John Tesar's Knife Is More Than Another Dallas Steakhouse
Until recently, the recipe for a steakhouse hasn't been much more complicated than the recipe for perfectly cooked steak. Fill a sizable dining room with leather booths and a sharp-looking staff, put some dry-aged rib roasts on display in a meat locker and wait for the Bentleys to come test out the valet. So long as the steaks are worth sawing through, the steakhouse house recipe has proved a reasonably lucrative one here in Dallas, drawing high-profile customers and big-ticket prices by serving up a little bit of something for everyone with enough money to enjoy it. If you're brokering an important business deal, do it at a steakhouse after your partner has had a few martinis. If you're celebrating an anniversary, a steakhouse will wrap you and your loved one in an evening of beefy luxury. Looking for a big meal before the bachelor party? Take your bros out for cocktails and strip steaks in a dimly lit meat den.
Opening a steakhouse in Dallas, in other words, seems like a safe bet, as far as the restaurant business goes. It just doesn't do much to make the local dining scene more interesting for diners. So when John Tesar, the chef behind the much-lauded seafood restaurant Spoon, announced he would be the next to tackle high-end steaks, the news seemed less than revelatory. The Hotel Palomar's restaurant Central 214 had closed after the tenures of two high-profile chefs, Blythe Beck and Graham Dodds, failed to draw sufficient business. Beck focused on decadent Southern cuisine, while Dodds continued to embrace the tenants of locavorism and seasonality he popularized during his time at Bolsa, so stepping in with a steakhouse felt a little bit like giving up. Why not try Tex-Mex instead?
But upon walking through the doors of Tesar's Knife, you soon realize you're not in another chophouse. Yes, there's the requisite meat locker filled with cow parts in varying states of decay, but here they look just a little more gruesome and grisly. Sure, there's the scarlet-headed hostess with an alluring smile at the front stand, but this one hides flashes of colorful ink beneath her sleeves. The staff may still coo while sumptuously spooning macaroni and cheese from a cast iron skillet onto each guest's plate, and you can easily spend $60 or more on a massive hunk of dry-aged meat, but Knife has a softer, more casual side that's reflected all the way down to the plates.
There is, for instance, bacon — more bacon than you've ever seen at a steakhouse. The bacon tasting lays out five gnarled strips of porcine pleasure, from applewood-smoked Nueske's that tastes a lot like the breakfast bacon you're used to, to a gritty strip of Benton's that tastes like a pig did a belly flop into a Jacuzzi-sized ashtray. All this bacon is presented on a bacon board with bacon jam that's sweet with onions for spreadable bacon flavor that you can add to your bacon strips at will.
There's bacon-crusted bone marrow, too, though the dish is actually a little less bacony than it sounds. A short canoe of marrowbone is dusted with bacon-infused breadcrumbs that conceal the custardy marrow beneath, while lobes of uni drape over the top adding even more richness. It's beautiful to look at and eats sinfully, but it's a little hard to navigate so many soft and slippery textures without a slice of bread or two for scooping.
Counter to the steakhouse trend, there's value to be had at Knife, in five steaks designated as "new school" on the menu. They cost $25 each. Try the culotte, which comes from the sirloin cap and yields a tender and lean steak experience, or the tri tip if you want to wrestle with a tougher, fattier and more flavorful cut. The chuck flap lands like a brick, is excellent for sharing and eats with burgery, beefy flavors; the flat iron is smaller with a more pronounced gaminess. Each of these steaks is even better with a slice from the roasted shallot that's served on the side and while none, including the sirloin clod, yields the deeply satisfying, lusty experience you'll get when sawing into a more luxurious steak like a T-bone, they make for an interesting experience. They're also a lot easier to explain to the accounting department at the office.
Even the most clichéd steakhouse classics get a twist here, like the wedge salad, which is not a wedge at all but a hemisphere. Half a head of iceberg will yield all the cellulose and creamy, funky dressing you need to bore yourself for 20 minutes if you find romance in old classics. Try the garden salad instead and receive what might have been plucked from the soil moments before it was plated. Lightly dressed butter lettuce leaves and herbs join carrots and radishes that taste like they're still growing while you eat them.
There's not much seafood on the menu, but the arctic char served as a special recently was good enough to assure those that ordered it they missed nothing by neglecting the steak. Crisp skin yielded to glossy, rose-colored flesh perched in a creamy pea puree with extra peas and a tangle of pea shoots on top. It's a deeply satisfying presentation that will have you checking your phone under the table for reservations at Spoon.
Later this fall, when those zombie steaks on display have finished resting for more than 240 days, the funky scent of aggressively aged meat will waft through the dining room, adding another layer of exclusivity to the dining experience at Knife. Dry-aged meat is as common as creamed spinach at steakhouses, but Tesar is pushing the process to near petrification to produce steaks that have yet to be tasted in Dallas. The coming bounty from his high-tech meat locker, combined with more affordable "new age" cuts, a selection of burgers and other affordable menu items, deliver a steakhouse experience that refreshingly doesn't feel much like a steakhouse experience.
Kitchen slips can sully your experience — steaks were cooked inconsistently at times, and a pea shoot salad arrived with greens the color of hay during one of my visits — but Knife comes off as an exceedingly likable restaurant. Consider it the quirky non-steakhouse for all, whether you left your Bimmer out front or took the bus to get there.
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