It was Saturday night, and Campo Modern Country Bistro, the latest house-turned-restaurant in Oak Cliff, was loud and crowded. A jeans-clad waitstaff donning gray Campo T-shirts — all fit, muscular guys, oddly — whisked plates from the pass in the back to painted-white tables. The bar, flanked with angular stools of naked wood, was filled with cocktailers and noshers, and the whole scene was illuminated by light bulbs perched at the end of long, angular fixtures that jutted from the ceiling like confused shooting stars.
As the night quieted, Matt McCallister, Campo's lanky and heavily tatted chef, emerged from the kitchen to greet his guests. He talked ingredient sourcing and menu ideas with a youthful enthusiasm and casual authority. He seemed proud, and he had reason to be: He'd just presided over some stellar cooking.
Campo is the creation of Miguel Vicéns and John Paul Valverde, who own and run Coevál Studios, a design firm responsible for the sleek Hacienda San Miguel dining room in Fort Worth. They also designed the recently closed Lumi Empanada in Uptown. This restaurant, they intend to run.
They recruited McCallister, who after a short tenure with Stephan Pyles staged at Alinea in Chicago, McCrady's in Charleston and Jose Andre's Minibar in Washington D.C., among others. His charge: to create a menu reminiscent of the Mendoza Province near Buenos Aires. McCallister gave them something more: a menu that makes only a few concessions to timid palates and caters to a youngish and adventurous crowd. Most of the menu, which changes often, reads like a homage to rustic animal parts: brains and bones and guts.
On both of my visits there was a lamb's-neck ragout, served on over-browned but light and fluffy gnocchi — tender and reverent dumplings, little potato pillows that cushion a dish with balance. Braises made from pedestrian cuts, like neck and shank and tail, often lean toward earthy flavors and viscous textures. But this pasta was simultaneously rich and salty and bright. It finished with the sugary crunch of snap peas the vibrant color of tender shoots of grass in spring.
And that salad of pickled lamb's tongue: It wasn't truly pickled but braised in an acidic broth, then sliced and dressed with a quiet vinaigrette and dusted with pecans and bitter chocolate nibs and celery leaves. The dish ate like poetry.
A duck offal ravioli tasted of grit and dirt and lust. An appetizer of beef tartare brought dark garnet flesh, flecked with herbs and graced with a single raw quail's egg. But Campo doesn't use rump or tender filet for its tartare. It uses heart — a gutsy choice considering the Dallas palate, which, while improving, is still considered by many chefs to lack adventure. Compared to salmon, chicken and rib-eye steaks, the raw heart of a cow makes for rustic eating. This is some serious Last of the Mohicans shit.
It's also exactly what Dallas needs more of. But for Campo, continuing to provide it could prove challenging. Initially hired as consulting executive chef, McCallister's role is now muddled. He has eyes on a new opportunity with new investors — a fancy and secretive concept he refuses to divulge.
Vicéns and Valverde maintain the chef will remain involved with Campo, but the new venture will surely steal McCallister's focus. Even if Josh Black, who's currently working under McCallister's supervision, can conjure the spirit of Campo's cooking for a spell, the task will become increasingly difficult over time. According to McCallister's table-side pitch, Campo's menu turns over entirely every month or so. This isn't cooking from a library of recipe books. It's more like a state of mind.
For the moment, though, Campo is in the sweet spot, one of Dallas' most interesting restaurants. And you don't even have to like pig face and duck kidneys to appreciate it.
Over my two meals there, I found light and airy chorizo fritters with a charred oregano aioli and roast chicken with crisp skin served with a simple potato puree. There was a fatty braised short rib in a wine-laden sauce, reduced down to ink, and pork shoulder pulled to strings, then molded and seared and served with giant white beans. A namesake salad dazzled, with fresh and toothy greens, a deep-fried and runny egg and a smear of fresh ricotta stained with herbs. Each was interesting. And they were all really good.
The bar staff nailed the booze, too, featuring pisco and bourbon and bitter Fernet. Dessert shone just as brightly. A stunning panna cotta, playfully set on an angle in its bowl, was garnished with a touch of tart sour cream and tiny spheres of snappy green apple. A tart, served with quince and butter-turned-powder reminiscent of confectioner's sugar, was a delicious dream. A chocolate tart was comparatively boring and dry, but it's since been removed from the menu — an indicator of the kitchen's commitment to pushing boundaries and keeping things fresh. It would be a legitimate challenge to be bored here.
Along with being imaginative, Campo is, for the moment anyway, one of the most important restaurants in Dallas, because it embraces things — true nose-to tail cooking and way-out-of-the-box thinking — that are somewhat rare among its contemporaries. If the restaurant can continue to hone its execution (and stay afloat), it's the type of cooking that could bring the national spotlight into focus here, giving the city's culinary scene the recognition it desperately craves.
But for that to happen, Dallas will have to keep showing up, and not just for the short rib and pulled pork, but for the tongues and brains and unidentified innards. And for that to happen, McCallister will have to keep showing up, too, and stay focused on Campo — not just to continue the great cooking his kitchen has turned out, but to refine dishes that need work.
Like that tough, chewy, salted bread — full of beautifully irregular holes but formed by hands still learning their craft. The loaves derive their richness from a bath of rendered duck fat, but what they need is the attention of a master baker. It's close to perfection, but it's not there yet. And turning tough, leftover bread into chips for garnishes, as Campo does for its beef-heart-tartare delivery system, yields an over-toasted crouton with too much crunch.
There's also a stove in the back, fired by Black, that's a little too aggressive. My evidence: a gnocchi with too much color over two visits and that pressed pork dish, whose outer layer was overcooked and dry. These dishes are good, yes, but with some subtle fine-tuning they could border sublime. Pasta was tough and truffles were lifeless — things that shouldn't be in a truly great restaurant.
This is the kind of polish that only comes with a chef who's put in his time, and 30-year-old McCallister is still young. Campo is the first kitchen he's helmed on his own, and his time under Pyles and other great chefs was short.
Which is why McCallister should take his restaurant's name to heart and make camp there for a while. But that's unlikely. The allure of his own restaurant will be too seductive, and Vicéns and Valverde are wrong to think he'll be a useful resource after his departure. They should plan for his goodbye, monitor his transition closely as he passes the baton to whoever remains behind, and prepare for him to take some of his best dishes (and staff) with him.
Campo may be a fine restaurant for years to come, but right now it feels more like a test lab in which McCallister concocts his own future — a murky window into what's coming next from one of Dallas' most promising young chefs, and, perhaps, the city itself.