Eric Brandt, executive chef of Highland Park's Bistro 31, never attended culinary school. Instead, the self-taught chef ditched his computer science degree to study directly with top-end toques. He worked under Fabio Trabocchi at the celebrated Maestro, a posh Italian restaurant in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The restaurant, known for refined takes on rustic Italian cooking, closed because of a faltering economy and bad location, but not before Trabocchi won a James Beard Foundation Award for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region.
That's not a bad apprenticeship for an aspiring young chef like Brandt.
After working at Maestro and another Ritz-Carlton property in nearby Georgetown, Brandt got an offer from chef Dean Fearing to sling sautés at the Mansion on Turtle Creek. Any cook would jump at the chance to work for one of the creators of Southwestern cuisine, and as Brandt's family had moved to Texas from Maryland years before, the Mansion presented him with the chance to elevate his cooking and make Dallas his home. So, he packed his knives and moved south.
During their time together at the Mansion, Fearing exposed Brandt to a new level of refined French cuisine. John Tesar from New York City ran the kitchen next, and then Bruno Davaillon. Each chef's style left an imprint on Brandt's cooking, and each made Brandt a better cook.
Every aspiring chef has to weigh the benefits of learning from a pedigreed chef against the desire to go at it alone, but Lombardi Family Concepts, responsible for restaurants in Dallas, Austin and Las Vegas, tipped the scales for Brandt when it offered him the chance to run Bistro 31's kitchen.
"They wanted something that incorporated a much rounder version of Mediterranean," Brandt says. Previous Lombardi restaurants, like Taverna and La Fiorentina, had a much tighter regional focus, and the group wanted a restaurant that would embrace what it called the "Highland Park palate." So Brandt took the pasta dishes from his days at Maestro, and the potatoes mousseline and ratatouille from the Mansion, and combined them to create a menu that straddles French, Spanish and Italian cooking.
It's an eclectic offering: Salt cod croquettes, escargot and steak tartare cater to the neighborhood's well-traveled jet setters, while grilled salmon and a burger appeal to Dallasites who have never left home. For now, it's working. Customers waiting for tables out front on weekend evenings signal Highland Park's newest hot spot. Inside the small, loud restaurant, more diners wait for seating and waiters lean over tables to hear their guests.
Cocktail enthusiasts will be disappointed — the restaurant has a bar, but not a single stool. Instead, people cluster wherever they can find space, pinned to the bar by nearby tables while ordering sugary drinks and waiting for their seats in the dining room. During one of my visits, a 6-foot-4 former rugby player sipped from a glass garnished with a cherry and a rose petal as he stood next to two polished blondes nursing white wine. The space was energetic and cramped but still somehow pleasant.
Speaking of wine, Bistro 31's list can be a chore to navigate. The printed menu neglects vintage, showing only appellation and vineyard, so ordering can involve an extended dialogue with a manager. If you're lazy, it's a crapshoot. That Sonoma Coast pinot noir might sound attractive if it's an '09, but other vintages may not be worth the steep $77 price. This is a restaurant that's easier to navigate by the glass, and the staff is happy to pour you a sip to make sure you find what you're looking for.
With a drink in hand, focusing on food is easier, and Brandt's dishes are worthy of your attention if you can get past some noisy plates.
Take the escargot, a dish that teases with color and vibrancy. Snails are pleasing on their own with a bit of garlicky butter. A walnut pistou (think pesto) adds a second welcomed dimension, and mushrooms play off the earthy mollusk. But pork belly seems an almost silly display of kitchen bravado. While Brandt's is a fine example of the fatty cut, it's redundant with other components of the dish.
Brioche-crusted sole is equally unrestrained. The buttery breadcrumbs encase snow-white fish cooked perfectly, paired with a simple ratatouille heavy with eggplant and basil. You could make a case for the butter-rich mashed potatoes that support the dish and even that emerald green ring of basil oil that circles the plate, but three dabs of rich, thick aioli cross the line. There's already plenty of fat here.
Other dishes present more simply and ultimately shine more brightly. A pork chop special was cooked exactly as ordered, a rosy medium rare, and paired with wilted kale and ricotta-laden macaroni and cheese for a homey comfort plate.
Duck, though slightly overcooked on multiple occasions, was paired with a zucchini-studded couscous and a simple tangle of greens, showing a kitchen capable of simple, refined cooking.
The gorgeous crostini tasted as nice as they looked. Ham with manchego cheese; clean, fresh salmon and avocado; and chicken liver with sweet reduced onions were best. The brandade, a coarse puree of salt cod, and fig versions underwhelmed.
A small disk of steak tartare, dressed simply and studded with shallots and capers, was a textbook preparation; my table cleaned the plate.
The Lombardi group is known for pastas, and Bistro 31 delivers four imported versions and a house-made tortelli. Trofie is the most interesting, pairing gently caramelized roasted cauliflower, pancetta and a lightly applied but heavy cream sauce. The anchovy the menu promised, however, seemed missing from my plate. Brandt says he grinds the salty fish up with breadcrumbs used to garnish the dish to hide them from timid customers, but the trick works too well if you're a fan of the fish.
A memorable Caesar salad hid the same fish behind sweet, bright picadillo peppers. The chef is testing the waters, but he doesn't seem to think the Highland Park palate is quite as ready for rustic European cooking as he'd hoped. Not that it matters — Bistro 31's dining room is packed.
On a busy weekend evening, tables spilled out onto sidewalks with diners taking their seats late into the evening. "I've been working since 8 in the morning," a waiter announced as a large group took seats on the patio, just outside the awning. Service is typically excellent, but some of the staff seemed fatigued at times, which can happen when you keep a restaurant open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. What the Lombardis can't have in seating, they make up for in volume.
Just past 10 p.m. the place was still abuzz as diners supped on $27 lamb loins and $16 Kobe beef burgers — prices that push the bill into special occasion territory for some. This is Highland Park, though, and the menu seems fair given the surrounding real estate and the luxury cars the valets jockey around the parking lot.
For this crowd, Bistro 31 is a home run, coupling competent cooking with good service in a relaxed restaurant that runs like a well-oiled machine. Although it just recently opened, the place feels seasoned, which you might expect from a restaurant group with a corporate office and snappy business cards.
Brandt may shy away from the aggressive European flavors of his mentors, but he appears to be resonating with his target audience in what might be the Lombardi Family Concepts' finest offering.