UPDATE, July 25: Peter Barlow is the new chef at Fauna. Barlow was Flora Street’s lead chef from opening until spring 2018.
"I am excited to announce that Peter Barlow will be heading up the Fauna kitchen on the two days a week of its operation, until fall, beginning immediately. We will evaluate in the busy season whether and how much to expand services in Fauna, but two nights a week make it very special. Peter and I would like to have guest chef appearances, as well," Stephan Pyles says. "I selected Peter from a large number of candidates to open Flora Street Café in 2016 and have never been happier with a choice. I had Peter in mind from the onset for Fauna, but he was not available for a full-time position, with his pop-up dinners and consultancies.
"The menu now will have a more regional focus with masas, chile and moles – all with modern interpretations. Peter and I work very well together and will continue to bring Fauna to new heights. Peter is as talented a chef as I ever mentored and I am thrilled to be working with him again. Our teaming up together at major Food and Wine festivals, such as Pebble Beach, Santa Fe, Hawaii and Buffalo Gap, have been a real culinary bonding experience, and our time in Mexico and at restaurants such as Noma have strengthened our understanding of each other’s arts and talents.”
This summer, Flora Street Cafe was supposed to execute a full makeover, an attempt by owner Stephan Pyles to bring some life to a fine-dining kitchen that had lost its way. The main dining room would become a more casual concept, with smoked meats and brunches from chef Tim Byres. The private back dining room, meanwhile, would host small groups of diners for an elegant $150 12-course tasting menu called Fauna.
Now the casual dinner menu is finally here, but Fauna is being scaled back, and its chef is gone. The changes take place amid a wave of leadership turnover: Byres left several weeks ago to pursue solo ventures, followed by Cody Sharp, a longtime Dallas veteran who had been working in the main kitchen.
This morning, the chef tapped to oversee Fauna’s tasting menu called it quits, too. Diego Fernandez had moved from Alinea in Chicago to take the job, but he stayed for just over six weeks before agreeing with Pyles to a mutual, amicable parting of ways.
A representative of Flora Street confirmed Fernandez’s departure to the Observer, explaining that he was hired to run a tasting menu five to six nights a week, but the venture didn’t prove to be viable. Fauna will serve its high-end fare on weekends only, at least until the fall, when weeknight service might resume if demand increases. For now, its interim chef is Liam Byres, Tim’s son.
The future of the main dining room is a little more clear. It’s expected to debut a new casual dinner menu Thursday night, featuring a greatest-hits reel of highlights from previous Pyles menus, including avocado huaraches from Flora Street’s first year and lentil cakes from Samar, which closed in 2014. New lunch and brunch services successfully rolled out before Byres and Sharp left, although writers from both the Observer and D Magazine encountered bigoted waitstaff at brunchtime.
The new dinner menu is a multicultural parade of dishes from different corners of the globe. There’s a whole ceviche section alongside a list of Middle Eastern appetizers like lamb koftes, hummus and housemade naan. There are tricked-up quesadillas, tamales and fried squid tacos, too, as well as pastas and a duck breast with cherry sauce.
Byres told GuideLive that he was leaving Flora Street to focus on his solo career and his passion, live-fire cooking. Sharp now cooks at a new Italian restaurant, Il Bracco. And, in an exclusive interview published just hours after Fernandez left Fauna, Pyles told the Morning News that “it’s actually very good change. ... It’s the restaurant business, changes happen.”
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But it’s hard not to speculate about the emerging pattern. Casualization, reduced services, smaller menus and big-name chef departures are not trends a restaurant wants.
On the bright side, the new Flora Street menu has to be better than the old, formal one, which suffered from inferior ingredients, inadequate execution and a puzzling inability to change with the seasons. This author’s last visit to Flora Street was such a disaster — lackluster oysters topped with a goopy mud-like sauce, uninteresting fish with a flavorless “mole blanco,” dispirited service — that Flora Street’s PR firm called the Observer to ask that we not write about the meal.
Still, Pyles has closed more restaurants than most chefs ever open, and always lands on his feet. It might be a mistake to bet against a cook with such a gift for reinvention. Flora Street’s new dinner service finally debuts Thursday, and we’re waiting for news on what will happen to the tasting menu at Fauna. Maybe things are going to turn around at the Arts District restaurant.
Or, perhaps, the numbers will quit adding up.