Dallas needed a restaurant like Boulevardier. The casual Oak Cliff bistro named for a classic cocktail comprising bourbon, Campari and sweet vermouth promised to hit a sweet spot. For too long, French cuisine here was reserved for upper-crust patrons who think nothing about dropping a Benjamin or three on a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape at the French Room or spending a day's living wage on a seven-course tasting marathon at Bijoux.
Budget-conscious Francophiles used to be relegated all the way down to the likes of La Madeleine's plastic trays and oaky chardonnays. Sure, Toulouse offered something in between, but French food viewed through that lens was blurred at best, and a single restaurant on the fringes of Highland Park was hardly enough to sate a city's desire for escargot, steak frites and pâté.
Boulevardier promised the perfect compromise: a rustic menu based on elevated ingredients in a casual, come-as-you-are dining room.
408 N. Bishop Ave. No. 108, 214-942-1828, dallasboulevardier.com. 4:30-10 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday; 4:30-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. $$$$
Crawfish beignets $10
Charcuterie sampler $22
Grilled quail $14
The waitstaff, clad in familiar flannel, would look right at home on a Brooklyn-bound F train, but those iPods they're holding aren't for iTunes. Here a flick of the finger beams an order back to the bustling kitchen, calculates wait times and adjusts an ambient jazz track to a subtle backdrop as the dining room roars on a Friday night.
Exposed brick and open wine racks greet as you walk into a bar area anchored by a thick concrete bar top and filled with Dallas' who's who — the same crowd that filled Driftwood before they filled Acme F&B — young, sharp and always on the lookout for Dallas' next best plate.
They've come to dine on light, fluffy crawfish beignets and well-shucked oysters from northern waters offered at a fair $2.50 apiece. The cocktail sauce, mignonette and freshly grated horseradish are all fine finishing touches, but with oysters as clean and briny as these you'll need only a restrained squeeze of acid from the sunny lemons that share space on the bed of ice.
Other snacks are just as good.
Every trendy restaurant must offer charcuterie, and Boulevadier is no different. A small bamboo board serves as a fine stage for traditional preparations like a smooth country pork pâté and smoked pork rillettes. If asked if you'd like to try the torchon of foie gras, you must answer yes. The lightly cooked duck liver melts on the tongue like a smooth, creamy gelato, leaving nothing behind but the desire for more.
Chef Nathan Tate's more elaborately cured presentations are just as delicious, but at times overwrought. Gravlax made from salmon from the Bay of Fundy are delicious and nicely complemented by a celery root remoulade, but pickled mustard seeds (read: whole-grain mustard) and a dill crème fraîche render the fish lost at sea. The beef pastrami is similarly overwhelmed by a juniper-riesling sauerkraut and Russian dressing that round out a nice riff on the classic Reuben, but the condiments seem to hide the fact that customers are eating tongue. And a deliciously cured one.
Other plates impress even more.
The grilled Lockhart quail is a masterpiece. Tate's kitchen arsenal includes a wood-fired, open grill that leaves the faintest hint of smoldering embers in the young bird's skin. Additions of field-pea succotash with fresh watermelon for sweet, pickled watermelon rind for tart and local feta cheese for savory make for a perfectly executed and well-rounded plate.
A high-priced burger also is necessary for every trendy restaurant, and Tate puts together a specimen packing more flavor than any burger should. The same grill lends subtle smoke to beef cooked ruby red when desired, and house-cured bacon provides a salty counterpoint to onions cooked down into sweet jam. If that's not enough, Gruyère and Tate's own pickles round out a burger that delivers bovine nirvana for $14.
On the other end of the price spectrum is the bouillabaisse ($28) packed with baby octopus, mussels, shrimp and fish, all tinged a dusky sunset with saffron. You'll wish there was more broth at the bottom of the very shallow bowl. It's gone much too quickly.
There are signs of Tate's youth in his cooking, though, which lacks subtlety and is heavy-handed at times. Look to the French onion soup as evidence and find a base simmered down so far it borders overwhelming. The staff may brag about a two-day cooking process, but in a soup that's reduced till it resembles a demi glace, it seems that one day might have been enough.
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The escargot tartine is bound in another sauce cooked till it's thick and black as ink. Best of luck tasting earthy snails or trumpet mushrooms as they swim in the reduction, even though a dressing of fine herbs and crisp radish do their best to wake up the plate.
The braised lamb daube is similarly excessive, presenting the entire lamb's neck, served whole and looking like a gorilla's fist of fatty flesh wrapped around a neck bone. Carrots and a gremolata round out the tower of meat that's completely overwhelming for a solo diner. The plate could easily serve three hungry humans — or one panther.
The chicken is the biggest disappointment, especially in a French bistro demonstrating the caliber of cooking offered in other dishes. Tate employs a sous-vide process that renders the thigh cooked perfectly, the breast overdone and the skin as soft as water-logged bread despite some time on his favorite grill. A garnish of deep-fried chicken skin attempts to correct the flaw but comes off as a childish cover-up.
Despite items that could use some tweaking, Boulevardier is as charming a restaurant as you would expect from Randall Copeland and Nathan Tate, who have been cooking at Ava in Rockwall since it opened in 2009. They joined brothers Brooks and Bradley Anderson, who have run the Veritas wine bar on Henderson Avenue and brought their oenophilia along for the ride. Their combined efforts give Oak Cliff and all of Dallas something new and interesting, but they charge a steep price for admission. If they can hone their execution, the diners who have come to pack their dining room might just stay for a long time.