Before you take the first bite of Screen Door's tasso ham soup, pause a moment to listen. This soup talks to you. It's a lady with a sweet Southern accent, speaking softly and gently into your ear. She says, "Come on, hon, eat up while it's good 'n' hot, 'cause there's plenty more out cheah for all y'all."
Food that speaks to you in familiar, comforting ways is what's on the menu at Screen Door, a casually elegant but decidedly un-uppity restaurant just up the street from the Winspear Opera House and Wyly Theatre at One Arts Plaza. The flavors here are blends of Southern, Texan, Cajun and Creole cuisines, with some help from those oft-repeated, oft-requested favorites from somebody's grandmother's recipe box.
From that bowl of tasso ham, potato and spinach soup; through plates of shrimp and grits, grilled grouper and fried chicken; to the last gooey lick of white icing from a slice of coconut cake, meals at Screen Door are as varied and to-the-bone satisfying as the home-cooked spread after a boondock funeral. You just don't have to sit through two hours of sad eulogies and hymns to get to it.
You will, however, find plenty to eat at Screen Door that's to die for. Like the appetizer of eight cornmeal-crusted oysters crowded into a small cast-iron skillet. The plump oysters are fine by themselves, but messed around in the spicy pesto of green tomatoes, chilies, cilantro, almonds, parmesan and lime juice at the bottom of the pan, they are, as my country kin would say, larrupin' good.
The entree order of shrimp and grits is big enough to share. Also served in a hot skillet, the shrimp, seven or eight big ones, curl into a cushion of cheesy, creamy grits dotted with bits of bacon and green onion. Use a fork if you're with company and have to act right, but if you're with a friend who doesn't mind, do like we did and dig around in the buttery grits with pieces of the warm yellow cornbread or sweet potato biscuits from the breadbasket.
Unsettled last year by changes of management and chefs, Screen Door has evolved into something better this year, shifting into a nice groove. Executive chef David McMillan's menus for brunch, lunch and dinner have moved away from cliches and into more creative, nostalgic offerings—Southern favorites with modern, but not overly whimsical, flair.
Service certainly has bumped up a bunch of notches from a year ago. Now, whether you have a reservation or don't, hosts and servers welcome you like regular customers. One of our walk-in reviewing visits was a busy weeknight and the restaurant was crowded with a heavily cocktailed group from American Airlines (hope they weren't pilots), a large party of middle-aged sorority sisters enjoying a giggly reunion and a cadre of concierges from the fanciest hotels in and around downtown. My friend and I, both in crisp but casual attire (our jeans were ironed), were seated in the best corner banquette in the room and treated like family. The server, Michael, was on point all evening, never hovering too closely and careful not to interrupt a single one of my companion's funny stories (Don't you hate when a waiter steps on a punchline?).
My friend and I ate and laughed through two unhurried hours' worth of food, starting with those oysters and that soup. He grew up in Cajun country in Southern Louisiana, so he schooled me on "tasso ham," which isn't really ham but a Cayenne-peppered, hot-smoked cut of fatty pork shoulder butt, usually cut up to flavor jambalaya. As we spooned the soup, he called out the ingredients: tasso, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, garlic, spinach and salty cheese. It's a dark, rich soup that requires—no, demands—sopping with cornbread. "It's mawmaw food," said the Cajun guy. "It's souped-up mawmaw food. It's great mawmaw food."
He even raved about the ice in the sweet iced tea. They're pellets, not cubes. "Sonic ice," he called it.
His grouper entree came just as the last bite of soup was swallowed. A thick, moist piece was served atop stewed tomatoes and yellow squash, plus a red rice cake that had a firm, chewy, not-so-spicy texture against the softness and mild spice of the fish and veggies. All just about perfect.
Our lunch on a different day was just as good. Appetizer of spicy crawfish dip, served in a little mason jar, and homemade Tabasco crackers was so large we took half to go. Meatloaf sandwich was just like mama used to make (actually better...our mom put saltines in her meatloaf). It was accompanied by fresh-made ketchup and a mound of house fries. The side dish of cornmeal-dredged fried green tomatoes came with fresh creamy ranch dressing, in another of those cute little jars. How good was that? To use an inelegant phrase from my Southern-fried clan, it's so good you'll want to go out on the street and slap somebody. Hard.
Do get dessert. "A little pillow of heaven" is how my eatin' pal described the lemon pudding souffle. Sweet and tart, it's a puffy yellow cloud of wonderful that must have come either from a generation before or several after the traditional lemon meringue icebox pie. I've never had anything like it, and it's something altogether more wonderful than pie or banana puddin'. For days after our lunch, I get e-mails from my friend that just say "lemon pudding." We want lots more of it. And soon.
Coconut cake comes in a wide, thin slice on an old-fashioned flowered-y china plate. We ask for the lemon sauce on the side. It's thick and super-sweet, like homemade lemonade reduced to a syrup, and would drown the cake in one drizzle. Instead, we fork up bites of the delicate cake, which is dotted with toasted pecans, and dip it into the jar of sauce a little at a time. Suddenly, angels sing. Little cartoon bluebirds land on our shoulders. It's a zippity-doo-dah moment.
With so many colors in the food, the designers of Screen Door have been wise to keep the decor muted. The dining room, with its creamy beige banquettes and iron tree-branch chandeliers, catches a golden glow as the sun sets behind the new architecture at the Performing Arts Center down the hill. (The restaurant features a pre-theater three-course dinner, which we also love.) It's a blessedly un-noisy place, too, with the volume of piped-in Aretha Franklin turned low enough to encourage and not challenge table conversation.
But really, who needs to talk when there's food like this with so much to say?Screen Door 1722 Routh St., One Arts Plaza, 214-720-9111. screendoordallas.com. Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Friday; for dinner 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and for brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. $$$