On Travis Street, The Establishment Is Blowing Up the Blah
Lamb with wild onions: good but busy.
There are two or three blocks along Travis Street, south of Henderson Avenue, that have long been a sort of culinary safe zone, the restaurant equivalent of those houses in the neighborhood where you knew you could seek refuge if the ice cream man got weird. Fernando's Mexican Cuisine will ply you with chips and salsa before you order your enchilada plate, and Little Katana Sushi will sell you sushi rolls until you pop. Ziziki's takes a stab at Greek, but they don't even bake their own bread, and Café Madrid eats like the restaurant your grandmother would have fallen for in the 1980s after her trip to Spain.
So it was hard to expect anything other than a burger restaurant to open in the old Trece spot, an upscale Mexican restaurant and tequila bar that closed in 2011. A Chipotle might have moved in and saved the space from dormancy if the street had a little more traffic. Or maybe a dry, corporate take on Italian American food.
But there is nothing pedestrian about the restaurant Brian Williams opened earlier this spring — not the sleek and industrial dining room and not the urbane dishes that often make use of chefy ingredients like ramps and foams and guanciale. The Establishment, which operates in tandem with popular cocktail lounge Smyth, is instead one of the most interesting restaurants to open in the Dallas area in some time.
Expectations rise as soon as you walk through the door. Graying, rough-finished wood covers the floors, walls and ceilings, forming a monochrome palette for dark brown tables, one of which runs the width of the dining room. An apothecary of liquor bottles illuminated from below casts gold and amber lights on the brick wall behind the bar, and a metal screen of wine bottles cuts the kitchen off from the dining room with bottles in dark cherry, burgundy and honey. The only weak point is the dimly lit oyster bar backed by a gloomy fridge filled with hanging charcuterie. But in general the dining room is a real looker.
The space brightens considerably when a plate of scallop sashimi lands on your table. The thinly sliced shellfish fans out on a plate like petals on a daisy, and they swim in aged soy sauce and sweet sesame oil. Matchsticks of ginger spark heat, and paper-thin garlic slices lend pungency, but not too much. If you're wondering why you detect a faint trace of broccoli in the back of your nose, that dusting of forest green is tiny florets of rapini.
Artichokes are bright with acid and topped with threadlike strands of crispy pig's ear with parsley and tarragon leaves strewn about, and paper-thin disks of radish. A jiggling egg perches nearby on a thin slice of brioche, its yolk waiting to bring it all together in one golden-yellow bite.
And if there were any doubt it's spring, look to lamb and wild spring onions — sirloin and ramps in foams and a pesto and pulled into strands and fried so they stand up from the plate like bitter fans of sea coral. If that's not enough, turnips share the plate, and then, because so many things on the menu include them as well, pistachios do too. That's a lot of components for one dish, and while none of the flavors collide, a few seem tangled up and lost. Dining can get confusing here. It's a bit like eating algebra.
Professor Brent Hammer is in charge of what at times can seem like complicated cooking. After putting time in at several Dallas kitchens, including Hibiscus and Whiskey Cake, he came to The Establishment to build on the momentum of Smyth, a cocktail lounge that has turned Dallas' drinking culture on its head, earning national recognition for the ultimate in cocktail snobbery. The food at The Establishment won't have the same reach as it's served now, but there are glimmers of hope that it could, and it's already left the rest of the neighborhood looking stale in the process.
You don't see duck wings on many Dallas menus, on Travis Street or otherwise. Hammer cleaves the knuckle from one end of a drummet and braises the meat to submission. It's tender, pulls from the bone easily and tastes of spice and vinegar. They'd be even better if that flaccid skin would crisp up a touch and provide some texture.
And while strawberries are nothing new, this presentation with stracciatella is. The soft cheese is painted on a wooden board and topped with the ruby fruit, red beets and Marcona almonds that add crunch.
If only every plate could be as perfect as the seared halibut, served with spring peas, pea shoots and tendrils, all of it awakened by the mild bite of Calabrian chile. The fish still had its glossy sheen when I pulled it apart with my fork, which is more than I can see for the coulette of beef (top sirloin) that was requested medium rare but showed up approaching well done. The fiddlehead ferns, turnips and caramelized onions made for a memorable presentation, but the dry beef was forgettable.
That lamb sirloin could have been removed from the heat a touch sooner, as could that jiggling egg whose yolk was close to set. Hammer's kitchen tends to cook with a heavy hand.
That charcuterie that's hanging in the morgue is another sticking point. Rendered into a pasta sauce, guanciale eats like the king of bacons, but while it's safe to do, it's not all that common to see guanciale served uncooked, probably because the experience shares a lot in common with eating raw bacon. The lardo on a charcuterie board was a little unsettling too, cut so thick you had to chew it a little, when you'd rather it melt away on your tongue like a pleasant memory.
Desserts, including a banana pudding filled with Nilla wafers in a jar, come off clunky, which is a shame because you want a meal that started off with a quenelle of smoked trout rillettes and perfectly shucked oysters to end with just as much fanfare.
Somehow, the missteps and execution errors come off as potential improvements instead of a list of disappointments. Hammer has a rough-cut gem in the ornate dining experience he's crafted for The Establishment. There's an appreciation for quality ingredients and a sense of adventure that's taking shape here, and it's in stark contrast to the surrounding restaurants. It's time to polish the stone.
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