In Park's Kitchen, Prodigal Son Marc Cassel Makes His Return
In a famous biblical parable, a son takes his family inheritance and wastes it on riotous living in some distant land, returning home with empty pockets and a deep sense of regret—which seems like an appropriate summary of chef Marc Cassel's professional life, though almost in reverse.
Dallas' prodigal son of the kitchen lived it up at the old Green Room, which closed two years ago, creating reckless dishes comparable to a culinary train wreck, at once bold and subtle, that somehow fit the city's mood. To celebrate Cassel's "collision cuisine," crowds packed into the rowdy Deep Ellum dining room—bizarre crowds of fine dining aficionados who offered standing ovations to the kitchen and sodden bar crawlers who might urinate on the bar (it happened) or break bathroom sinks off the wall while engaged in impromptu sexual activity (also happened). It was the type of place well-suited to the chef's mischievous personality.
Then he decided to abandon this riotous lifestyle. He calmed down and jumped to fancier—perhaps quieter—digs at Dragonfly in the Hotel ZaZa, where things began to unravel, in part because of lifestyle issues. He soon parted ways with restaurant management and practically disappeared from the Dallas dining scene. For about two years he languished, performing odd kitchen jobs and attracting little attention.
But the riotous prodigal returned to full-time cooking when Park opened just more than a month ago as the wildly informal yet technically brilliant chef of days gone by. Amid the scores of scene-driven Dallasites in their Neiman's finery, Cassel cruises through Park's stylish dining room, wearing urban camouflage fatigues shorn above the knee and a black, nightclub bouncer-style T-shirt whose back reads "Staph" in white block letters. Pretty people and a goodly assortment of cougars pack the bar, but there are also random moments of trouble.
One evening a valet came inside to speak to a man at the next table. He promptly stood up and walked out for good. "I remember him from the other night," the valet tells me later. The man's car has no brakes, and they suspect he coasts up hoping some unfortunate valet will bang it up while attempting to park.
This is, clearly, Marc Cassel's kind of place: off-beat, rollicking and sometimes whimsical. Ask him about the strips of chicken-fried chicken accompanying one of his salads—the crust unleashing a flow of pepper over tangy buttermilk and extraordinarily tender white meat—and with a verbal shrug, he flashes his old "it's just cooking" attitude: "We brine the chicken and pound the shit out of it," he explains. "There's no magic."
But certainly there's something. What made Green Room work was this disarming punk rock chef playing so deftly with global ingredients—a kind of mad culinary genius. In the new, more casual setting of Park, he grills whole spring onions until the bulbs char crusty and black, then wraps the bunch in newspaper to steam finish. Served with romesco, a chunky puree of roasted tomatoes, dried chiles and nuts, the rustic combination turns into an alluvial-brawny-acrid-sweet explosion. And this from a pile of onions wrapped in old paper.
"I saw it on one of Tony Bourdain's No Reservations shows," Cassel says of the recipe.
Without doubt, Park represents a departure from his finer dining past. In Green Room's lusty environs, he plated lamb T-bones, halibut cheeks, Boursin-artichoke ravioli in a spunky puttanesca. Here you scan the menu for, oh, chicken-fried steak, a platter that on one visit lurched forward in a cayenne outburst that continued in one shrill and unrelenting note. But another time the same Texas staple hit all the right marks: a crispy, rich shell, meat beaten into submission and hearty in flavor, and just enough fire to offset the cream gravy. "I think there was a mathematical error," Cassel says, speculating as to why early batches contained so much heat. The kitchen continues to tinker with other dishes, as well: French fries served over the first few weeks were pale, anemic things. But recently they switched to cuts with more dimension. "Those skinny ones were wrong," the chef admits.
Same process occurred with a mac and cheese gratin side. "We started doing it, and it sucked," he says. But now sauteed vegetables provide a bittersweet grounding to smoky-tart Gouda, the combination forming into a welcome and resoundingly familiar flavor profile over BB pellet-shaped peperino pasta. This current version is the result of further experimentation.
Chicken-fried steak, mac and cheese—quite a break from his old "Feed Me, Wine Me" free for alls. Oh, he's resurrected the mussels recipe (loaded with ginger) that he made famous at the legendary Deep Ellum restaurant, but it's just one vestige of the past on an otherwise downscale menu, one he struggled with for several weeks. Perhaps reverting to lower price points and a simpler technique threw the chef off a bit. Or maybe he was rusty after the two-year layoff.
He eventually learned to adjust, and quite well.
But hell—even when a menu item starts in the right direction, Cassel can't keep his mitts off it, always in search of that marginal thing that will make a good dish better.
A cutesy arrangement called picnic basket chicken was a pleasant rendition of an American summertime favorite: Potato salad rides on a tart edge, but with sweet and earthy components sparked by a sprinkling of pepper. Two fat biscuits glazed ever so slightly with sugar come with intensely swarthy ZIP code honey. And the meat itself turns out juicy and tender under savory skin—to which he recently added a few brush strokes of honey for a crispier sheen.
So, there were many "work in progress" moments as Park careened through its first month in operation. But Dallas doesn't seem to mind. The restaurant reports 400-plus covers on many nights and backups from the narrow drive to their valet stand spill out onto Henderson Avenue, causing more than a few angry gestures from drivers stalled in the traffic.
Despite a wave of pre-publicity and the excitement generated as word of his return rippled through the city, Dallas' prodigal son claims the onslaught of customers caught him off guard.
"We were not expecting the kind of volume we're doing," he says.
Not sure if I believe it. The name, the location, the casual theme and nods to local sourcing (they've set up beehives on the roof)—this place is destined for instant success and accolades. And those are beginning to roll in, even as they work out the kinks.
Simply put, Park—and its food service—is unpredictable, vibrant and a lot of fun. It's Marc Cassel's place, after all.
Park 1921 Henderson Ave., 214-824-3343. Open 6-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 6-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 6-10 p.m. Sunday. Bar opens 5 p.m. $$$
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