Restaurant Reviews

Higher Standard

One of the fascinating elements of Standard is roadkill. Not on the menu, mind you. Still, if an edible animal is killed by an all-season radial rather than a sharp neck twist, does it really matter? Ultimately, it doesn't, because the roadkill is in the restaurant as a prop, glaring at you as you devour one of its distant farm-raised cousins posing on a polenta pedestal.

There they are, a pair of pigeons--New York City pigeons no less--stuffed and perched on a ledge in the Standard dining room. Upstairs a dove of unknown origin is displayed. Each is roadkill, because stuffing and posting a critter that has been stalked and shot is so...gauche. Better to display those that have met death in a BMW's kidney-shaped grill. More urbane, that. In a just world, some enterprising college student would make a bundle selling roadkill deerskin moccasins to vegans. But we all know such capitalist impulses would lead to gridlock in the outlying suburbs as greedy poachers in fleets of Hummers cruised country roads stalking booty.

Resourceful PC taxidermy or not, vegans would hate Standard. It's difficult to dismember a halved quail in the glare of those wistful pigeons without feeling a pang of...hey, this is tasty.

Maybe too tasty. The Hill Country spiced quail is tall. The bird rests on a delicious pad of grilled gorgonzola polenta. The meat is tender and juicy. But chef/owner Tim Byres says he was looking for a strong aroma with the dish. So he anointed the bird with peppercorns, cinnamon, dried mint and brown-butter garlic vinaigrette. The process proves overbearing, at least on one visit. The third visit was more promising; the treatment seemed pulled back, but still not enough to let the quail flavors slip through without exhausting the bird. Let the bird be.

In fact, let it be like the market salad, a brilliant piece of understatement. It's a refreshing mix of daily greens, herbs and vinaigrette--a light but slyly potent splash blended from pickled ginger, soy and daikon radish. Thin slices of watermelon radish burn pink fluorescence around the edges while yellow blossoms crest the heap.

"It's much nicer to be on this side of the tracks," sighs Byres. Byres opened the original Standard on Elm Street in Deep Ellum, but he shuttered it a short time later, weary of the fear of crime scaring away those he was trying to woo, namely the Uptown-Park Cities timid broods who no more would head to Deep Ellum to dine than they would sprinkle their portfolios with bail bond funds. So he struck a deal with businessman Mike Chen to open Standard in the space that was Martini Ranch before it was Stolik. There, Byres and his partners, wife Brianne and Carl Strelecki, tripled the size of the kitchen and moved the lounge space upstairs even as they expanded the dining room.

The menu is little changed. Why should it be? The food was good and it had never reached 80 percent of its intended audience. The Standard capstone moment is the braised beef short ribs, and it's impossible to underestimate the significance of this dish. Harsh labor is expended on its behalf. Ribs are meticulously deconstructed as the meat is pulled from the bones and fat and sinew are teased from the flesh so that every bite reeks of rich beefiness. Beef shreds and fibers are packed into a pan and chilled to congeal before the meat is cut into blocks and seasoned and seared on all sides. On the plate, the dark block, with two loose roasted rib bones barely saddled to the fibers, soaks in cabernet demi-glace. A shallow peak of white bean, onion and apple-smoked bacon puree nuzzles the meat. This is uppity beef and pork and beans, and it sells.

There's no slippage from this point on. Like with the quail, Byres strives for an aromatic fist with the Alaskan halibut, which arrives in a lidded copper pot. Lifting the lid unleashes a torrent of steam, roiling with anise, citrus, Pernod and lime leaf. The fillet looks like a dollop of cream resting on a shambled spread of pea shoots, asparagus, tomato and thin slices of pickled red Fresno chilies. Meat flakes delicately; vegetables are sternly crisp, yet tender. This delicious piece of fish is also a holdover from the Deep Ellum stint. The copper pot is the only change.

Soup is risky in the midst of summer air as thick as flan. The carrot ginger soup seems more suited to fall, or even the first licks of winter--it tastes like pumpkin pie. It's smooth and creamy, yet lithe. It reeks sweetness from a touch of honey but doesn't follow through: a sweet-tooth tease.

Standard's décor is highly amusing, even if you don't count roadkill. Example: Customers squawked about the dim dining room (since when does such squawking result in anything but a penlight with gasping batteries?), and Byres launched an ingeniously stylish solution. Instead of installing a single chandelier in the dining room, he crowded a cluster of them in the ceiling--five total--creating a kind of dangling, electrified still life. These chandeliers flicker and glow in amber and are mostly vintage specimens. One is an old street lamp from New Orleans, converted from gas to juice.

The artwork, too, is assembled in clusters. Abstract acrylic on resin buffers traditional still lifes, landscapes and seascapes. The upper-level lounge, which is chilled compared to the creamy residential cosseting on the lower level, is stiffer, with abstract paintings and splashes of platinums and blues. Music follows this blending; it bathes with an honest edge instead of a contrived glint to force a mood. It isn't self-conscious in any way--not hip, Euro-slick or techno-throb. It's a series of freshly haunting harmonies and grabbing melodies by artists bubbling a few fathoms below the mainstream, and it pairs well with the food, which is served during dinner hours, late-night, Sunday brunch and Sunday supper, when the menu shifts from dishes like shrimp pancakes in champagne cream and salmon roe to simpler fare like chicken-fried steak, fried chicken and potato salad--plus bottomless cocktails.

You probably won't find this on Sunday though: roasted rack of lamb with minted peas and stained-glass anna potatoes with green herb vinaigrette. Trapped in the stained-glass potatoes are perfectly arranged greens: cilantro and tarragon. They resemble a prehistoric fly locked in a hunk of amber. Trapped in the chops are juice, silken textures and rich, lustrous marbling. Yet there is a silly part to this otherwise beautiful presentation. We ordered our lamb as a split order, and it was served in bowls. This meant that whenever we tried to cut the meat into the side of the bowl, the force sent the bowl shuttling across the table.

So we settled on a dessert of root beer granita with tiny apple pies. It's a mug of shaved root beer ice with cream and straws. Fried apple pies are arranged in a half moon across the saucer base. The pies are flaky, greaseless curved pouches like dumplings. Inside, the fruit stings with tartness unblunted by sugar.

Standard reflects confidence and it feels centered--you'd have to be to display roadkill. You don't feel the annoyances of a restaurant trying to be what it isn't: European, New York or riding on some serrated edge of hipness. Like all highly successful restaurants, Standard is simply an honest reflection of the personalities involved and their interpretation of the space they inhabit--a lasting standard. 2816 Fairmount St., 214-720-9292. Open 5:30-11:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5:30-midnight Friday & Saturday; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 6-9 p.m. Sunday. $$$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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