Picking the best chef for Dallas Observer’s Best of Dallas© issue is rarely straightforward. Some years are easier than others, as when chef Matt McCallister opened FT33, turning Dallas’ fine dining scene on its head, but most years I’m forced to sift through a bunch of really great kitchen wizards and somehow proclaim that one is better than all of the rest.
Over the last year or so, I’ve seen lots of chefs really come into their own in this town. Tim Byres took open-flame cooking to the next level with his second location of Smoke. John Tesar revolutionized the steakhouse with Knife, and Michael Martensen and his crew reinvented the Arts District with Proof + Pantry. When it came down to it, though, each of these chefs and their teams built on something that was already there. This year I wanted to celebrate something truly new and inventive. I wanted a chef who was willing to gamble.
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And when I looked at the problem from that point of view, this year’s choice was my easiest. So many times I’ve interviewed chefs and discussed trends that were flourishing in other cities that haven’t taken off in Dallas, and I get the same explanation — they say "Dallas isn’t ready for that," which is exactly how Dallas’ food scene remains exactly where it is.
Misti Norris doesn’t ask what’s working well elsewhere in Dallas or beyond when considering a dish for Small Brewpub in Oak Cliff. Instead, she cooks whatever fascinates her and her staff. The results are a list of dishes full of animal parts, pasta shapes, condiments and other ingredients in combinations that have never been featured in Dallas before. Her menu is filled with innovative stuff, and it’s shifting the Dallas food scene. That she’s doing this with a full dining room in a city that has a reputation for an undeveloped palate is a huge accomplishment.
I'm not the only one who noted her cooking as exceptional. This year Bon Appetite named Small Brewpub among America’s best new restaurants. Norris and her team wouldn’t have been noticed if she’d served up another short rib platter or a yellowtail crudo. Her cooking makes you think a little. It sometimes makes you wonder if you should actually be eating what’s in front of you, and then it always reels you in. Dallas is more than ready for plates like these, and we could use more chefs with the balls to serve them.