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In Uptown, The Rustic Tries to Go Rural, and Almost Nails It

Quail at The Rustic.
Quail at The Rustic.
Catherine Downes

If Kyle Noonan and Josh Sepkowitz, the pair behind Bowl and Barrel, Mutts and now The Rustic, have achieved anything with their latest restaurant and music venue, it is the creation of the most outwardly Texan space in Dallas. They crammed the venue full of cattle skulls, reclaimed lumber that hints at weathered, dusty barns, and a giant beer-can rendition of Old Glory that screams out "Amuhrica" with redneck pride. They partnered with Pat Green, a country singer and native Texan, and country music pours from the speakers when a (usually Texas-bred) band isn't on stage. They dressed their staff in white shirts, broad belts and dungarees. All that's missin' is a mechanical bull and chicken wire to protect the entertainment.

Sam Anderson, the rhythm guitarist from the Fort Worth band Quaker City Night Hawks, stood above the dining room crooning sandpaper vocals on a recent Thursday, as a crowd sipped Texas beer, ate meatballs rolled from wild boar and snacked on goat cheese made in Texas, too. Some honest-to-God cowboys milled about, complete with felt hats, heavy boots and handshakes firm enough to grind your knuckles. They said they were from out past Richardson and came to the city to see the new honky-tonk they'd heard about, and hopefully dance with some girls. But the crowd at the Rustic, that night and most nights, is a little less Texas and a little more Uptown, all baseball caps and bleached-blonde hair. Oh, and there's no dance floor. The cowboys left before they'd ordered a beer.

For all its Lone Star kitsch, The Rustic is a lot like most of the indoor/outdoor monoliths around Dallas. The main dining room is cavernous, the tables are generous and the seating is comfortable. Huge flat-screens flicker sports 'round the clock and the bar top shines with copper. Outside, strands of light bulbs crisscross the yard like fat, drunken fireflies, casting brand-new picnic tables and fire pits in a dim glow. It looks "country," but it's far from rugged.

The menu, though, offers a few things competing bars do not. Like calf fries, for instance, described vaguely on the menu thusly: "If you have to ask." In case you do, they are breaded and deep-fried calves' testicles. A waiter (also from out past Richardson) wishing to drive the point home offered a detailed description on how the gems are harvested while my table consumed the delicacy, dipping each bulbous orb in tangy buttermilk dressing. Picture something marble-sized, slightly softer than chicken breast, and about as innocuous in flavor. Yippie ki yo.

The testes will certainly get your table talking, but other, better appetizers will shut them up. Like the chorizo fritters filled with house-made sausage and fried to a blistered golden brown. Use the queso hiked up with corn purée if you must, but the pastry is delicious on its own. The deviled eggs come with an ice-cream-scoop-sized dollop of yolk purée and crowned with a small bit of fried chicken skin that you'll wish came crumbled over every dish. Bland cactus fritters wow a little less, as does the smoked catfish dip, which is light on smoke and heavy on cream cheese, but on the whole the opening portion of the menu is a good way to sate your hunger as you work your way through an impressive list of beers from across the state.

The menu is the product of collaboration between former York Street creator Sharon Hage and Matt Balke, who worked at Hage's restaurant and has bounced around local kitchens since its closure. Hage has consulted on other menus around town recently, including the aforementioned Bowl and Barrel and The Lot, but The Rustic's menu, marked by simple and straightforward flavors executed by Balke, is the most likeable yet.

Little quails should be so lucky to end up in Balke's hands. Here they're soaked in a molasses brine before they're perfectly grilled, juicy, subtly sweet and smoky. The birds are also deboned, but not completely, leaving one bone on each leg and each wing, so you can draw and quarter your quail into four perfect bites.

The grilled skirt steak is almost as good, served with grilled onions and tortillas for a dish that bests the fajita renditions at many local Tex-Mex restaurants, as are the shrimp, whose only flaw may be their size. Large may mean large to fishmongers who measure in counts per pound, but your eyes, which are irrationally driven by your pangs of hunger, will classify them as quite small. Not that you should be too bothered.

Keep in mind there is another restaurant, located amongst the dashing scenery that is Greenville Avenue and the Lyndon B. Johnson Freeway, that offers similar dishes cooked over a wood-fired grill for comparable prices. Outback Steakhouse, however, does not source its ingredients within the great state of Texas, or boast a chef who understands the difference between mushrooms sourced by locavore hero Tom Spicer and those paste-white buttons grown on massive commercial farms.

So it's a little more disappointing than normal when a burger arrives cooked to a melancholy gray, or a turkey sandwich arrives bearing chicken, as if neither the cooks nor the diners could tell the difference. Both errors are an easy fix.

Desserts are another letdown. A slice of peanut butter pie eats like an entire jar of peanut butter whipped with a pound of confectioners sugar, and a chocolate silk pie will leave you with an ache deep in your jaw. Stick with the Key lime pie, which is thankfully tart and surprisingly good.

If you live for country music you'll enjoy the bands, but it's a bummer when the garage doors that conceal the stage roll up to reveal a country cover act that's no better than the ones you suffered through your freshman year. It's even more of a drag when they play so loud you'll have to wait till after dinner to talk with the person sitting just across the table from you.

Still, the Rustic is appealing for many as evidenced by the 20 or more drinkers who always huddle around the horseshoe bar. The dining room is packed more often than not, too, with waits for a table creeping past an hour on the weekends. Plan on standing around with a beer while you wait for your spot. Wear your most comfortable boots.

It's easy to think the Texas shtick has been taken too far, but many customers aren't just hanging out, they're mouthing words along with the band, moving in their seats to the music while wiping deviled egg from their lips, lack of dance floor be damned. Faux country or not, when the kitchen nails it, the food is undeniably good. And while The Rustic may not appeal to the real cowboys, the locals are buying in, all the way down to the last calf's testicle.

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The Rustic's chorizo empanadas.
Catherine Downes
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The Rustic

3656 Howell St.
Dallas, TX 75204


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