Best Of :: Food & Drink
Web extra: Hear from some of Dallas's new and unheralded chefs in our video feature.
It's cliché to paint Dallas as a city that likes things big. Whether it be stadiums, scandals or the name recognition of chefs at the restaurants we flock to, size has always mattered in these parts. We cheered Kent Rathbun, chef-owner of Abacus, not only for his achievements on the television hit Top Chef, but also for hoisting a moose head with his bare hands during the course of that series. And it was only a couple years ago when venues opened by a couple of the area's most famous kitchen celebrities-Stephan Pyles and Dean Fearing-took turns capturing popular fancy.
They still hold sway, these big-name chefs. But since the moose incident and the glitzy grand openings, a group of nobodies began poking giant holes in our starry facade. As Dallas Fish Market neared completion, the owners tapped Randy Morgan to head the kitchen, and he quickly turned the downtown space into the city's finest seafood restaurant. Young Julian Barsotti arrived and his place, Nonna, quickly put a stop to all that "Dallas has no good Italian" talk. Then along came Graham Dodds at Bolsa, an Oak Cliff destination dedicated to fresh, local and seasonal ingredients-and last year's hottest new establishment.
This year has been much the same. Nick Badovinus' return to the scene caused considerable buzz and two-hour waits for dinner at Neighborhood Services. More recently, Marc Cassel stepped back into the kitchen after a two-year hiatus, stirring much the same frenzy. Yet at the same time, the unknown (in this market) Sarah Johannes filed into the other much ballyhooed new restaurant, Wolfgang Puck's Five-Sixty. Almost immediately critics began mentioning her work alongside that of Anthony Bombaci (Nana) and Avner Samuel (Aurora). Jean-Marie Cadot worked quietly in North Dallas' Lavendou for quite some time, drawing little media attention. In 2009, he joined with chef Gaspar Stantic, setting up Cadot-a contender for best new restaurant. Out in Rockwall, Randall Copeland and Nathan Tate's AVA followed Bolsa's local-seasonal lead.
"I think there's been a grassroots movement for four or five years now, but people weren't necessarily aware of it," Copeland says of the so-called "locavore" trend, which has allowed some of these new chefs to break into the culinary spotlight. "The guys at Bolsa had no idea the people that would come-it's working."
Many of these new restaurants have adopted the local-seasonal-sustainable mantra to some extent. They've also been willing to discard the perks of a once pretentious scene, refusing to accept reservations, welcoming diners clad in non-designer jeans or even shorts, packing tables close together and so on. Unlike the 500-seat steak palaces that dominated fine dining in the late '90s boom, these guys think simple and small. Bella in Uptown boasts room for perhaps 50 guests. Lumi, the fun Asian-Brazilian dumpling spot on McKinney Avenue, allows for about the same, but parking for maybe 15 cars. Bolsa doesn't even offer valet parking. One of the owners, Chris Zielke, encourages new arrivals to pull up on the sidewalk. "Hey, this is Oak Cliff," he says, deliberately shrugging at big-city niceties. By consciously breaking traditional Dallas rules ("I grew up here and didn't know there were four seasons," Copeland points out, explaining the city's reluctance to join the "slow foods" movement), these chefs have eroded the tiers that defined nightlife for so long. One now sees ballgame attire at Bob's and Al Biernat's, while almost every restaurant with aspirations for success touts organic dishes.
For his part, Barsotti eschews over-engineered dishes. "When I go over there [to Italy]," he says, "I come back inspired to be simplistic." David Pedack even took a step back, opening a bar on Henderson-Blue Collar Bar-featuring mid-century blue plate items, such as Salisbury steak.
The big boys have, of course, taken notice. Rathbun followed Pedack's lead with a more extravagant Blue Plate Kitchen. And Pyles is ready to throw open the doors on an "international small plates" destination called Samar.
However fresh these faces may seem to the local dining crowd, the rising stars have spent considerable time in professional kitchens. Copeland served as sous chef at the Green Room and then in Las Vegas before AVA. "It took me a good couple years-watching, asking questions," Morgan says of his seafood apprenticeship, which included a stint with Oceanaire. "There are so many ways and combinations to do fish." Christopher Short of the outstanding Bella served as executive chef for the Crescent Court and for The Mansion's private dining program. "It's not as glamorous as people think," he says of restaurant life. "You gotta have strong legs under you, because the day is long and the weeks get longer.
"True enough. But their work is changing the way Dallas perceives both dining and celebrity. For the first time in quite awhile, smaller is better.By Dave Faries
Long before tapas, small plates and shared plates became trendy, the Spanish grabbed simple bites at the bar to tide them over until 10 or 11 p.m., when dinner is served. Cava's piquillo peppers appetizer is like an homage to that simple tradition. They merely sauté the peppers in olive oil (a lot of olive oil) with some garlic. That's it—nothing fancy, but the flavors roil from earthy, bitter and herbaceous to piquant, even sweet. In a city where chefs put a lot of time and effort into starters, Cava's basic dish stands out.
