If you had grown accustomed to ordering pad Thai and spicy stir-fried shrimp at this stand-alone building on Davis Street in Oak Cliff, you won't recognize the space now. There's still shrimp to be had, and Asian ghosts linger in lemongrass, fish sauce and cilantro-laden sauces and other preparations, but don't expect chopsticks and cardboard takeout boxes at Driftwood, whose dreamy sky-blue dining room represents an almost shocking transformation into fine seaside dining.
Two massive, weathered driftwood sculptures greet you when you step through the door into an impossibly small but relaxed, cool and quaint space. White leather booths frame silver wooden tables, but that's not the seating you'll remember on your drive home. A bar tucked into a corner separates the dining room from an equally diminutive but charming patio. It's lined with iron bar stools with vaguely sexual seat pans. They look like phallic tractor seats when empty, and when occupied, cradle their guests almost too intimately.
Strange stools aside, Driftwood is a fine dining room, peppered with reminders of a fresh ocean breeze. From the starfish, sand dollar and sea urchin exoskeletons that dot one wall to the vintage glass bottles that shuttle tap water and invoke softened beach glass, everything in the dining room reminds you why you've come here. Oak Cliff has a fancy new seafood restaurant, and for now the buzz is hot.
A confirmed Friday reservation at 8 p.m. slowly receded into lost hopes as 8:30 came and went, wine glasses emptied and appetizers ordered to pass the time segued into a full meal at the bar because that seemed the easy thing to do. Managing a bustling dining room with only 48 seats and high demand is surely a challenge, but small and subtle gestures go a long way when placating displaced diners.
Thankfully, cocktails do more than keep you occupied. A Cocktail a' la Louisiane juxtaposes sweet Benedictine with bitters and vermouth as a backdrop to spicy rye whiskey, and a refreshing gimlet laced with lemongrass is lively. At $8 the drinks are priced fairly, but an oyster appetizer will leave misers mumbling.
Three pristine shells grace the $12 plate. The oysters are impeccable and clean, but you wouldn't know it. The subtle nuance of brine and freshness is drowned out by jalapeño sorbet and pickled apples, or grapefruit mignonette and Champagne whipped into a stiff froth. For an oyster newcomer, this may be a good way to wade into the shallow end of the pool of eating raw shellfish, but veterans — those who prefer to cannonball into a plate of salty bivalves — will find the dish overwhelmed by condiments, which drown out the fresh but subtle brine that makes oyster lovers swoon.
Clams have more balance, their earthy, sweet flavors standing up to smoky chorizo and a rich buttery sauce that's quietly tempered with a touch of white wine. A thrifty seafood fan may feel ripped off when receiving seven tiny shells for $13, but this dish is too compelling. As you sop up every last bit of that sauce with grilled and buttered bread and enjoy a dry and crisp wine, money is the last thing on your mind.
More often than not, appetizers and small plates seem overpriced in a restaurant that aims for a high-end seafood concept but lacks subtlety and balance. A Maine lobster roll is stuffed to the hilt, but the lobster was overwhelmed with tarragon, and the roll is impossibly small for $15. The top-split bun couldn't measure much more than 3 inches long. Sometimes size does matter.
Main dishes are more generous but likewise lack restraint. Grilled Gulf shrimp need char, feel soft and come on a plate crowded with a seared polenta cake, butter beans, asparagus, a small tangle of frisee and an artful cap of lobster froth. Golden trout comes wrapped in a thin veneer of serrano ham, roasted fingerling potatoes, vegetables and a pan sauce. Grilled octopus comes with marble potato confit, manzanilla olives, watercress, pickled onions and a smoked tomato vinaigrette. Most of the components on these plates are beautiful — stunning, even. The problem is they're so beautiful the seafood is often lost.
A special of whelks illuminates everything you need to know to determine whether you'll enjoy a meal at Driftwood. An order presents five dashing, spiraled shells drenched in a green herbal sauce. The sauce is amazing: a base of cilantro and lemongrass amped up with fresh chiles for heat and mellowed out with a little olive oil. It's a rich, chunky condiment that tastes fresh and alive and prompts diners to squeegee their plates clean with baguette slices, forks or even fingers. All you'll remember is this sauce, and maybe a rubbery texture. The whelks disappear in a grassy maelstrom of spicy lemon.
If you're not used to eating sea snails, this may be a welcomed thing. The mollusks are chewy, tough and flavorful. If you're accustomed to whelks — if you're excited, even, about the appearance of this obscure sea creature on a menu — you'll have a tough time getting to know the snails.
The same is true for most of the dishes here. Everything I tasted was impeccably fresh, and of the highest quality that's likely available in Dallas. Too bad those ingredients aren't allowed to stand out on their own.
If you're new to seafood — or curious — put on your training wheels and ride into Driftwood. You'll likely have a very memorable meal. But when you're ready to take those training wheels off and enjoy the more subtle side of seafood, you'll have to go elsewhere.
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