On a January weeknight, one of the unseasonably warm ones, The Chesterfield was absolutely packed. Not with patrons, necessarily; the space was far from capacity. But downtown's newest temple to mixology was overflowing with good vibes. Pandora filled the room with the redundant baseline of 12-bar blues and drinkers shouted their orders in that new vague code that's trendy these days. "I like gin, but nothing sweet," said a woman in a belted black dress and knee-high boots. Another wanted vodka, maybe with some fruit.
A handful of drinkers mingled at the bar and a few others soaked up the weather in seats that seemed to spill onto the patio out front. One couple flirted, with oversized smiles and butterfly hands, while another looked past their relationship's prime. Behind the bar was Eddie "Lucky" Campbell, the man behind the Chesterfield, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and his trademark crown.
He struck a purposeful stance, feet wider than his shoulders, and held a stainless steel cocktail shaker high over his right shoulder. Many bartenders are content with a more utilitarian cocktail agitation, but not Campbell — not tonight. The long-haired bartender with a whiskey-and-razor-blades voice danced as he put a froth on a whiskey sour. It was that kind of night.
Devils on Horseback $6
Steak frites $29
Green falafel $6
Over the past few years, as a bustling cocktail culture blossomed in Oak Cliff, the Cedars, Highland Park and even Plano, Dallas' city center has, until recently, remained decidedly fedora-free. There were clubs, if drinks the color of Skittles were your thing. A handful of bars served up canned beer and shots of whiskey on the cheap. Hotel bars here and there poured decent martinis. But there wasn't a single cocktail den. Downtown Dallas needed a bar like the Chesterfield. Now, when the bar is shaking and pouring on all cylinders, it's a magical place to drink.
When plates are perfect, the Chesterfield can be a magical place to eat, too. Behind the pass is Michael Ehlert, who came to Dallas by way of Daniel Boulud's DBGB, a casual eatery spawned from one of Manhattan's best-known chefs. He brought with him a penchant for house-made sausages, beautiful salads dressed with restraint and burgers topped with pickles so large they have to be held in place with a bamboo stake.
Some of his work would undoubtedly impress upon his former mentor, like that strip steak: perfectly seared, rich with flavor and paired with Bordelaise, a sauce as old as time, spun anew with a quiet murmur of barbecue. Or Ehlert's competent mussels, swimming in a buttery brine adorned with soft strands of leeks that I found myself fishing for with the tines of my fork.
His burger may join the ranks of Dallas' best, at once beefy and delicateand cooked with precision. (Oh, that's what medium-rare tastes like.) And that falafel, encased in a dense, salty crunchy crust that was so good it belongs in a pillowy pita, topped with tahini and cool, crisp cucumber.
Other plates wobble some. Braised short ribs included perfectly shaped cubes of beef braised far too long. Over-rendered and robbed of their fat (the very essence of a short rib), the meat was dry — a shame, considering that the parsnip puree and reduction sauce that finished the plate played their support rolls impeccably.
A fettuccine carbonara swam, and damn near drowned, in cream, and flatbreads looked pretty but tasted plain, while salt was over-used in nearly every dish.
Scallops seared a deep golden brown maintained translucence and their clean oceanic character, but the trio of shellfish nested in undercooked risotto. I wanted the rich rice dish to stick to my ribs, but not my molars — troubling for a $28 plate. Other things troubled me when I started to add up the dollar signs.
Back on that magical January evening, that beautiful strip steak would have set me back $23, a bargain worth screaming about. Now it costs $29, a price that's only fair. A raw oyster special commands $3 a shell, as much as I've ever paid in any city, and while the bivalves are tiny, briny and taste beautiful, a few had been mangled by a ham-handed shucker.
Service can be inconsistent, too, as evidenced by a lovely couple sitting to my side on the patio one evening. They'd recently kicked off retirement, and while many couples that share decades let their conversation go stale, these two volleyed all evening like marital tennis stars. You can only wait so long on your chicken, though, and when I saw fidgeting hands I lobbed them a question.
"So, what do you think of the service?" I asked of the wife. "What service?" she shot back in perfect rhythm.
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Despite what I suspect was an off night (even Campbell's cocktail shaker seemed a bit subdued that evening), the Chesterfield's grand barroom is a great space to spend your time. Beautiful chandeliers cast a golden hue and the music bounces from swinging blues to big band to bebop and back again. When your hand is cradling a well-balanced cocktail and the stars align, it's hard not to tap your foot here. And I'm most sure more than one romance has spawned in the long booth that runs the length of the place.
It's a known fact that boozy cocktails are the hardest beverage to pair with food, so on a night when things were humming, I tested Campbell. The devils on horseback — bacon-wrapped dates — aren't on the menu, but available by request. I asked my waitress to have the bartender pair a drink with the dish, and a few minutes later two old-fashioneds arrived with a plate boasting three modest dates.
Stuffed with blue cheese and wrapped in smoky, chewy bacon, the snack was fine on its own. But when I took a sip of whiskey and then another bite from the date, an entire galaxy shifted. Pork, salt, caramel, dusky mold and citrus flavors mingled perfectly under a shroud of smoke, all of it amplified by the subtle burn of alcohol. My mouth has not been that happy in some time.
The artistry of classical cocktail alchemy is a true soulcraft. When a competent bartender blends fine spirits with passion, skill and balance, the tapestry of flavors to be experienced is as infinite as it is inspiring. A single glass can hold an entire summer afternoon in its crystal cradle. A simple tumbler will capture a smoky basement bar from a lost era with a single, well-accented whiskey. There's a tale in every drink, and — while the staff is having trouble with inconsistent cooking and service that needs polish — Campbell and his team of bartenders have proven themselves to be more than adept storytellers.