The South Rises Again
Screen Door bills itself—in the parlance of some of the finest whiskeys—as a blend, a melding of modern culinary wisdom with decades of tried-and-true grit from the hot, sticky South. The result is the modern Southern kitchen. But what does this mean?
That's hard to decipher. The food isn't so much thoroughbred Southern with modern touches (organic collard greens, canola oil instead of lard) as it is a Southern accent with European inflections. The menu is in two sections: then for the tried-and-true part and now for the stab at modernity. Then means slow-cooked short ribs, gumbo, "low country" shrimp and grits, and fried green tomatoes somehow morphed into insalata caprese. The latter is firm, under-ripe tomato lozenges battered in cornmeal, fried and tethered to one another in melted mozzarella. Tendons of pearly goo stretch and snap as you yank slices of green from an ensemble flanked with chive oil and a bead of red pepper jam.
Now means watermelon cucumber salad. It's a perfect antidote to summer heat, a culinary swamp cooler that, if it doesn't already exist in some ancient Southern cookbook, would have to be invented. Now also means liver and onions. But not that liver or those onions, otherwise it would have to be from then. But this is now, so this liver is foie gras slumbering on thick slices of baked green apple in honey laced with truffle shavings, all positioned in an oversized bowl. This is now despite the fact that foie gras dates back to the Roman Empire, making this now more of a then if you don't count the liver and onions designation. The lobes are crowned with loose coils of rosy pickled onions, a perfect foie gras trimming. I've never been a fan of extracted fruit complements, the purees and sweet reductions made lumpy with berries, the compotes and endless renditions of cloying viscosity that so much foie gras is forced to consort with, formulas that numb the palate.
But this works. The apples might be too thick and pronounced, thwacking all sense of subtlety out of the creamy rich liver, but the flavors still manage to function. It's those onions that really work, with their hints of sweetness tamed and caged behind bars of faintly acerbic pickling. These onions actually cleanse the palate, scrubbing off the cream and richness so that each bite can be distinctly savored. You get the unmistakable impression that chef Fitzgerald Dodd, late of the late Star Canyon plus Stephan Pyles, Hotel ZaZa, the late Voltaire and Brennan's in Houston, actually tastes his food scrupulously before awarding it a place on the menu, though I would have added a pinch of kosher salt. Plus, the foie gras was cold, but this was no fault of the kitchen. Blame the environment.
Lodged in One Arts Plaza, a straightforward modernist fabrication of concrete, metal and glass geometry, Screen Door nonetheless makes homey with this architecture. Modular resin partitions with dried grass locked within them dangle from wire like wasps in amber. Padded chairs are covered in woven fabric the color of straw. Walls are muted pea and caramel. Large chandeliers seem to alternate between antler and twig mimicry. Blond wood floors play off abundant glass, and torrents of natural light wash through.
But most of the tables are positioned around the dining room perimeter below large vents fixed in the ceiling edges, which, with the current oppressive triple-digit temperatures, forces chilled air directly upon your table, blasting your food into a wintry mix. Thus everything must be eaten rapidly if it is to escape the chills.
Take, for example, the Southern-fried quail, four bird halves—as greaseless as those fried green tomatoes only fried far more crisp—nested in a clean row on dollops of mashed potatoes, rich gravy between them. Juicy. Tender. Reeking of flavor and textural oomph. These quail are as good as the fried chicken you wish someone—anyone—would do.
Screen Door nearly has. "Big Mamma's" fried chicken is a breast and thigh and leg breaded and well seasoned. Yet any restaurant worth its Screen Door would scrub this knife-and-fork presentation and cut the bird into pieces, daring diners to attack it with fingers, as all true fried chicken must be.
Screen Door is the work of Scott Jones, founder of Café Italia, and his goal is to bring traditional Southern cuisine into the new age honed and whittled with endless fusion and reiteration. This has been tried before, (remember Rooster?) with mixed results.
Will Screen Door eventually get stranded in such Southern murkiness? Not if it maintains the rigor that seems a staple in the kitchen.
Summer pea and bacon soup is refreshingly light and clean, the pea and cured bacon flavors pouring through the gossamer broth with uncommon clarity. The Screen Door table is dressed with an amuse bouche: cherry tomatoes, halved; cucumbers, sliced; okra, whole or halved; and a dab of Louisiana remoulade for dipping. Pepper-seared duck breast is thick rosy slices, juices flowing, the slices assembled into a tapered slab nested on a bed of braised cabbage, crisp with a slight pungent flavor that foils the duck richness. It scrums with a maple rum reduction that has just the slightest lick of sweet as it adds a rustic thread to the aroma, as does the metal crock of spoon bread pudding with a crisp topping of duck crackling and a fluffy, creamy inside custard embedded with whole kernels, all crowned with cream.
Iron-seared sea bass is probably the most thorough departure from Southern style, save for its jambalaya couture. A thick piece of fish, sweet and buttery, the sections peeling off and fraying from the slightly crisped veneer, rests on a bed of risotto jambalaya, a coarse mix of shrimp, stewed tomatoes and sausage. The grains are perfectly separate and done to perfection.
Add some fresh-squeezed lemonade and finish with a satisfying cherry cobbler, juicy cherries seared with just enough sour to clash with the sweet crisp.
Screen Door loosely reaches into Southern traditions as it goes through the motions of modernity—a toe in each pool—which makes it thoroughly now from stem to stern. It throws in just a little Southern-fried cliché to keep it anchored on concept. Yet it's a restaurant so thoroughly in context that, with creativity, it will expend little effort adapting to the changing whims of dining theater. Let's hope this door is properly capitalized.
1722 Routh St. in One Arts Plaza, Suite 132, 214-720-9111. Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday, afternoon tea 2:30-4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Sunday and Monday, 5-11 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday Brunch. $$$
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