droll meat isn't as successful when chicken is thrown into the mix. Yet the slippage was minimal. Grilled garlic-marinated chicken breast is robust and chewy, but a little dry. Yet this wasn't a fatal blow, thanks mostly to an ingenious plum sauce. Though most of the sauce seemed absorbed by a dull plume of herbed rice pilaf, enough of it survived to give the breast slices the moisture they craved. Thin half-moons of plum, brandishing a searing ruby stain, protruded like shark fins in the herbed rice swells. The slices raced with tangy intensity, supplying the needed acids. Still, the marinade did infuse the breast with flavor; not in the form of an overt garlic bite, but as a smooth, brothy richness that worked well with the plum.
Key lime pie was weird in that it conjured images of sushi. Not that it looked like it, and certainly didn't taste like it--a blessing if there ever was one. The sushi kinship was buried in the meticulousness of the thing: a perfect square topped with a perfectly symmetrical thin shaving of lime flanked by ruffles of whipped cream. The pie punched with a furious burst of citrus tang, but it rested on a soggy crust. Still, it's hard to care.
Crayton's is a place to unburden your brain of cares and thoughts. Sit down in the clubby cave and let everything slouch and flow: from loafing meat to cloudbursts.
841 Exposition Ave., 214-821-8200. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday. Open for dinner 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$-$$$
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