There's a virus infecting Deep Ellum. Not the mosquito-borne kind--this is a restaurant virus, one of temperance, sobriety and restraint.
Symptoms range, but they all generate the same basic characteristics: dull names; utilitarian menus; simple furnishings; lousy ambience; street fronts inhospitable to lines of cars from Stuttgart and Bavaria; resourceful use of rubbish; and food that has extended hang time. Hang-time food is food that doesn't dazzle, doesn't bowl you over with exotica, doesn't titillate at first blush only to leave you deadened halfway through the meal. Hang-time food arrives, embraces you, relaxes you with its balance while it softly compels with its freshness and stays this course until the last. Hang-time food just is.
The first viral victim was Local: dull name; menus fastened to plastic with rubber bands; brisk but ultimately bad design for framing faces and couture; a parking lot; a menu with easy-to-pronounce words like "fried chicken"; and a discarded billboard employed as a visual focal point.
Now there's Standard 2706.
When I hear the word "standard" I think of stripped-down Corollas ("cloth seats standard") or pre-installed software with all of the digital plumage clipped. But mostly I think of public toilets and the reassurance provided during times of stress by the American Standard logo stamped on white porcelain. Though technically the word standard denotes benchmarks, for me it is a word of minimums and pragmatism.
But here it is in restaurant form: dull name; dull paper menus; a handmade bar of oak planks scorched with a crème brûlée torch; a bar top of tempered glass shielding sheets of corrugated metal intentionally rusted with battery acid and bleach; and drinking water dispensed from recycled wine bottles.
And it has hang-time food. Stick a spoon in the watercress and asparagus soup, and you'll see what I mean. It isn't a pestered ooze with ornamental this and exotic that. The only conspicuous frill is a dollop of crème fraîche in the center of the bowl. It's just a simple fluid. And all you taste is racy wildness, blunted ever so slightly. Asparagus pungency coils around watercress bitterness, not for the purpose of clever flavor foiling--a little game chefs play and diners marvel at--but to explore the reaches these greens occupy on the flavor spectrum, the complexion of their irascible bites, merging and broadening them into fuller clarity.
Hang or not, the shrimp pancake sounded thoroughly unappealing. I imagined a fluffy buttermilk potholder embedded with krill blowing little gusts of bait-shop fume. So I locked my eyes on a pocket of relative safety: the ubiquitous tomato salad, justifying my selection by the fact that the chef had ingeniously subbed red onions and/or buffalo/Dallas mozzarella with radish.
Our server pressed the pancake.
It didn't look a thing like a flapjack. It was a collage of silos. A long ginger-scallion crepe log was severed into fourths, two sections rising from the center of the rectangular plate like runty barrels; the other two were supine and butted up against the erect pair on either side. Greens crowned the flattops. Pale pink balls of salmon roe spilled over the sides and into a puddle of champagne cream sauce. The rolls were stuffed with shrimp, leeks, shiitake mushrooms, garlic and ginger. It wasn't hard to forget a few tomato slices pestered with roots after this pancake.
But how's this for hard-boiled understatement--braised beef short ribs? While these menu words might stir a thirst for beer, the dish's appearance is cosmopolitan. It looks like a slightly rippled black lacquer cube nuzzled next to a green boa (fluffy leaves). Braised rib meat is stripped from the bones, shaped into a cube and then seared, the now useless bones embedded at the bottom of the piece of geometry, which rested in a puddle of cabernet demi-glace. The meat is rich and tender on the inside, crisp and potently flavored on the outside, hitting the palate in sharp, concentrated bursts. A gray whip of white-bean purée, restive with smoky flavors, peeked out from under a sprawling toss of lightly dressed vegetation. And even with all of this, beer would still work. (Instead we had a pinot noir called E.I.E.I.O. from an Oregon farmer named McDonald.)
Standard is the work of Tim Byres, a New York City refugee who was given asylum by Dallas-based Triple R Group, the firm that developed Tom Tom Noodle House and Nikita. But after developing menus for these venues, Byres found Triple R's culture a little too blunting. "For a creative person, you kind of get locked in the box," he says.
So along with his wife, Brianne, Byres teamed up with former Nikita sous chef Carl Strelecki to launch Standard in the former Deep Ellum Café space on Elm Street.
Like Local, Standard is a bootstrap project that bubbled up from the Deep Ellum pavement. It was cooked with savings and family investment, and the three partners built out the heavily deteriorated space themselves, swinging hammers, smashing walls, tacking up wallboard. "We're not going to try to go out there and be this pompous image thing that you see a lot of in Dallas," Byres says. "We're just going to try to go out there and set our own standard and stay with it." The classic hang-time agenda.
Yet sometimes the hang comes with winces, tiny though they may be. Seared red snapper is a firm, delicate piece of fish, steeping in a broth of seafood stock, sherry vinegar, sweetened black vinegar, plum wine, mussels, tomatoes and bok choy. The bok choy was surprisingly relegated to the background, diced instead of flashing its conspicuously leafy presence. But the broth was a little shrill and too volatile for the snapper's mild exotic flavors.
Almost flaunting their pragmatism, the Standard founders installed a Sunday brunch menu riddled with breakfast standards: eggs, omelettes, Benedicts, bacon, sausage, pancakes. But it twists them. A fluffy three-egg omelette freckled with creamy goat cheese, ham, tomato, scallions and shiitake mushroom slivers is nuzzled next to a spread of greens misted with dressing perked with ginger and daikon radish, giving this diner standard an Asian breath.
Eggs Florentine was spectacular: singed muffin, hot poached egg and spinach leaves drooling a crisp--not sharp--hot hollandaise.
But what really nailed the senses was the tamarind grilled salmon blistering in a puddle of crisp cucumber, avocado and tomato relish. Salmon is rich and can stand up to a lot of tampering, especially the busy sort that yanks from several directions at once, exposing and heightening the deep flavor spectrum locked in the flakes of meat. Byres treats the fish with a tamarind barbecue sauce and then launches a campaign to tame its pungency, deploying sweet soy and caramelized sugar followed by red pepper flakes for balance. The effect is dazzling, even for a Standard.
Standard is one of those rare spots that seems to have intuitively absorbed Dallas' current nervous temperament and determined the last thing this town needs is another shallow glitter stimulant. So it provided an honest slice of tranquility that skirts dismal self-aware poses with unconsciously brilliant touches of quirk, like a bar finished with a crème brûlée and short ribs sculpted in the shape of a jewel box. That it arose among the current Deep Ellum turbulence is probably no accident. That it bypasses or exceeds traditional restaurant standards is probably more the result of playful resourcefulness than some conscious force of will.
2706 Elm St. Open for dinner 6 p.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Open for brunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday $$.
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