The egg must not be cold. Here we are in Oak Lawn's dishiest new restaurant, DISH (the insistent capital letters an attempt to elevate the generic name). It is a frigid Saturday morning, and at 11:30 a.m., we two are the only patrons in a 5,500-square-foot space that seats about 100 diners (and 50 more if the covered patio is open). In our swank, raised, black vinyl booth against a wall of amethyst purple-gray crushed velvet draperies, we feel like the first too-eager arrivals at the party or perhaps, given the lounge-y atmosphere, the last stragglers to leave.
Weekend brunch service is new for DISH, which opened November 10 in the Ilume, a new mixed-use development of pricey apartments, eats and retail on Cedar Springs, right at the western edge of "Do you want to eat there?" and "There's nowhere over here to eat." Its owner is Dallas restaurant and bar creator Tim McEneny, who did obar, LIFT and Dragonfly at Hotel ZaZa.
Three months in, DISH still seems to be trying to figure out what it wants to be. Laid-back restaurant? High-energy lounge? Neighborhood hangout and hook-up spot? On weekend nights, there's a DJ at the back of the room, which tilts the mood into the nightclub zone. During the week, the black lacquered stools around the 360-degree rolled steel bar stay polished by the spin-tightened backsides of Ilume residents and handsome young neighborhoodlians who drop in for the cocktail hour and might or might not stick around for dinner. (Manager Shawn Horne, who came to DISH from Wolfgang Puck's Five Sixty downtown, says weekday lunch service, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., will begin March 1.)
DISH is a "concept restaurant" that has its virtues, but is suffering from its lack of focus on getting the food right. It is first of all a pretty place that makes people look pretty in it. Designed by Chicago-based DMAC Architecture, DISH has a wide-open, industrial-chic interior with retractable floor-to-ceiling glass walls that will go up to show off a dog-friendly front patio in good weather. The black-white-gray-red color scheme is sleek and stark, with cool surfaces like the white Corian bar top softened by the velvet curtains, cushy red chair upholstery and tall pillars of sound-absorbing red oak blocks. A shimmery polycarbonate chain mail thingamabob hangs between the step-up platformed alcove packed with two-tops and the more spacious main dining area. Subtle shifts in the colors of LED lighting beneath the steps, below some chairs and inside that chain mail tube and behind the bar provide additional visual pop.
But all that set dressing means less in the glaring daylight of brunching hour than it does at night, so we lonely two set about ordering a good deal of the "simple comfort food" on chef Doug Brown's menu. They like doing flatbreads here, which are really thin-crust pizzas wearing minimal ingredients. The $12 brunch version, large enough to share, features a shallow stir-up of chipotle cheddar, apple-smoked bacon and sliced potatoes dusted with rosemary. Smack in the middle is a poached egg, which looks promising until we fork into it and discover it's not only not poached, it's raw and runny, whites and all.
We pick around until our main orders arrive. My designated dining pal gets chicken and waffles, that love-it-or-fear-it combination of fattening fry-ups. The plate is enormous, heavy with two fluffy brown waffles, two thick, moist, herb-encrusted, crispy-battered chicken breasts and a bouquet garnish of rosemary and oregano sprigs. The maple syrup is warm and makes the waffles so rich they need no extra butter. The chicken is perfect and is even better later as a leftover at home. A side order of "scallion hash" is a heap of well-seasoned cubes of fried potatoes tossed with tidbits of onions and bacon. Now that's some comfort food.
What looks good to me on the abbreviated brunch menu is the "mac & cheese with poached egg" from the "starters" category, but when it comes, served in a little cast iron skillet, it's a letdown. The "mac" is orecchiette (Italian for "little ears"), thumb-sized disks of pasta thinner at the edges than the middle. Stuffed and stirred into the pasta are five salty cheeses: Reggiano, Gruyère, Boyaca (a cross between cheddar and Swiss), white cheddar and a blue. If the blue cheese weren't already the dealbreaker (you really can't sneak blue cheese in and not expect some pushback), what's sitting above it is. The poached egg, staring up from the middle of the skillet like a cataract, is hard-cooked and cold right through.
A hot waiter does not make up for a cold egg. Get out of your car at the valet stand at DISH on a rainswept night and the attendant hands you an umbrella to keep you dry to the door. Inside, the welcome is immediate and friendly. Manager Horne, a congenial fellow with a crown of spiked hair, is right there, making rounds, smiling, talking to guests, not just once per customer but several times. The waitstaff, a crew of young, attractive men and women in black T-shirts, anticipate needs but don't intrude on conversations. They say "It's my pleasure" instead of the loathed and crass "No problem." They look you in the eye, don't chat too much and they get what you need, though not always as quickly as they might. A 20-minute wait for a $10 cocktail at happy hour makes a smile turn upside-down.
DISH's dinner offerings feature more plain food with organic and local ingredients, from simple burgers and club sandwiches to smothered pork chops and flatiron steaks. Our table takes to the tumble of braised short ribs atop a mesa of buttery mashed potatoes. The meat is fall-off-the-bone tender and infused with dark herbed flavors in a slightly sweet barbecue sauce. The mushroom, arugula and goat cheese flatbread has a just-right balance of ingredients and could be its own light meal for one or two. If the edges of this kitchen's flatbread discs weren't so consistently tough and uncuttable, they'd have some of the best specialty pizzas around.
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The chef's concept goes awry again with what's billed on the entree list as "jumbo sea scallops." The large plate looks underpopulated with its three tiny, one-bite scallops forming wan triangle points around a smallish dollop of pearl couscous tossed with corn and bits of bacon and Parmesan. At the peak of the pile is yet another poached egg. It is such a good idea, and we anticipate mixing warm yolk into the couscous and bacon for one perfect bite. So we break the egg and say a little prayer and when it reaches our lips, we feel once again a cold, gelatinous insult on yet another promising mouthful. Sigh.
Sensing our ennui, the waiter is quick with desserts. The slice of lemon icebox pie boasts little puffs of toasted meringue that are tasteless against the heavy tang of evaporated milk in the Luby's-like pie filling. An apple cobbler is another misnamed DISH dish. It's a spongy bread pudding, sans crust, sans bread for that matter, its apple slices baked in a skillet pan with a heavy "crust" of sugar and cinnamon.
As the waiter walks away one last time, the word printed in white on the back of his T-shirt taunts us. "Hungry."
DISH 4123 Cedar Springs Road (in the Ilume complex), 214-522-3474. Open for brunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; dinner, 5-11 p.m. nightly; bar menu available until 1 a.m. $$$