San Salvaje Serves up Dinner and a Show
If you get close, it turns its head and sings “No Woman, No Cry.”
I've been served whole fish at plenty of restaurants, but I've never had one land on my table like the red snapper that greeted me at San Salvaje recently. Picture a sizable fish cut from belly to back with the head and tail still attached. The spine is removed and the whole fish is fried, splayed open like a fish-shaped boat. It's plated standing up, as if it might swim away if it still had the faculty, and it's stuffed with a handful of deep-fried, pickled green beans that stand outward in all directions. The beans look like dreadlocks and if Toots and the Maytals were playing on the sound system the fish could be mistaken for a Rastafarian, right down to the chunky mango habanero mojo on the plate that evokes sunny island flavors, but don't think that Stephan Pyles' latest restaurant will leave you trapped in the Caribbean. The menu offers tacos that hint at Mexico, while arepas nod to Argentina and a causa limeña (a potato terrine) pays homage to Peru. The wine list is exclusively South American, and out on the patio salsa music inspires some seductive dancing.
If Pyles accomplishes anything with his most recent restaurants, he envelops his diners in a convincing environment. Walk off the streets of Dallas and into Stampede 66, which he opened in 2012, and you enter the same city you just left with the volume turned up to 10. Bright, colored lights shift through a multi-hued spectrum, recalling some of the city's Vegas-esque luminescence, cattle skulls hang on the walls tipping a hat to rural Texas and a giant snake sculpture in the center of the dining room borders on psychedelic. It's Texas, as Texas might be realized in Disneyland — Alice in Wonderland edition.
Walking through the black and orange door at San Salvaje is just as persuasive, as if walking onto the set of a play. Crosses and skulls hang on a wall near the bar and a painting that looks like an abstract comic strip smacks of real art. Colorful pillows of ceramic pop from the dull gray walls and the hues are echoed in tables of purple and orange.
The food is just as colorful. Look for the causa limeña, which features a yellow potato purée that resembles yellow marshmallow Peeps gone haywire. Shaped by a ring mold, they conceal a softly cooked quail egg, and form the base for expertly poached shrimp swimming in a chile-spiked mayonnaise.
The llapingachos makes use of more potatoes, this time puréed with eggs and cheese. The cakes are lightly sautéed, for a thin, crisp crust, and topped with a quail egg with a custardy texture that gushes gold yolk when you poke it.
Ceviches are a prominent menu item at Pyles' first eponymous restaurant, and you'll find them here as well, but the presentations seem more rustic, more approachable and ultimately more delicious. The mixto negro perches octopus, scallops and shrimp tossed in lime and dark squid ink on a bed of bright-orange sweet potato purée, while a ceviche of yellowfin tuna makes use of a young coconut as a bowl filled with cubes of ruby-colored fish accented with citrusy kaffir.
There are also a few tiraditos, which also make use of raw fish, this time presented in a thick, spicy sauce. The salmon version presents thin strips of fish that riff on the classic Veracruz-style seafood dish, the requisite olives found in a purée to the side.
For more theatrics, sit at the ceviche bar whether you're ordering the acidulated fish or not. The open kitchen seating echoes Pyles' previous restaurant Samar, which closed at the same address last year when the property's management decided to renovate the lobby. Gone are Samar's spice belt flavors and fiery tandoor oven, but the seating with a view remains. Watch as executive chef Alex Astranti, who previously worked at Stampede 66, and his team fiddle with squeeze-bottle sauces and last-second garnishes of micro cilantro. You might even see Pyles himself, standing at the pass in the glow of the heat lamps, going over recent menu changes with his team. Afterwards he'll make his rounds through the dining room, touching shoulders and cooing over diners.
There is beef on the menu in an updated ropa vieja, and there is chicken in the form of casuela de pollo or rich chicken stew, but the most excitement at San Salvaje seems to come from the sea. In the sea bass escabèche, a sizable hunk of fish is perfectly seared and perched on Lincoln Logs of duck-fat-fried potatoes. Above the fish, vegetables kissed with vinegar, and below a spicy aioli plays the perfect foil.
Desserts are just as showy. Don't miss the lucuma suspiro, a slightly fruity custard topped with a passion fruit merengue. It's served with a fried cookie that's curled up like a watch spring. Tres leches cake seems underwhelming at first, but jumps to life with a bite of vibrant strawberry sorbet, and picarones, doughnuts made from roasted sweet potatoes, are excellent, though the ice cream accompanying my order arrived nearly melted.
It's common for kitchens that pull from so many culinary regions to make missteps, but somehow San Salvaje feels like it's running like a well-oiled restaurant. Errors are by far the exception and they're hard to focus on too intently because the menu is so damn interesting.
Stampede 66 is a fine enough place to dine but it's so over-the-top and so literal a single visit can leave you feeling sated forever. With San Salvaje Pyles creates some real mystery, with a dining room that seems like it's set for an event, and a menu that unfurls in layers, begging for exploration. The results are a restaurant that leaves you wanting more as you walk out through the orange and black wood-grain door that started your adventure. There's a high degree of likelihood you'll be coming back.
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