Give John Franke credit. The corporate chef at Fork It Over Restaurants listens and moves quickly when he hears something is amiss at one of his restaurants. Between my visits and the writing of this review, Franke and his team have made considerable updates to the menu at Ida Claire, partly in response to a scornful review published during that period in The Dallas Morning News. His move shows a restaurant that is very much in flux, but also that the same restaurant group behind Whiskey Cake, Twin Peaks and others is determined to improve the restaurant.
While Franke has made plenty of changes to the menu, he’s also kept the elements of the restaurant that were working when I last visited just as they were. Ida Claire turns on the charm before customers walk through the front door. An Airstream trailer outfitted with seats and tables turns the patio into a shabby chic trailer park, while old books and other knickknacks greet diners as they wait to speak with one of the flustered hosts. Inside, nearly every table is taken and the mood is festive. A pair of balloons — a giant Mylar three and a zero — dance in the air conditioning, tethered to a high-top table below. Birdcages hang from the ceiling and colorful plates line the walls in a restaurant that’s as packed with good vibes as it is with hungry, seemingly pleased diners.
That’s why I felt surprised as the plates from two appetizers were cleared from my table. The grilled oysters were good, though for every other reason but the oysters. They came topped with kale and bacon. The bite was tangy and delicious but seemed less about the oysters and more about the sides served with a fried chicken dinner. “The kale was a little dark and gloomy so we’ve lightened things up,” Franke says of the appetizer. They’re now topped with what he describes as a kale salad and bacon lardons. Crawfish corn fritters somehow managed to straddle both a mushy and dry consistency. Franke says he’s adjusted the temperature of the cooking oil and added more crawfish to the fritters.
Even before these changes, most of the people I watched in the dining room seemed happy with Miss Claire. The wait for drinks at the bar was a little long, but customers seemed patient and comments about the food were all “amazings” and “awesomes.”
I echoed the sentiment after my first bite of my Ida Burger, which came topped with lettuce, tomato, slightly sweet pickles, pimento cheese and black pepper aioli on a sweet potato bun. The ingredient list sounds like potential overkill, but Ida sang to me with this burger. It was cooked to a perfect medium and left a huge puddle on my plate. A fried oyster po’ boy was almost as good. Heaped with a spicy remoulade, it was sloppily decadent.
The chicken wings that used to come with eating instructions have had an overhaul, too. “It helps if you use your knife to cut them at the joint,” my bartender told me. The wings were tough and coated my hands with a sweet, sticky glaze as I tried to wrestle them apart. Now the wings are cut into segments and dressed in a more traditional hot pepper sauce.
But those sticky wings did give me a chance to run to the bathroom and discover a bit more of the kitsch that gives Ida Claire her personality. If while washing your hands you find yourself tempted to splash your face with some of the vintage aftershaves on a small tray next to the sink, do your best to resist. Aqua Velva, Old Spice and the other bottles available have fallen out of fashion for a reason. If your date tells you that you smell like her grandfather, it’s not a compliment.
Order the shrimp and grits because they are decadent and delicious, if predictable. Sometimes you want a plate that offers heartwarming familiarity, and Parmesan grits speak to anyone who is hungry. Maybe the new pork chop is more familiar, too. Franke says the tea-braised pork shank I found dry and confusing has been swapped out for a tasso rubbed pork chop with a sweet potato purée.
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Oh, Ida. Drastic changes or not, she certainly seduced the locals while I was in her dining room. With a sharp design and menu prices that top out at $26 and more frequently hover in the teens, this restaurant is potentially a decadent bargain. Considering the other meals available at these price points outside the loop, Ida is obviously a welcomed addition to the neighborhood.
Too much of her menu came off as tone deaf to win me over during my visits, though — like the Vice Cake my server absolutely freaked out about when I asked for advice about my dessert order. “Isn’t that just so creative,” he gushed. To me, it just looked like a chocolate layer cake with a thick shard of bacon jutting from the top layer of thick, ultra-sweet ganache. Far from innovative, all I saw was another abstraction of bacon abuse in a slice of cake filled with regrets. The Vice Cake remains on the menu.
There’s some promise here, for sure. And if the same guys who stood up Whiskey Cake — a restaurant I’ve always enjoyed — can continue to smooth out some of Ida’s rough edges, I might even commit. For now, I could use a break from this suburban Southern belle. Ida is a looker, for sure, but she needs more heart to back it up. And she’d be much better served by saving her bacon for burgers and brunch.