For most diners these days, City Hall Bistro is a likable neighborhood restaurant. For many of the bistro’s employees, it’s a redemption story.
City Hall Bistro opened in summer 2017 to little fanfare — or at least, to less fanfare than the other restaurant in the Adolphus Hotel’s front lobby, the French Room. Conceived as a more casual, friendly, all-day alternative to the French Room’s opulence, City Hall almost immediately met with criticism. A “first look” in the Observer suggested that the menu was chasing trends instead of building an identity: paella-of-the-day, squid ink pasta and, for some reason, uni. The uni, our writer noted, wasn’t even fresh.
Several months later, City Hall Bistro corrected a glaring opening oversight — they didn’t have an executive chef. Jeramie Robison was looking for a measure of redemption, too. In late 2016 he’d been the subject of one of former Morning News critic Leslie Brenner’s harshest reviews as the chef in charge of Uchi; Brenner compared one sauce to glue and said Robison’s dishes “rarely (if ever) thrill.”
Robison has had over a year to settle in at City Hall, and the menu doesn’t look at all like it did at opening. The chef reconfigured his kitchen’s offerings to match the space’s physical assets, including a scorching-hot pizza oven.
Robison says he has been “building the menu around what I have to work with.” Some of the early dishes were challenging to make in the kitchen’s setup. “The paellas were great when I got here. I would like to work back towards having one.”
Gone are the squid ink, sea urchins and twee menu section names; now the open kitchen is working a concise, focused list of Mediterranean-style fare that doesn’t try too hard. Robison’s team — he’s retained all his cooks for a year now, an almost unheard-of retention rate — sells simple, elegant, good food. It’s just what downtown needs.
Time and again, we were struck by how dishes at City Hall Bistro seemed like better versions of foods we could try making at home. There’s seemingly not much to the mixed-grain salad with veggies and a feta cheese dressing, but adding crisp toasted chickpeas enlivens the texture and makes the bowl more compelling ($8). The grilled broccolini is just as the name says, but with smoky black char marks, lemon zest and crushed hazelnuts to tug the flavors in more sophisticated directions ($8).
The ricotta gnocchi, luxuriously soft but quickly seared on each side, are the best-formed in town since FT33 closed early this year ($22). Surprisingly, they’re buried under a truly huge amount of richly savory sauce — braised lamb, long fingers of high-quality eggplant — so finding a bit of pasta is a little like a treasure hunt.
The only term on this simple but comforting menu that’s likely to puzzle diners is jidori chicken. It’s a bit of a nebulous term, a Japanese word that roughly means free-range but also implies an especially pampered lifestyle for the animals and a high quality of flavor.
“This guy that started this style of chicken wanted to grow a chicken that could be eaten raw,” Robison explains. “That clean, that well taken care of.”
The kitchen has their work cut out prepping the dish. They serve a true half-chicken, white and dark meat, with the skin still on, but the meat is presented in one single seamless, boneless strip. The deboned half-birds marinate in olive oil and house-made za’atar spice mix before the skin is crisped up in a cast-iron skillet and finished in the oven. The result is a delight, served alongside a couple of dipping sauces and a bowl of ultra-lemony rice that’s more of an acquired taste.
City Hall Bistro is an all-day hotel restaurant, so it needs to excel before dinner, too. Judging from a recent Sunday brunch, it’s succeeding. A handful of dinner options surface at brunch, too, like fattoush salad and the kitchen’s spin on Spanish patatas bravas ($5 as a side). The potatoes are twice-cooked, guaranteeing fiercely browned edges and fluffy soft insides like little crispy potato clouds. Then they get tossed in a smoky paprika sauce and topped with a squirt of garlicky aioli.
The potatoes come with City Hall’s breakfast sandwich, which helps explain the sandwich’s $16 price tag. Another explanation: It’s a damn good sandwich. It starts with a toasted English muffin, then adds an immaculately balanced combination of two eggs, sweet roasted red pepper jelly, sharp white cheddar and the diner’s choice of protein. Our waiter suggested slices of grilled wagyu beef, and our waiter was correct. It’s a vertiginous, beefy tower of a sandwich, two hands required, with egg yolk and pepper jelly inevitably dripping down fingers.
The baked egg skillet also justifies a $16 price tag. It’s really a riff on shakshuka, the Tunisian dish of eggs poached in a spicy tomato-and-pepper sauce. At City Hall, the whole skillet gets thrown in the oven until the egg yolks are baked through and the dots of feta cheese on top get to browning. There are four eggs nestled into the cast-iron pan, and four slices of oiled and gently grilled bread alongside.
The sauce is the star here — San Marzano tomatoes cooked down for four to five hours, then mixed with red peppers — although City Hall’s fondness for lemon is clear in a small scoop of cooked lemon peel that leaves its sweet-tart thumbprint on every ingredient it touches.
Tucked into the back right corner of the Adolphus lobby, up an escalator from the main desk, City Hall Bistro hides almost unmarked behind a buzzing lobby bar. The restaurant hasn’t really been adopted by too many Dallas locals — on every visit, our waiters asked what hotel room number to bill, then incredulously asked, “Oh, do you live nearby? What brings you in today?”
Isn’t solid food enough? Every hotel could use a restaurant like City Hall: quiet, reliable, with good wine and a focused menu of pleasantly surprising preparations that clearly start from excellent ingredients. Downtown Dallas still needs more middle-class eateries like this, between the working-lunch sandwich haunts and the ostentatious dining rooms where executives buy Champagne with other people’s money.
The new City Hall Bistro isn’t trying too hard to reinvent the culinary wheel or chase every trend to hit Instagram. And, aside from the occasional extra squeeze of lemon, that commitment to modesty is a breath of fresh air. Who’d have thought a luxury hotel would give downtown the down-to-earth restaurant it needed?
City Hall Bistro, 1321 Commerce St. Open daily 7 a.m.-2 p.m. and Sunday through Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5-11 p.m.
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.