Try Cook Hall for a Pregame Fill-up
It's hard to sit at the bar at Cook Hall and not feel at least a little disappointment. On its surface the new restaurant, which slipped into the W Hotel earlier this fall, solved many of the problems of its predecessor. Craft was a beautiful place with stunning food. Through several chefs over a six-year existence, the kitchen offered plates that showcased simple but refined recipes executed with precision — the doctrine of celebrity chef and owner Tom Colicchio.
But Craft still crashed. The dining room was large and cavernous and always felt empty. (It often was.) Dinner checks frequently catapulted into the hundreds of dollars, classifying the restaurant as a special-occasion destination for local diners and a large business expense for those on the company dime. And there was no bar for dining inside the restaurant — a major oversight considering the fixture is one many lonely transients prefer for dining.
Cook Hall solved these issues with a quick, minimal renovation that closed the space only a few weeks. A zinc bar with a handful of stools frames the entrance, closing in the dining room and cozying up the space, but you'll still recognize the old bones. The attractive wine storage room at the back of the dining area was smartly kept intact, and the Edison bulbs still hang from the ceiling and wooden window treatments. It's a sharp-looking space to have a drink. Hungry customers need to be careful for landmines, though.
A charcuterie board looks nice, but dried-out prosciutto and salami are unimpressive. While a fruity mostarda served as a condiment is bright, tangy and perfect with the pork rillettes, it's not enough to carry the board.
The pork-belly sliders disappoint too. The pickles that crown the tiny pork patty are wonderful and reminiscent of a banh mi sandwich, but the pork itself is bland and suspiciously similar to the pork rillettes on the charcuterie board.
Popcorn shrimp are soggy with no pop, and a roasted radish toast is confusing and difficult to eat. A bowl of meatballs tastes better, but they don't taste good enough to support a $9 price tag. Ricco's meatballs come three to an order, and for $3 a meatball your money is much better spent elsewhere in Dallas.
Still, there are some gems to find if you stop by Cook Hall before a basketball game at the American Airlines Center or otherwise happen upon the hotel bar.
The hanger steak is perfectly cooked to order and served with a brilliant chimichurri that sings with herbal and aromatic flavors. For $14 it's also one of the better values on the menu. The burger is almost as good, with a tangy sauce, melted cheese and a patty so juicy the bun has to hang on for dear life.
Gone are Craft's $18 plates graced with six perfectly shucked oysters and crispy roast chicken from a small family farm that raises its animals on smiles and sunshine. They've been replaced by deviled eggs garnished with a morsel of sweet crab meat, and chicken that is now simply described as crispy. A fancy crudo amuse bouche on a silver spoon and expertly crafted desserts are all gone too.
The biggest loss, though, and what makes Cook Hall most disappointing, is the vacuum left by the old Craft staff. Expert servers knew the menu front to back and were quick to find the answer to any question on the rare occasion they drew a blank. An expert sommelier knew as much about the cocktails on the menu as he did about wine. There was a common love of food shared by the staff, and their passion made the restaurant a pleasurable place for food lovers to dine. That atmosphere of professionalism is gone.
Culinary Concepts Hospitality Group is responsible for much of the menu. The restaurant management group, based in New York City, was brought in to solve Craft's problems and reinvigorate the restaurant. Belinda Chang, who was hired by the group this summer, came to Dallas and trained the bartenders on a cocktail program custom tailored for the space. "She hasn't been back since," a bartender told me when I asked how often Chang checks in.
The drinks she left behind are all quite good, but Chang's not there to talk about them. Ask a server or bartender what you should have to warm up and you'll hear the all too familiar "everything's good here." And that's where Cook Hall loses its luster.
While Culinary Concepts developed a well-rounded menu and installed a competent chef to execute it, no amount of training can instill passion in a staff.
You might love the stout beer ice cream sundae — by far the restaurant's best dessert — but don't ask what kind of stout was used to add richness. Don't ask what lends the sweet ice cream a subtle glow, either. Nobody — not even the kitchen — will know the source of the heat.
Still, Cook Hall already feels more of a success than Craft. On a night before a Mavs game, the bar was packed with hotel guests and blue jerseys. For a pregame drink and snack, the restaurant is easily the best option within a couple of blocks. This is the best use of the place.
Stop in for a burger and dessert that tastes way better than you can eat inside the arena. Have the steak with a side of saucy mac and cheese if you're craving something a little more substantial. House-made pickles make for a great light snack, and pork rillettes served as a standalone order are a good bet too.
Drink a beer. Drink a couple. A few of the drafts will only set you back five bucks during happy hour, which is a song compared with the price gouging you'll endure after tip-off. It's not a coincidence Cook Hall seems most busy just before a nearby sporting event. Unless you're staying at the W, it's the only reason to come here.
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