Gemma Is Making Beautiful Food, from Sea to Briny Sea
The first time you pull up to Gemma, it can be difficult to pin down what you've gotten yourself into. While you thumb your wallet for small bills to tip the valet, you're assured you are most certainly still in East Dallas, but when you step into the dining room, you might feel somewhat lost. All that cool, blue paint and wainscoting hint vaguely at New England, while the ropes that suspend the lampshades over the dining room imply, more broadly, something coastal. The menu, with its prolific use of seasonal vegetables, recalls the abundance of produce that makes California a cook's paradise, while the rich body of a sauce that supports a piece of perfectly cooked striped bass cries out vive la beurre!
Maybe a bit too much butter, if you want to split hairs: The Meyer lemon called out on the menu wasn't enough to cut through all that fat. But the striped bass is memorable anyway, with yellow-eyed peas painted with a single brushstroke of brown and fava beans that snap in vivid green, all decorated with a delicate confetti of brunoised carrots and other vegetables. It's French meets coastal Texas, before an elegant steak tartare transports you to some hip urban bistro.
Plates like these don't have to take you anywhere specifically, though, and perhaps that's Gemma's biggest appeal. Instead of emulating any one style or region, the cooking is simply good for its own sake. It's a restaurant that can take you anywhere, or nowhere, if you'd prefer to bury your head in a bowl of rich ricotta cavatelli with wild boar ragu and forget where you are.
Gemma is the work of chef Stephen Rogers and his wife, Allison Yoder, whose path to Dallas explains the restaurant's décor and menu like the cards in a game of Clue. The two studied music performance, Rogers in piano and Yoder in voice, and did their best to build careers in New York City while working restaurant jobs to pay the bills. When they later moved to California, the restaurant work became more meaningful. Rogers moved from waiting tables into the kitchen, while Yoder continued to hone her skills managing the front of the house, and the two became passionate enough about their work that they eventually wanted to strike out on their own. They decided to come back to Dallas, where Rogers had grown up, and where parents could help with their two young boys as they poured themselves into their restaurant.
If the dining room is any indicator, they're off to a good start. It's filled to capacity most evenings, with many waiting (and many eating) at the buzzing bar. Lavish handbags are on display, and it's as if the Park Cities have created a bubbly outpost outside the bubble. It's also luxuriously quiet. The soft ceiling absorbs sound so you can talk across the table without the veins in your neck popping out of your Bogosse polo.
And that's nice, because you really ought to relax here. The wine list is small but well rounded, with a few varietals available on tap and by the glass. If keg wine sounds a little too Franzia for your taste, know that's exactly how a lot of wine is stored these days. The high-tech dispensing system behind the bar also keeps your wine from oxidizing, so grab a glass of that citrusy sauvignon blanc and tear into some bivalves. If you can afford enough of them, you can pretend you're on the Hamptons shore ushering in warmer days.
There are raw oysters from the West Coast and more from the Chesapeake Bay on the menu now, but they'll change just as often as the rest of the dishes. You can also have them baked, covered in Gruyere and guanciale with a touch of jalapeño for a spark.
Don't pass up on the sweetbreads. They're seldom served as they are here, whole and seared to a crunch, yet still tender, with a small tangle of frisée and mustard as mild as a blown kiss. The mussels make for good snacking too, but be sure to order them with those Kennebec fries, and ask for a side of mayonnaise, too. Pair them with a boozy beer and you'll be eating straight from the Belgian playbook — all you're missing is a paper cone for those frites.
Ask for just about anything here and you'll get it. My server's first inclination was that there was no mayo in the kitchen, but after a quick check he assured me the kitchen would create it. The staff here works seamlessly together, folding napkins and topping off water glasses under the watchful eye of Yoder who glides through the room opening bottles of wine.
If you dined in California more often, the bok choy salad served here wouldn't be so surprisingly beautiful. The small cabbages are sliced thin, and radishes shaved even thinner — you can see straight through them to the mint leaves and fennel on the other side. There are cashews for more crunch and peas for color and sweetness and it's all dressed in a vinaigrette with the tart zing of spring's first rhubarb. This, like the asparagus salad, sounds like it would eat like abstract art. But they don't. They eat just like the salad you'd expect with a hearty steak, only much prettier.
Braised veal cheeks with spatzle and duck confit with a seared and sliced duck breast on a bed of barley tossed with an egg are more hearty, but the food maintains restraint. It's undeniable that when you pull your chair up to a table that you're eating very well here, wherever that is — could be Brooklyn, could be Paris, where a new generation of chefs is rethinking French cuisine.
Slips are generally small, like an over-cooked duck breast (that is still juicy) or a slice of grilled fish that could use some char for character, but any small discrepancy will be erased when you get to dessert, which is really worth a visit on its own here. Ice creams and sorbets in no less than six flavors are always a good bet, but a pine nut tart encased in chocolate or crepes stuffed with cream cheese and draped in huckleberry compote make for a coda that send you out the door with a glow.
Desserts like these have not been seen on this end of Henderson Avenue for a long time, if ever, and certainly not inside a dining room as sharp as this one. In a neighborhood where most of the restaurants are focused on enough melting cheese and cheap beer to fill a frat house, stepping though Gemma's doors can be like stepping onto an island. It's not paradise, but it's pretty good, and Rogers and Yoders are still making music together.
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