In the past six months, downtown Dallas has seen the arrival of two titans of fine French dining. The French Room, a storied space with a century of history, reopened to considerable acclaim. Just blocks away, Bullion offers an equally refined take on classical gastronomy in an art-filled space designed to attract national attention — and also designed to look like a giant gold bar.
The French Room and Bullion represent millions of investment dollars and two of Dallas’ finest chefs at the peaks of their powers. It’s a battle of Goliath vs. Goliath.
Between them — indeed, directly behind the French Room — we have our David. The underdog. The scrappy little guy. The French restaurant for those of us with high-dollar tastes and working-class budgets. The underdog’s name is The Mitchell, and The Mitchell is fabulous.
It’s primarily a bar, with a deep selection of liquors stored on high, dark wood shelves. There are — count them — 120 gins on offer, and the list of small-production Champagnes is equally impressive. A martini is a safe order here, especially for those who know exactly which gin they want in it.
The Mitchell occupies a funny little space. Two walls are exposed brick, one of them decorated with large mirrors in over-the-top curlicued gold frames. Some of the chairs are cushily regal, but the bar seats are a metal that grows cold in winter. A TV is tuned to Turner Classic Movies; the sound system plays decades-old blues ballads. An antique absinthe service incorporating a statue of a goddess presides over the bar. There’s a small alcove with tables for two under a much lower, gold-painted ceiling.
In the back left corner of the room, a small window offers a bare peek into the kitchen. It’s that kitchen that makes The Mitchell not just an endearingly odd bar but one of downtown’s best places to eat.
Here, executive chef Nick Amoriello cooks a short list of French bistro staples, such as croque-madame, steamed mussels, onion soup and steak frites. Amoriello, the last chef at Kitchen LTO when its original location closed in Trinity Groves, has finally found a home that perfectly suits his strengths.
This is a chef with meat on the mind, so it’s not a surprise that one of the appetizers is two big beef bones full of marrow, roasted and topped with ultrathin strings of caramelized onion and a Provencal rub of herbs, hot pepper seeds and parsley ($10). The marrow is piquant on its own and fantastic slathered like meat butter onto the accompanying slices of toasted baguette.
The mussels appetizer is generous enough to serve as a meal for those who don’t need veggies ($11). We counted at least 30 mussels steamed and served in their broth of cava, butter and garlic. It’s a gorgeous centerpiece presented in a Dutch oven rather than a mere bowl, and the broth is so flavorful that no accompanying amount of baguette could possibly be enough to soak it all up.
Tuna crudo may not be a standard French bistro dish, but here Amoriello cleverly dresses the raw fish in the style of a nicoise salad, with thin circles of fingerling potato, olives, yellow cherry tomatoes, a zesty dressing and haricots verts sliced so thin they resemble chives ($14). It’s an original, surprising dish that tastes good, looks great and is ideal for sharing.
In general, I’m pleasantly surprised by how much seafood is on offer at The Mitchell and how good the quality is. The freshness and preparation build to a crescendo with a shrimp and crab galette main course ($22).
A galette is traditionally a sort of freeform cake made of pastry, with a crust folded around filling. That’s not good enough for The Mitchell. Instead, it's more or less a gigantic ball of crabmeat and shrimp, without even the breadcrumb filler that’s commonly used to hold together a crab cake. Over the top? Certainly. Seafood lovers’ heaven? Also likely a yes, especially since it comes atop a bed of wild mushrooms, celery root, roasted grapes and greenery.
Another over-the-top indulgence is the steak frites main course ($20), which features a hanger steak, another big segment of roasted marrow, a pile of fries and some roasted cloves of garlic for good measure. I ordered my steak medium-rare and received perfectly cooked meat, bright pink from edge to edge, bursting with flavor and sitting underneath a pat of the kitchen’s bone marrow butter. It was so good on its own that I saved the housemade steak sauce — which is like regular steak sauce, but with mighty flavor powers — to use as a dip for the fries.
All these buttery bistro favorites can get a little much, so it’s impressive that The Mitchell’s healthier choices don’t feel like cop-outs. Its salads tend towards tangy vinaigrettes and colorful mixtures of frisée, radishes and the occasional poached egg. Its chicken paillard ($14) is practically coated with parsley and grilled to perfection, with long stripes of Gruyere adding depth to the accompanying greens.
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I was more enamored with The Mitchell’s food than its bar. On my first visit, nobody bothered to tell us that there was a printed drinks menu. On a subsequent visit, we encountered the type of server who doesn’t write down orders and returns within 30 seconds having already forgotten them.
In any case, the Champagnes and mean martinis aren’t what make The Mitchell such a pleasant surprise. Just around the corner, the mighty French Room hogs the spotlight, and a few blocks away, Bullion is drawing the whole state’s attention. And then there is the underdog, tucked into a tiny space nearby, serving some of the very best bar food in Dallas without any hype or hubbub. Maybe The Mitchell shouldn’t be this good, but it is.
Don’t count out the underdog.
The Mitchell, 1404 Main St. 214-230-1404. Open 11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.