Tracy Miller and Alice Cottrell believe their restaurant is haunted. They've heard stories from construction workers, toiling well into the wee hours, telling of eerie sounds humming through the spaces in the historic Boyd Hotel where their restaurant took shape after the pair operated a catering company for six years.
Yet what seems to be haunting Local the most is that most pernicious breed of ghoul: lawyers, an affliction nearly impossible to exorcise. When Local opened in February, it was equipped with a signature drink called a Champagne Slurpee, a blend of Rotari, an Italian sparkling wine, with scoops of house-made grapefruit-rosemary sorbet that quickly melt into the fizz. It wasn't long, though, before the pair got a two-page cease-and-desist letter from the legal guns of 7-Eleven Inc., makers of the Slurpee. "We got busted," Miller says. "So we've taken the 'p' out of it." Now the signature slurp is known as a Champagne Sluree, and Miller says they plan to frame the 7-Eleven letter and install it as a piece of artwork on the restaurant's walls.
But the real art here isn't on the walls. It's on the white coup royal Sheffield porcelain. Chef Miller, who worked with chefs Kent Rathbun and George Brown at Seventeen Seventeen and once owned a restaurant called The Health Bar above Star Canyon, calls her minimalist culinary streak "modern American." Her food is tall, or taller than is currently fashionable. But it's not fussed over. You won't see infused oil squirts or paprika dust on the plate rims. "It's just simple, clean," she says. "I like to think that it's refined food style. I've just tried really to concentrate on the details, bringing out the simplicity of a particular menu item."
And if Miller does anything, it is to elevate simplicity. Salads--a strange and wonderful parade of the unexpected--give her away. And though she insists she shuns coiffed food, fastidiousness is evident.
Oven-baked roma tomatoes flank the spinach frisse, a heap imbedded with crispy stalks of blanched asparagus and cluttered with Parmesan shavings. One particular shaving rests on a slope formed in the greens. There on the plank of gray-yellow cheese rests a ruby red shrivel of skillet-fried prosciutto. The meat is stiff and crispy, not like bacon, but like a thin flake of jerky. It's splashed with a sweet dressing blended from basil, brown sugar, lemon juice and olive oil, setting off a compelling blend of flavors, especially when the prosciutto is tethered on the fork with a cheese crumble and a leaf dripping with this simple citrus-sparked dressing.
It'd be fair to say Miller loves fiddling with sweetness. She toys with sugar, using it to dampen volatile ingredients that might obliterate carefully struck balances. Yet sugar, too, is a dangerous substance. Sweetness dulls the palate. That's why the fried pear salad is such an inspiring work. Pear applications in salads are nothing revolutionary, but they're usually just left on their own, with only crafty slicing techniques employed to distinguish them from those still on the tree. Miller massages her pears, not only by the knife but by tossing them into a sauté pan with butter and brown sugar. The slices are tamed, softened, more ready to surrender flavors that might bond more readily with a patch of supple greens and crumbled blue cheese. The salad is splashed with a dressing rendered from the pear pan drippings and more balsamic.
Balsamic is an overused ingredient that becomes a destructive force in untrained hands. Think how many times a fine piece of beef or game has been mercilessly abused by its concentrated force. Miller displays an uncommon respect for the stuff. In a thing she calls spring greens plus balsamic strawberries, Miller meticulously slices a pair of berries, disassembles them, anoints them with a few drops of aged balsamic blended with brown sugar and puts the berries back together before depositing them next to greens. The results can bend minds. The natural raciness of the berries is preserved while just the earthiness of the balsamic creeps in to cleverly frame them.
This is the way it is here. Virtually everything is an exercise in meticulous approachability. Designed by Cottrell, a boutique hotel designer by trade, Local's 50-seat dining room is clean, with demarcated sections and old hardwood floors. One nook is raised and trimmed in brown wool shag carpeting. Another has a brick wall bearing a restored early-20th-century billboard: "Cardui, The woman's tonic." Cardui is a 38-proof "medicine" designed to relieve menstrual "floods" and the perils of constipation, an affliction one hopes could be better relieved by a few plates of Miller's greens. Tables are parquet laminate. Banquettes are done in "licorice texture black" leather, and tables feature tiny, heavily shellacked magazine collages created by San Francisco artist Rex Ray. An outdoor courtyard in the back remains to be exploited, where Miller and Cottrell plan to install a lounge with outdoor sofas.
Such a move may threaten pretentiousness, but the fears disappear on the plate. The menu is divided into short order (salads, appetizers) and tall order (entrées), and each entry contains wine pairing suggestions from a small but highly eclectic beverage list. It features a Washington Cabernet Franc as well as Chimay Premiere, the Trappist monk beer that serves as a pairing suggestion for Miller's cheeseburger. It's tall: a fat patty bred with parsley, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, sautéed onions, egg and diced gruyere cheese to add a rich nuttiness. It's packed with smoked cheddar, bib lettuce and a smear of house-made "secret sauce" between a buffed pain au lait roll from Eatzi's. A cup of house-made fries, stacked vertically, rests nearby.
In addition to salads, Miller works brilliance with fish. Citrus-rubbed salmon is a beautiful composition, an intense peach-hued slab of fish on a bed of firm couscous. Bright green sugar snap peas are littered with sea salt specks and assembled on one end of the plate. Opposite is a grilled lime. Pinches of mint leaves were dropped throughout, including one shaped into a floral bloom and inserted into the center of the lime. The flaky fish, rubbed with a blend of lime, ginger, sake, rice wine vinegar and olive oil, was clean and rich.
Buttery sea bass on a bed of jasmine rice was even cleaner--an unabashed display of fresh fish flavors. The preparation leaves almost no chef footprints: lightly dribbled with butter and flurried with panko bread crumbs then finished in the oven.
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Halibut is more fiddled with. Parked on grilled country bread (it grows soggy after sitting for a few moments), the fish is dusted with cayenne, crusted with hazelnuts and mustard seed, sautéed in a skillet with a little butter, then splashed with chardonnay and poached with thyme, kalamata olives and capers. The flavors (sweet and briny) and textures (brittle and satiny) foil one another without a distracting fight.
Fried free-range chicken performs in a similar way, working homey comfort with provocative sensuousness. A clean breast is marinated in buttermilk, basil and salt, coated with flour, baking soda and baking powder, and fried in a big black iron skillet before it's finished in the oven. The juicy breast is like a deep-fried cloud (the baking powder gives the coat an airy rise), one with nary a hint of grease gloss, a wonderfully fitting innovation for Dallas.
Local is a tight little restaurant unsullied with pretensions. It is a slice of homegrown culinary dazzle that bubbled up organically from the Dallas pavement, steering clear of phony ambitions to pose like New York or L.A. And it can hold its own with whatever those cities might throw at it. (Note: Local will close for summer break August 17 and reopen September 3. )
2936 Elm St., 214-752-7500. Open 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. $$-$$$