Stephan Pyles' Flora Street Cafe Is a Visual Marvel, but the Flavors Just Aren't There
One of Flora Street Cafe's most popular menu items right now: a modern take on lobster tamale "pie" with wild paddlefish caviar set atop ancho chile glass.
In an interview with the musician Questlove, Chicago chef Dave Beran talks about the perils of creating a signature “hit” dish. “That can put a halt to your progress,” he explains. “When you have that hit, you don’t want to stop doing it.”
Earlier this year, chef and Dallas icon Stephan Pyles stopped doing the hits.
After more than a decade at his self-titled restaurant, serving his famous standards — tamale tart, cowboy rib-eye, heaven and hell cake — Pyles banished them to his second restaurant, Stampede 66, and started anew at Flora Street Café. His goal now is to cook more formally daring food, challenging Dallas taste buds and avoiding the greatest hits.
The result is a daredevil modernist restaurant of a kind Dallas lacked. Techniques are intricate and frequently high-tech. Plates are so beautifully presented that I spotted a cook snapping cell phone pictures of food before it left the kitchen. Most dishes have five or six components, all demanding analysis. Nothing at Flora Street is suited to chowing down or satisfying a craving. Pyles, who spends most dining hours chatting at the tables of regulars and friends, trusts his kitchen to ambitious youngsters.
The results could be better.
Dining at Flora Street is an odd experience, and not just because the kitchen is so daring. The starters feature playful, even fun dishes. Then the main courses arrive, dull and ordinary, with the kitchen’s endless array of techniques no longer apparent.
The smoked marlin ($18) was one of several starters that tasted as beautiful as they looked.
So by all means double down on starters, like a classical dry-aged Akaushi beef tartare ($19), one of the best in the city, with thin-sliced onion and peppers, capers and duck egg, or the scallops ($26), fresh and accented with chipotle dust and varied preparations of pineapple. Unexpectedly spicy garnishes are a fixture of the Flora Street experience, like dots of high-powered orange aioli around a crab deviled and returned to its shell ($24) or spiced “popcorn” on the excellent smoked marlin, which comes in a bowl shaped like a big ladle ($18).
Another trend is sly jokes and foods in disguise. The “avocado wedge” under the deviled crab is fluffy avocado flan. Alongside perfectly cooked squab confit in a Hill Country-style sweet-spicy sauce, Flora Street serves a prank stalk of “white asparagus”: apricot panna cotta poured into an asparagus-shaped mold ($26). Crack a thin “ancho glass” to find lobster tamale pie ($28), the only starter that can be enjoyed without memorizing a list of ingredients.
The main courses also use cutting-edge modernist techniques, so why do the results taste so prosaic? Two pheasant breasts are bundled together porchetta-style and cooked sous vide for a day, and the result mostly just tastes like pheasant ($42). The skins — crisped up into airy chips — are more fun, as is the spicy blackberry sauce. Many of the red meats are lacking in sear, smoke and seasoning. Lamb loin arrives red-rare next to slow-cooked lamb belly ($38); the belly pulls apart like a tiny accordion of meaty morsels, but the loin is curiously chewy.
Texas-raised antelope is a high-dollar draw ($65), but, to impress, the meat must be dipped in a little mound of dehydrated mole spices. The antelope is also served with a cup of tea, for some reason. Our waiter said that the grouper’s “white mole” sauce has two dozen spices, but the mild, inoffensive result was another Clark Kent after the appetizers wore capes ($48).
South Texas antelope, with huitlacoche empanada, roasted chanterelles and pickled peach, $65.
The best parts of the main courses are the sides, like a fish chorizo tamale under the grouper or grilled pickled peaches with the antelope. But so are the worst parts, like absurdly salty eggplant purée infecting otherwise mild-mannered roasted pork loin ($36), or the same plate’s scorchingly acidic tomato jam. The “Akaushi wagyu rib-eye” ($52), which tragically is served with not one bite of fat, features the two worst things I have eaten, anywhere, in three months as the Observer’s restaurant critic: a chunk of sweet, smokeless brisket that evokes my college cafeteria and a bone marrow custard so salty that my teeth crunched on salt pellets. Dazzling technique, but they could have just served an open saltshaker with a spoon.
