The last time I talked with Jack Chaplin at any length, he was considering pulling up stakes and going back East where he came from, instead of swimming upstream (so to speak), making a living as a seafood restaurateur in Dallas. I say, three cheers and raise a glass to the notion that he's staying here with us, a conclusion I'm jumping to because in the last year Jack has opened two more properties: the Raw Bar, a late night blues and oyster bar on Lower Greenville near his namesake Daddy Jack's Oyster and Chowder House and, most recently, Daddy Jack's Wood Grill in Deep Ellum. Chef Jack Chaplin is like the maritime Johnny Appleseed of North Texas, spreading fish instead of apples through the Dallas desert. Somehow, his fishy ideas always seem to take root.
White-tablecloth quality at red-checkered prices has been Chaplin's lifetime goal as a restaurant owner. Chaplin is a man who wouldn't eat at the Mansion as long as the dress code required a tie: for Jack, food isn't a style you put on and take off, it's a way of life. He wisely settled on seafood as his prime medium--something we want and something he knows and we don't. Jack's seafood is easy, inexpensive, good, and fun as well as delicious. (Besides the restaurants he owns, the success of Lefty's in Addison owes a lot to Jack's philosophy of the table--his ex-partner Kenny Bowers opened what is basically a copy of Daddy Jack's (from lobster-red walls to lobster) out on Belt Line, with Jack's blessing and support. It seems to be Chaplin's attitude that there's room in this pond for all the fishes.)
Daddy Jack is not the only proprietor of the Wood Grill. This is a restaurant determined to destroy the cliche that too many cooks spoil the broth, and he's found some culinary soul brothers to share this kitchen with. Both chef Anthony Guercio, formerly morning sous-chef at Star Canyon (before that, he worked with Dean Fearing at the Mansion) and chef Bruno Melli have an interest in the Wood Grill, and so far this unorthodox cooking by committee is working well. The shared goal, according to Guercio, is to play with people's taste memories, to cook food that's really approachable and serve it up in an atmosphere to which people can come several times a week. (It's a place, says Guercio, where you can "wear a Gucci suit or bring your kids.") That means this is a kitchen that sends out good-tasting, not just good-looking, food. The dishes are likely to sound familiar and chances are the sauce was made in the pan the food was cooked in, scraping up every bit of the flavor.
Daddy Jack's Wood Grill has signed a lease on the best location in Deep Ellum, which has been occupied by a string of losers ever since Buffalo Club muscled its way into The Quadrangle. The dining scene in Deep Ellum used to be one of the most exciting in town--food here was just breaking free from Southern Southwestern cliches. The scene slipped, but it's been climbing back from boredom lately, and Daddy Jack's Wood Grill sets the new tone, the new demand: good food, no bull. The crowd when I ate there included a number of Dallas "foodies."
I half-expected this place to make a stab at chicdom, to try to sell itself to nose rings with an aggressively hip atmosphere like The Green Room. Instead, the most noticeable difference between this and the Chowder House on Greenville Avenue is that the walls are not red. The kitchen is open, so the chefs can look out over the tables. The tables are covered with red-and-white-checkered cloths, chairs are standard Thonet-style brass. You've seen this kind of look before, but design is not the issue here. Food is.
We were, in a way, lucky to be with some people who'd never eaten at one of Jack's places when we first visited the new Wood Grill in Deep Ellum. (It's so gratifying when you invite someone to dinner and it's a good experience--the chef's proficiency appears to be your good idea. We didn't spend too much time collecting credit and buffing our nails over this one, though, because we were too busy eating.) This being a Jack Chaplin enterprise, we didn't try the grilled chicken with corn gravy; or the roast rack of lamb with Dijon; or the grilled filet with apple bacon, roasted walnut, and Roquefort butter. They all sounded tempting, but good seafood is still so scarce in Dallas that, expecting quality, we ate fish.
A tower of bread slices, Empire sourdough, and cold pats of butter clue you in that this is a place about quality. And the gorgeous salad of grilled portobello and sticks of asparagus over greens confirms the first impression. Many of the dishes here are familiar to anyone who's eaten at Jack's place on Greenville (or for that matter at Lefty's). On its written menu, the Wood Grill looks like a proven experiment. There's the bargain-basement lobster, the mussels marinara, the New England crab cake and the lobster diavolo. Then you hear the list of specials dreamed up daily by the chefs and it's all news: How about snapper on top of curried rice with green peas and a pineapple-spiced rum sauce?