Everyone is familiar with Dean Fearings and Stephan Pyles and the other big boys of the Dallas dining set, but this year a group of relative unknowns is challenging their celebrity chef status.
Sure, both continue at the top of the table, and the return of Nick Badovinus and Marc Cassel has created substantial buzz. Yet several recognized names—Samir Dhurandhar, Kent Rathbun—allowed their newest ventures to drift off course. So instead, hotspot kitchens run by Randall Copeland (AVA) and Jean-Marie Cadot (Cadot) come to mind when one mulls over the best new restaurants of 2009. Or perhaps Sarah Johannes, who does the heavy lifting at Wolfgang Puck's Five-Sixty. And last year, you could've made a case for another nobody, Graham Dodds at Bolsa.
Then there's this other guy, Christopher Short. Although he rose to the position of executive chef for the Crescent Court—the entire Crescent Court—and headed up The Mansion at Turtle Creek's private dining program, not many people outside the professional chef community knew of his talent. He toiled behind the scenes in near anonymity for more than a decade as Rosewood's Mr. Dependable. That is, until Bella owners Robert Petrie and Tony Porcaro snatched him up for their new Quadrangle operation.
Bella Loaded Caesar salad $7 Chilled avocado soup $8 Beef stogies $11 Fried avocado and seafood salad $18 Bella burger $10 Lamb burger $15 Seared scallop salad $22 Grilled ahi tuna $24
Short can turn an avocado into a chilled soup with the kind of precision that makes it impossible to stop spooning it. Even though you think, "you know, there's not much to this," your palate is suddenly awakened by a pleasant swelling of lime and then receives a gentle nudge from chunks of spicy salmon as the inscrutable taste of avocado slinks back into focus. Then you find yourself lost in the creamy, somehow light broth and the entire process starts all over again. The centerpiece of his shrimp salad is another avocado, this time rolled in blue corn meal and deep fried—a mesmerizing, upscale take on chips and guacamole.
Seared scallop salad may be the perfect Uptown Dallas bistro dish. Not only is it fresh and airy—the salad side—there's an Asian-inspired glaze, burnished, sweet and vaguely similar to flavors appearing on so many other menus. In other words, a dish that's not too heavy, somewhat trendy (there's mango, but no green tea or pomegranate) and easily recognizable. It's just the thing for debt-ridden Maserati owners. And yet for those who truly care about food, the chef prepares scallops kissed with heat until the shellfish barely firms in the center, delicate and sushi-tender. It's a touch the Fearings and the Pyles of the world would envy,
Hey, you got the big guys down; why not kick them around a little?
These are destination quality dishes in a space reeking of Uptown. Yes, reeking: During my first visit to Bella, pretty people generally consigned to the Nick & Sam's-Nick & Sam's Grill rotation—meaning top-heavy women, cocksure men and the still ubiquitous $30,000 millionaires—clogged the bar area, barely deigning to glance at us honest to goodness five-figure types engulfed in the dining experience. Of course, Porcaro and Petrie came to Bella via New York, Las Vegas and Nick & Sam's. The next time I dropped by, other steakhouse-types filled seats, calling for dirty Grey Goose martinis and other trendy concoctions. When a sports car pulled up at the valet and a guy with Owen Wilson hair stepped out, wait staff inside nudged each other and laughed as if at some private joke.
Oh, they switched to fawning and obsequious once he reached the door...let's just say the crowd is what it is.
Short's cooking, however, is on another plane. Even the simple All-American burger under his spell becomes what it should be. That's right, a genuine, meaty thing dotted only by a modest swell of salt and pepper, enough to bring out some of the character buried deep in the beef. Only the focaccia bun and his insistence on adding some flair (in the form of red and green tomato slices) mark this as a burger with aspiration.
There are times when the kitchen slips, of course. Grilled ahi tuna is right, technically, but lacks the Wow! factor to make it stand out. His loaded Caesar salad impresses only because Short dares to arrange anchovy slices on top. And while the tres leches cake shows quite a bit of promise, the slice presented on my final visit clearly exceeded its expiration date.
Minor quibbles, when everything else is so damn good.
Bella joins Neighborhood Services, Maximo, Park and most of the restaurants opening in these recessionary times in adopting a "no reservations" policy. During the week, it's not a problem. There's plenty of space at the bar to wait things out, if necessary—and spend some extra cash. These policies provide recession relief for the facility, not necessarily the diner. On weekends, however, the bar fills with poseurs. With no lobby or waiting space, quite a bit of unseemly jostling ensues.
Take your lumps. The discomfort, the Owen Wilson wannabes, the working girls—Short's cooking blots out the entire scene. Heavy on salads and sandwiches, there are also standout starters, such as shredded beef "stogies" (spring rolls with a mango salad) and a gamey but sophisticated burger of lamb, spread with goat cheese and almonds, kind of a high-end version of the pljeskavica recipe favored in Balkan countries.
It's not a difficult menu; there's nothing to deconstruct here. Short's kitchen just executes with great skill. And the two guys producing the show—Porcaro and Petrie—not only have racked up years of restaurant industry-acumen, they also know the market.
Of course, if you're going for that certain, um, ambiance around the bar peculiar to that market, pick a weekend. And enjoy the overflow from Nick & Sam's Grill.
Bella 2626 Howell St., 214-855-5001. Open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$
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