For decades Dwight Harvey held down a real, corporate-type job, cooking barbecue on the weekends. He and his son eventually turned this into a casual catering venture and, finally, a full-fledged barbecue joint. The Harveys are particular about their wood, using pecan to slow-cook brisket, ribs and the other usual suspects. Their rub lends a strong, sweet-spicy character to the meats. If there's a downside, it's the cramped space. A set of tables out front provide seating, but you must force your way to the counter to place orders, especially during the lunch rush. There's a large contingent of downtown cubicle dwellers who frequent the place. For those who want to run the south-side-after-dark risk, Off the Bone stays open late—as in 2 a.m. late—on weekends.
Generally, when you see two restroom doors in a restaurant, they lead into two different restrooms—you know, boys and girls, cowpokes and cowgirls, damas y caballeros, etc. Not so at Cowboy Chow, however, where both doors lead into the same communal restroom. Sure, everyone gets their own individual walled-off stall with a full door, but it's still awkward when you run into your date at the communal sink. And considering all the delicious Navajo fry bread, red pepper brisket, homemade chocolate chip ice cream and (especially) sweet watermelon tea you'll be consuming, there's no way you'll be able to avoid it.
First the chefs at AVA, one of whom worked at the Green Room, brought back that long-lost restaurant's mussels recipe. Then the man himself announced his return. Years ago Marc Cassel guided the little Deep Ellum bar/restaurant to greatness. His style? Collision cuisine—the happy smashing of contrasting flavors and techniques into something that worked, and magically so. In July, Dallas' prodigal chef returned, opening Park on Henderson Avenue to almost instant success. The Dallas Morning News reported guests raising toasts to Cassel's chicken-fried steak. That's big news.
Phil and Janet Cobb you know from the Black-Eyed Pea chain (Phil's doing) and Mi Piaci (Janet), as well as some other once-famous stops. The name Chris Andrews is associated with Holy Smokes, a once well-regarded barbecue place. And then there's Dotty Griffith, former restaurant critic for The Dallas Morning News. All of these familiar names have come back to life and converged, like culinary zombies, on a small bit of real estate in Carrollton. The meat's pretty good. The names behind it are impressive as hell.
Sure, you could argue it's a bit pricey for these trying times, but there is value in them there eggs—especially the way Bread Winners serves 'em. You got your three-egg "scrambles" like the Southwest migas and the healthful veggie. There is a to-die-for egg sandwich, three kinds of eggs Benedict and several egg dishes with Tex-Mex accents (burritos, enchiladas and breakfast tacos). And don't get us started on the pancakes and French toast, and the baked goods—breads and muffins and cookies, oh my—baked right on the premises, with bits of them brought to your table free before you even order your morning coffee. We love the McKinney Avenue location (not to disparage the Inwood Village and Plano locations) with its French Quarter feel and friendly service.
Ever since our college days in Austin, we've found Dallas severely lacking in the breakfast taco department. Sure, you can find them, but they rarely live up to the expectations one is burdened with after living in the Breakfast Taco And Live Music Capital of the World. The Taco Joint does the breakfast taco right, however, serving up eggs and cheese with bacon, sausage, potatoes, chorizo or beans on flour tortillas along with delicious homemade salsas that tickle the palate but don't annihilate your taste buds with heat. Most important, they serve them till 10:45 a.m. on weekdays and 2 p.m. on Saturdays, which makes them the perfect breakfast for late-rising, hung-over-and-on-the-go Observer writers.
No one does a plain old Caesar salad anymore. Well, Bella does, but few others. Instead, restaurants toss on a lot of fancy stuff—lobster nuggets and such. Kent Rathbun's new place dresses up the salad right: kernels of parched corn, toasted pepitas, crumbles of Mexican cheese. Yeah, sounds like just another gussied-up Caesar, except that all the ingredients work so beautifully together, the mound of lettuce becomes like a carnival, with flavors and textures swirling and twirling, yet starting you from one place and bringing you back to the same spot. Hell, if you're gonna order greens, why not have fun with them?
What can we say? There's a lot of half-assed gumbo sold in this town, but Alligator Café ladles out a rich, reeking stew that oozes bayou. Their red beans and rice remind you that this was never meant to be an elegant dish, but something to fill working-class bellies. And, of course, there are mudbugs in season and gator meat if you wish to venture in that direction. Their fried green tomatoes feel like they were made in some old skillet by some old grandma. It's a straightforward, down and dirty, messy festival of Louisiana-ness. We don't know how to put it better.
These days it can be painful to spend more than $12 on lunch, but driving through Wendys and scarfing down a double cheeseburger in your car is often equally unappealing. Such times call for a place like Jasons Deli, where you can find healthy lunch fare and at the same time be economical with your time and dime. There are sandwiches and a great salad bar complete with myriad varieties of lettuce, veggies, and other add-ins like tuna, pasta salad and cottage cheese. If you must, you can even have ambrosia without having to deal with the nursing home atmosphere of Furrs Cafeteria. Also available for your dining pleasure is soft-serve ice cream and that tasty, old-timey banana pudding with vanilla wafers.
The black walls and dark carpeting of this two-room restaurant explain the reputation as a hole in the wall. But don't be fooled by the drab decor. The fish is so fresh! And it's a fraction of the price compared with the raw fish served at more upscale Japanese joints, like the Blue Fish up the street. The staff bangs a gong when you come in and again when you leave. The place is BYOB, but we were served sake one Saturday night when no other customers were around. Our favorite specialty roll is the New Zealand, which combines tuna, salmon, cucumber, avocado and cream cheese for $11.99. And the 10-piece tuna roll is just $6.99.