Clark Food & Wine Co. is a difficult restaurant to pin down. The name suggests a casual but refined eatery — a California bistro, maybe? — and some of the plates leaving the kitchen support that guess. Roasted beets with goat cheese are plated with artistry and flair, and asparagus receives an egg with a runny yolk and Parmesan cheese. There's avocado toast, a hopelessly trendy dish found on menus all over New York City, and there are brick-oven flatbreads, which are comparatively dated.
Not to be stuffed into any one pantry, there's also a parade of smoked meats that feel vaguely Texan, with brisket and turkey alongside more obscure cuts of meat like Duroc pork, hanging tender steak and quail. Jars of house pickles, rillettes and smoked catfish dip add to the casual barbecue aesthetic, along with sides like collards and cheese-laden mashed potatoes. Clark bills itself as "new Texas dining," and that holds up until you hit the salumi flatbread, which features speck, among other charcuterie, mozzarella, basil and Parmesan. So it's Italian?
Maybe it's best to go with the flow and appreciate chef Randall Warder's flavors without trying to fit them into any one box, starting with a crab salad that more chefs in Dallas should imitate. Warder takes jumbo lump meat, then gently dresses it in a creamy sauce flecked with mustard seeds and pairs the simple salad with avocado and arugula leaves. The crab meat is plated in a softball-sized heap, lumps still intact, mimicking a perfect crab cake that has yet to be fried. It's big enough to make a light lunch.
It's no surprise that Warder treats his ingredients with respect. He once worked with Dean Fearing at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, where fine caviar was lovingly spooned and regal cuts of meat were coddled. You can see elements of Warder's fine dining background in beets laid out in a meticulous landscape, or crabmeat dressed with care so it doesn't fall apart into strings.
But many of the dishes here have a homier appeal, though they maintain some refinement. Who knew a Cobb salad could be cute? Crunchy bits of bacon, baby romaine, radicchio leaves and tiny slices of avocado form a backdrop for chopped smoked turkey that's dressed in ranch. When you request a half order, the ingredients are carefully placed so they almost overflow from the type of small, white bowl a kid might use for cereal. There's a brisket salad heaped with chopped smoked meat and dressed in green goddess dressing, and a simpler green salad that's filled with snappy vegetables.
In addition to small plates meant for grazing, there are "six packs," which come six bites to a plate and are designed for sharing. Saucy meatballs and Peppadew peppers stuffed with goat cheese and artichoke hearts make perfect snacks if you're dining with a friend, but they're redundant if you're dining alone.
Clark isn't a tapas restaurant, but there are no real entrées on the menu, either. Instead, smoked meats take center stage, and there are a lot of them.
Arctic char isn't so much smoked as it is kissed by the scent of a campfire before it's carefully grilled and plated on a serving board. It quivers when urged by the tines of a fork, to reveal wet and glistening flesh. Shrimp get a similar treatment, as do quail. And each comes with two ramekins of sauce: one made from tomatillos, the other a bright, spicy barbecue number.
The sauces do little for the arctic char, but the barbecue sauce was made for semi-boneless quail grilled until slightly charred and juicy.
In the case of the brisket it's needed. The meat is tender and has a pleasantly textured fat cap, but it will barely earn a passing grade from most barbecue eaters. Barbecue nerds who wake up at 5 a.m. to drive three hours to wait two hours for the state's best brisket will note a lack of both a smoke ring and intramuscular fat. The meat may be tender, but it's dry.
Of course, Clark isn't located in Hill Country; it's on Greenville Avenue, at the southern end of the strip that was recently renovated with sidewalks, trees and pedestrians. Not long ago, the space was home to the Billiard Bar, where a Spiderman pinball machine flashed and rocked in the corner and a Welsh corgi sat at the bar, occasionally lapping beer. Now, bright swaths of color jump from the cinderblock walls in an otherwise sparsely decorated dining room. Well-dressed patrons sit at the bar, picking at snacks and smoked meats while making their way through the wine list on the menu's back.
For the most part Warder's cooking pleases, but a few dishes fall short of the rest. Pulverized Saltine crackers used to bread fried oysters cling like a thick, heavy quilt. It's a chore to get through a plate of six. The smoked shrimp have a metallic twang and rubbery texture, and a dry chocolate cake topped with marshmallow cream is lackluster. Those serving boards can be a problem, too. They're great for charcuterie, but unsuited for a burger dripping juice. And while the menu offers more hits than misses, it would be nice if the dishes complemented each other better.
Although Clark may not fit into any pre-existing restaurant classification, it's still a reasonably good restaurant. And the sizable patio out front will only add to the draw when the gray of winter rolls back and lets the spring season in. Imagine a sea of diners in the cool night air, each gripping a glass of wine or a cocktail. Some are gnashing teeth to quail bones, while others wrap their mitts around a burger, while still more lean back into plush seating just to take it all in. They're all arguing about what kind of restaurant they're in, and whether they'll return.