At dessert, a plate of cassis parfait, hibiscus sorbet and a sable cookie arrives looking like a sleek modernist office building of red fruit confection ($14), and the chocolate mousse ($12) is a delight, with a salty-sweet play in the kettle corn and Parmesan garnish. On the other hand, “The Last Impression,” a cocktail mixing aged rum and vanilla bean sorbet, mostly smells and tastes like strong booze ($12). My first visit’s bill arrived with a freebie: the worst macaron I’ve ever tasted, as crunchy as an Oreo. On the second visit, the macaron was moist but clumpy, like a falafel cookie.
Service can be thrilling, until it’s not. Waiters are trained to place, and remove, the whole table’s plates simultaneously. They explain the menu with ease. A dessert was split in the kitchen free of charge; we didn’t even ask. Stephan Pyles chats at every table, though he clearly favors old friends, spending all of 10 seconds welcoming my party.
Sommelier Madeleine Thompson is Flora Street’s MVP, providing expert guidance for the massive wine list and welcoming frank conversation about the table’s preferences. It’s easy to drink well just sticking to the excellent page listing her favorites.
But not all is well. On one visit, Thompson helped us start with an herby, refreshing Austrian rosé, then asked what we’d drink with our mains. Our answer: “We haven’t even seen a menu.” That menu took 15 minutes to arrive, and the bread arrived exactly 35 minutes after the butter. During my other visit, bread followed butter by merely 28 minutes.
Flora Street’s atmosphere mostly inspires distraction. Mozart’s Requiem, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Pavarotti arias and, yes, Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” jostle on the playlist, an apparent homage to Pyles' Routh Street Cafe, which opened in the ’80s. The stunning silk wall hanging by artist Tim Harding will be famous citywide. Near the entry, a fluffy silk chandelier pops out of the ceiling, descends, and then zooms back up out of sight again. It looks a bit like a coral reef creature from Finding Nemo. Our table asked one waiter if the light fixture’s constant movement drove him crazy; the waiter grinned and walked away without saying a word.
A stunning silk piece by Tim Harding serves as a dynamic backdrop to a meal at Flora Street Cafe.
Flora Street is wrong for date night, or for a quick bite before the opera, because meals unfold at a glacial pace and are mentally exhausting. Dining here is not possible for vegetarians, who can currently eat literally no menu items, and eaters who dislike spicy food should alert a waiter during the half-hour wait for bread.
Also, there’s the cost. Despite the word “café,” this is 1-percenter territory. Flora Street features no main course under $35 and no starter under $18. Small Brewpub is a casual restaurant with similar boldness and, frankly, vastly better food.
In Flora Street’s defense, comfort foods are trendy, and envelope-pushing is not. Most chefs in town are opening fried chicken and burger joints, so for Pyles, chef de cuisine Peter Barlow and their team, Flora Street Café is a big risk. For Dallas’ culinary scene, the restaurant adds diversity and innovation. If Flora Street inspires other chefs to be daring or go a little crazy, that’s a great thing.
Pyles and his crew deserve credit for zagging when everyone else zigs. The problem is that their restaurant is not yet a good champion of the philosophy it espouses. There are hits here, like the avocado flan, prank asparagus and after-dinner box of Dude, Sweet Chocolate. But too often, and with each main course, the process used to make the food is more interesting than the food itself.
Flora Street Café has the talent and ambition to be a culinary emperor. Now it needs to put on some clothes.
Flora Street Café, 2330 Flora St. #150. 214-580-7000, florastreet.com. Monday through Saturday open 5:30 p.m., last reservation seating 10 p.m.
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