While the big restaurant money continues to flow north toward Highland Park, Preston Hollow and Uptown, Dallas' most interesting restaurant scene continues to slowly grow and diversify on the other side of the river. Lucia brings five-star Italian and Campo offers ravioli stuffed with brains. Hattie's updates Southern comfort, giving shrimp and grits new life, and Oddfellows sexes up fried chicken in a quiet cafe filled with the smell of expensive coffee. Mesa shows diners the other side of Mexican cuisine, and B.E.E. takes enchiladas where they've never been before.
Oak Cliff is as diverse as it is refined, offering up $35 Italian veal chops alongside $2 cups of elotes in an elegant display of socioeconomic and culinary diversity. These aren't Top Chef pantheons to expensive meat; they're humble neighborhood restaurants, and they've been quietly pushing the boundaries of local cuisine, expanding palates and expectations, and illuminating what possibly lies ahead for Dallas' dining culture.
This outer fringe is often odd. Quirky, young restaurateurs bend some rules to make their marks. Sometimes it works and some times it doesn't. Oak Cliff's latest, a casual affair billed as a beer and burger joint, bends things really far. It seems to hail from another planet.
303 Bar & Grill opened on a balmy January evening, under the glow of a neon sign tricked out with multi-colored light bulbs. A band stuffed in the corner filled the old house with deafening music, and Adam Bazaldua, a young chef out of Rathbun's Blue Plate Kitchen, manned the stove. The menu claimed he would turn out burgers made from beef, ground on site, and he'd serve them with duck-fat french fries — all in Oak Cliff's quirkiest dining room.
Black-and-white mug shots line one wall, with dark, criminal eyes casting a downward gaze. A pair of baskets, a crate of bottles, a stuffed goose with its wings splayed, a horse from a merry-go-round impaled on a pole and other random objects fill the space with an air of absolute madness. Half of the relics are inverted for whatever reason. It's as eclectic as it is disturbing.
Outside, the bones of dead animals litter the landscaping, and the remains spill inside too. A spine decorated with papery wasp nests greets you at the door, along with a child's artwork, some books and a retro telephone. If one were to storm into the bathroom and find Norman Bates washing his hands, they should be no more surprised than if they saw a horse smoking a cigarette out in the parking lot.
Two months later, a handful of light bulbs in Bar 303's carnival sign have blown out. Bazaldua left, citing creative differences with management, and Chad Starling took over after a short stint at Saint Ann Restaurant and Bar downtown. Before that he spent time in Chicago's fine-dining circuit, something his new staff is happy to brag about. It's a shame the food coming out of the kitchen doesn't align with the bartender's gushing praise.
The Buffalo rock shrimp is unlike any upstate New York plate. Fried, tiny shrimps, encased in a coating that sometimes stays on and sometimes sloughs off, meet blue cheese and the misplaced tang of honey mustard. The chicken wings are goofy, too, presenting salty and smoky drumsticks with a ranch-like dipper. The kitchen removes the knuckle from the narrow end to jazz up the presentation, but the move only makes the snacks harder to pick up and eat.
Sandwiches are cheap and generous but uninspiring. The pulled pork sops with sauce but the meat is dry and can be stringy. A cheesesteak pairs rib-eye with oozing dairy, but the flavors never come together.
A burger reads well on the menu, and pickled red onions and crisp bacon present just as they should. But the cook broke the yolk while cooking my egg, robbing my burger of that primordial ooze. My waiter never asked how I wanted the patty cooked, either (it came brownish-gray), and if the kitchen used to grind the meat in-house each morning, they're most certainly not doing it now. Wasn't this supposed to be a burger house?
The menu is taking a different tack now, offering four entrees all for the impossibly low price of $12.75. You get what you pay for. The bangers paired with mash are really andouille sausage perched on flat whipped potatoes. And while a gnocchi dish serves up fine enough dumplings, with fava beans that harken spring, the whole dish swims in a heavy, muddy sauce.
It would be nice to spin this Bar & Grill as a great place to get a drink, but it's not really that either. The beer list is small and unimaginative, and a $4 martini special instills little faith in the resident mixology. The music is even worse: During my first meal, I endured Survivor's "Burning Heart," followed by Sting's "Set Them Free," and then wiped barbecue sauce and tears from my face to Ton Loc's "Wild Thing."
Despite the train wreck, I desperately want to love this little green house on Davis Street, if only for its quirkiness. I think it's that uniqueness they need to embrace if they want to succeed; they're surrounded by much more compelling dining experiences.
The kitchen should get back to grinding beef in-house, fresh each morning, the way the original menu claimed. The practice makes a difference, and the burgers would provide a clear differentiation for a restaurant located in a neighborhood that's saturated with cheap eats. The menu could use a trim, too, allowing stronger dishes to shine.
With a smaller menu, Starling could focus on some one-off specials as wacky as the décor that invokes a months-long peyote binge. Fun riffs on bar-food classics that would court a late-night crowd would make a worthy addition to Dallas' best restaurant neighborhood. But for now, 303 Bar & Grill feels totally rudderless. It's a great place to eat some psychedelics and watch the walls move, but not a great place to eat.