When David Thompson, one half of the TacOCliff blog (tacocliff.wordpress.com) and I chomped down on the grass-fed ground beef tacos that newly opened Company Café was selling from a stall at Earth Day Dallas 2011, we had lofty expectations. The Lower Greenville restaurant, owned by Stephen White and Chris Cowan, proudly waves a flag for gluten-free, seasonal and organic food. The tacos, we thought, would be a thoughtful conglomerate of specialty and flavor.
We were wrong.
The tacos were terrible. The tortillas, cracked and wrung of all moisture, were of industrial make. The meat was desiccated, prepared more like crumbs than delectable beef. The paper basket the tacos were served in wasn't large enough to contain the avalanche of bits launched by the first bite.
Thankfully, the kitchen at the brick-and-mortar location of Company Café produces surprising and delightful fare sure to satisfy the staunchest meat-and-potatoes lovers, who might mistakenly think a restaurant focused on organic and gluten-free food is better suited to granola-crunching hippies. Instead, the dining room is sleek and modern, with sparse maple-colored tables, polished cement floor and metal-framed chairs. It's a blend of chic and casual that's inviting to all, regardless of time or day. Even on a Saturday night, the service is spot-on, with servers who can correct a mistake in charming rapid-fire fashion, as one did when I received the seared ahi tuna salad instead of the Southwestern tuna tartare, an appetizer with dueling components. The chipotle aioli counterpoints the silken avocado. The fish was effervescent. The accompanying white corn tortilla chips are sturdy vessels for the trio of ingredients.
The sole indication Company Café is gluten-free is on the menu. A diet absent of gluten, a protein present in wheat, rye and barley, is touted for its health benefits, particularly for the thousands of people with celiac disease, a disorder in which consuming gluten causes the body's immune system to attack the body's intestines. Proponents of a gluten-free diet claim it also can reinvigorate the listless, depressed and foggy of mind, so it's no wonder that a bevy of food bloggers specializing in gluten-free recipes have gained wide support and attention. They challenge the belief that cutting gluten-filled foods from your diet is culinary suicide, robbing meals of pleasure.
That notion has been blown wide open by White, Cowan (both first-time restaurateurs) and their cadre of partners. Their version of health food is elevated to simply fine dishes enjoyable by anyone. Take, for examples, the knockout gluten-free chicken-fried steak, the hefty migas and the mammoth burger on Texas toast.
"It's my baby!" creative partner Jeff Wells says of his take on chicken-fried.
No wonder he's proud. The dish removes any doubts that the words "health food," "chicken-fried" and "good" belong on the same page. The entrée is plated with a swirled hill of sweet-potato mash and speckled with sautéed green beans that glisten and snap. The gravy smothering the tender sirloin is a jalapeño-honey concoction, a gem of sauce that, whether scooped up with sweet potato, steak or beans, launches the humble Texas staple skyward.
The Company Migas, a pyramid of protein (chicken or venison), bell pepper, onions and white corn tortillas presented atop a mound of black beans and garnished generously with feta, salsa and brilliant yellow eggs, kick-start the day. It makes Company Café a fantastic choice for breakfast or brunch. Service is breezy without being aloof or negligent during breakfast, and brunch is a brisk time for the restaurant, though there's no push to turn tables, leaving you plenty of time to relish the challah French toast platter, an ideal selection for knee-biters, while sipping the Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters self-serve java and flipping through the morning's paper.
Throughout each section of the menu, sweet potato replaces everyone's favorite straight-up tuber. I'm not big on sweet potatoes, but one bite of the olive-oil-fried orange-hued sticks studded with salt and parsley made me forget how wondrous a French fry can be. The sweet potato fries are served with another superb order, the Belmont Burger. The half-pound leviathan of grass-fed beef comes with your choice of cheeses. You can also substitute buffalo for beef, add extra patties and choose your favorite style of bun, including a gluten-free bagel. While mine arrived cooked slightly more well done than I requested, it was succulent, and the bread was sturdy enough to withstand the patty's girth and juice.
Along with the chicken-fried steak and the burger, Chef Fred's Gluten-Free Chicken and Waffles is another signature item at Company Café. The pair of tender chicken strips, fried in olive oil, as are all other fried morsels at the restaurant, comes perched askew on springy Belgian waffles that conceal a secret. At the bottom of each square are hidden touches of heat provided by bits of applewood-smoked bacon and roasted jalapeño. The peppers drew beads of sweat from my brow, their spice cutting through the tender chicken and nectarous maple syrup. The chicken and waffles is a dish the diner is forced to confront. It's worth it.
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Not all the plates were so deserving. The Deep Bowl, a cauldron of grass-fed beef, sweet potato hash, avocado and cage-free eggs, was a ho-hum breakfast dish. The juxtaposition of sweet and savory was as complex as it got. The meat in the mozzarella-stuffed chicken pesto risotto was dry. The seasonal salad, an assembly of organic greens, cucumbers, pickled onions, two types of berries, goat cheese and candied pecans tossed with a house vinaigrette, was delectable, but getting a fork into the locally sourced goodies was challenging.
Desserts, a source of immense pride for the staff, are misfires. Though the frosting was excellent, the slice of gluten-free red velvet cake was a dry, spongy wedge. (Gluten adds texture and structure to baked goods.)
The restaurant's dedication to a concept frames its success and drives it to excellence, pushing diners like me to return for the likes of the chi-chi Steak Sophisticate, a sirloin accompanied with a wine shallot sauce, a side of vegetables and cauliflower mash.
Company Café is more than a clubhouse for adherents of the crunchy lifestyle bathed in Tom's of Maine products. It's a community center welcoming the hungry, regardless of dietary philosophy.