Cute, isn't it, how chefs-turned-restaurateurs name their joints now? They slap plain and unpretentious words on the marquee to fool you into thinking they're selling uncomplicated grub at a good price. The Commissary and its reservations-only fancy eatin' room, The Table, are like that. Chef John Tesar, formerly of The Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, opened his downtown burger bar earlier this spring, with service at The Table, his fine-dining restaurant-inside-the-restaurant, starting just a few weeks ago.
One Arts Plaza, the same complex that houses Screen Door, Tei-An and Jorge's, needed something like The Commissary, which fills the niche for reasonably priced, though not cheap, pre- and post-show meals for theatergoers going to the Wyly, Winspear or Meyerson just a block away. The Commissary already has hosted cast parties for the actors at Dallas Theater Center and for some of the Broadway tours that have played at the opera house. It's a wide-shouldered space good for such gatherings, with high ceilings over dark-wood tables and leather banquettes.
We who frequent the rialto of the Arts District have yearned for a spot like Broadway's Joe Allen restaurant/bar, a place to drop into for a grab-and-gab after a show. The Commissary has possibilities of becoming a regular late-night hangout, if only they could get their act together over there. Performance isn't their only problem at the moment, but it's a big one.
The Commissary model style� $8 Cookie and ice cream $6 Six-course chef�s table meal (for one, without wine pairing) $75
At lunch we find the kitchen staff and servers still in dress rehearsal mode, muffing entrances and exits, stumbling all over their delivery and offering lame excuses. Things are more polished during a three-hour dinner in the separate, glassed-in rectangle called The Table, where Tesar offers a four-, six- or 12-course meal (with optional wine pairings) in a communal, one-seating-a-night casual setting. Yes, that's a much better production for the higher-priced ticket. (Call Tesar directly, 469-600-4660, to make a reservation for The Table, which seats only a dozen diners per evening.)
The Commissary's menu is burger-focused, all made, you're assured by the small print, with grass-fed natural beef that hasn't been shot up with drugs or hormones. The burgers come in 6- or 8-ounce sizes on egg buns, sesame seed buns, brioche or toasted English muffins. Prices are in the $6 to $10 range. "The Farmer" looks to be the biggest indulgence on the list: a big burger topped with a fried duck egg and speck (fatty bacon) on a brioche bun with Échiré butter and white Vermont cheddar. Saving that for a day when our cholesterol isn't in the red zone, we share a simpler "West Coast"—meat, lettuce, tomato, avocado, Jack cheese—served "super model style" (bunless and with a look of world-weary ennui). It's good, if not legendary, more Agyness Deyn than Naomi Campbell.
Everything else at lunch lays an egg, starting with the deviled eggs with caviar appetizer that doesn't arrive before our entrées do. We inquire. "They're frazzled in the kitchen today," says our frazzled server. Three tiny half eggs appear at last, bedeviled by a lack of caviar. "I've asked the kitchen," the server says. "Today it's cavi-aren't," says my dining pal. After another 15 minutes pass, we go ahead and eat the eggs, noting that they're not as good as our favorites at Café R&D. The server delivers a teeny dollop of shiny black fish eggs as we're finishing them. What do we do with the caviar now? "Oh! I'll bring you some fresh raisin bread," the server says. That does sound good. She returns 20 minutes later with four stale sesame crackers on a saucer. Promises, promises.
Act two, the shaved artichoke and fennel heart salad is as tasteless and pale as a bowl of wet paper. An order of avocado fries remains backstage until we ask, twice, when it might make an appearance. A pewter cup of shoestring-style "skinny fries" hits the table cold. We'd like lemon tart for dessert. Frazzled server tiptoes back to announce that there is no lemon tart. We get a chocolate chip cookie, as ordinary as the baggied ones at 7-Eleven, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream that isn't "done" yet. It's greasy and ribboned with granulated sugar.
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A Saturday night at The Table, seated with eight chatty strangers, has fewer disappointments and much less drama, though it's not without its letdowns too. We lean toward the six seafood items on the 12-dish menu and don't pop for the wine pairings, which would push us over our budget. (Beverage-wise, the "hibiscus tea" here is merely ice water over which someone has lightly waved a hibiscus. Why must chefs deprive us teetotalers of our proper iced-tea rights?)
The tasty curtain-raiser at The Table is an amuse-bouche of tiny golden balls of brioche holding molten foie gras. Next, Himachi crudo (Italian-style sushi), which gets a lift from cubes of cold, sweet watermelon and micro-stems of spicy mint. A "casserole" of Maryland blue crab is just that, gooey and steaming in a deep crockery pot. (We decide later this is the star of all six courses.) That's followed, after a wait that goes about 15 minutes too long, by cuttlefish "pasta" tossed with lemony butter sauce and jamón ibérico (Spanish ham). That clashes with the rich flavors of the crab casserole, so we leave most of it on the plate. (The only time Tesar appears at The Table all evening is to ask us, brusquely, "Was something wrong?" when the cuttlefish goes back barely touched. Sorry to scuttle the cuttlefish, Chef.)
The rest of dinner—giant prawn with chorizo, gritty scallop with a tender bite of pork belly, tough bits of lobster in a red wine reduction—seems redundant and heavy. That crab casserole so early in the long meal was like hearing the show-stopping 11 o'clock number belted out before intermission at a musical.
Our tablemates, two fun "foodie" couples in their 20s, are putting on their own show, starting their 12th course, having splurged on The Table's full menu, as we tuck into our last spoonfuls of chocolate hazelnut tart. (Diners also take home a sack of fresh marshmallow cookies and other goodies.) As we watch, astonished, the slim young man at the end of the table polishes off every morsel of "deconstructed beef Wellington" as if he hadn't just spent three previous hours eating everything we've had and five other entrées besides. We applaud his bravura eat-athon. "Thank you, thank you," he says. And he stands and takes a well-deserved bow.