Say you play the oboe. Say you're a regular oboe master and have designs on tooting your oboe in an orchestra. Your tryout will probably involve your plopping down behind a screen, so you're unseen as you puff through a Mozart concerto: That's because conductors aren't supposed to care about their instrumentalists' gender or color or warty faces, so long as the music's sweet.
Restaurant folk, of course, don't have the luxury of blind performances. Their personalities are all bound up in how customers experience their eateries. Which, really, can be very confusing for eaters—especially when the staff's gracious and hospitable, and the food isn't very good.
That's the situation at La Grange in Deep Ellum, a lovely neighborhood bar with unrealized culinary ambitions. The fare's endlessly endearing (a word I scribbled in my notebook so many times over the course of my three visits to the restaurant that I ended up inventing a new abbreviation for it), but it's all too often incorrectly cooked, ineptly seasoned and greasy. One of my dining companions—who joined me on a Wednesday night, when food's offered at 50 percent off—was so disenchanted by his brisket tacos that he treated me to an impassioned argument for why $2.50 was too much to pay for his meal.
La Grange Shrimp quesadilla $10 Braised chicken legs $10
La Grange 2704 Elm St., 214-741-2008, www.lagrangedallas.com. Open 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.- 2 a.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.,Sunday. Closed Monday. $
Crab cakes $10 Pork chop $10 Brisket tacos $5 Ham and turkey melt $8 Brisket chili $6 Texas eggs Benedict $9
Since I don't think it's fair to criticize any dish that costs about the same price as a bus ticket, I'll leave the tacos out of this discussion. But I'll concede the vast majority of what I sampled at La Grange could have been produced by a moderately talented home cook. I began to think of the kitchen's humble dishes, prepared with more exuberance than finesse, as "roommate cuisine."
I've eaten many meals made by a friend's unknown roommate, who's a "crazy good cook." He's usually out mountain biking or snowboarding when his food's served, and it usually tastes pretty much like the well-intentioned plates available at La Grange.
Perhaps the roommate-iest dish I tried at La Grange was a bowl of brisket chili, which my server enthusiastically endorsed. Service is a joy at La Grange: My servers were attentive, eager to answer questions and genuinely concerned when I left dishes unfinished. Even better, they take the menu very seriously, describing chicken sandwiches as reverently as servers in a fancier sort of place might parse Waygu steaks and foie gras.
"I hate when people don't follow through," the bartender declared one night, summing up a room-wide conversation about bands that fade away after their first releases. His meaning may have been musical, but he could have been describing the pervading work ethic at La Grange. I was never left with an empty water glass or forced to inquire after a missing order.
Unfortunately, the chili wasn't half as impressive as my server's commitment to it. It was strangely sweet, suggesting more than a passing familiarity with the baking end of the spice cabinet. The umber-hued chili clanged with the flavors of cinnamon and nutmeg. Garnished with admirably crisp Fritos and fresh ringlets of green onion, the stew had the saucy, slouchy consistency of a cafeteria sloppy Joe: An inspired 1950s housewife might have poured it over noodles and called the concoction "fiesta surprise." La Grange instead serves the chili with a soft white corn tortilla.
There's a subtle Southwestern skew to a few of La Grange's dishes, including my favorite, a gleeful "Texas" eggs Benedict featuring a pair of runny poached eggs dabbed with cayenne and layered atop roasted jalapeño rings and thick slabs of smoky bacon. The dish needed just a few shakes of salt to coalesce into the ideal foil for a spicy, scarlet red Bloody Mary. While I wasn't moved by the accompanying pale leek browns—an inventive alternative to home fries that only underscores the perfection of potatoes—I'm still sold on La Grange as a brunch spot.
The restaurant seems to get most things right in the morning: Every table's served a complimentary basket of baked goods, a habit more breakfast joints should adopt. The room's cheery, the servers are quick with coffee refills, and on Sundays there's a duo playing lackadaisical jazz standards, the universal soundtrack for weekends before noon.
The ambiance is almost as winning in the evening. La Grange has invested a great deal of thought in its décor, which has a contemporary ski lodge feel. The walls are finished with wood and stone, and three opalescent plastic deer heads keep watch over the bar. The seating—high stools at the bar, plastic Ikea-style chairs around the tables—is all done in winter white. And at the back of the room, there's a stage, which hosts the bands and open-mic nights that draw fans who don't mind if their dried-out pork chops have a sandy, granulated cast.
While most of La Grange's short menu is devoted to fries, nachos and other dishes more snacky than substantial, the kitchen doesn't always falter when it aims high. The jumbo lump crab cakes—available at brunch and dinner—are decent. Swabbed with a tangy ooh-la-la sauce of Champagne and orange juice, the cakes aren't burdened by too much breading.
La Grange has far less success with a Continental take on scrawny chicken drumsticks, braised and doused in a bitter, peppery red wine sauce. At least the preparation's not overly salty: An extremely popular hot sandwich of smoked turkey and ham oozed salt. Although the sandwich was dressed with an avocado pico, the lackluster condiment did little to distract from the sheaves of sodium-rich meats. A basic rock shrimp quesadilla suffered from the same problem.
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But even a bar that serves pork chops and chicken is still a bar, and that's where La Grange excels. La Grange has received all manner of acclaim for its alcoholic shaved ice concoctions, and every adulatory word of it is deserved.
That may not be good news for customers who hate to trouble the kind servers at La Grange, since paring down ice is a time-consuming procedure. The bartender spent almost five minutes slaving over my drink, a gorgeous glass of vanilla ice cream saturated with sweet condensed milk and crowned with ice clumped like slivers of fiberglass. Customers who've upgraded from the virgin version are served a test tube brimming with spirit to be poured over the elegant pyre of cold. The menu provides suggestions.
I chose an eggnog shaved ice but couldn't make out any distinctively holiday flavors—perhaps the syrup was drowned out by sugar and liquor. Still, the dessert was terrific and surprisingly wintry. It reminded me of the maple snow made by the protagonist in Understood Betsy, one of my favorite childhood books. I never had as much luck as Betsy, possibly because there's a difference between drizzling warm sap over pristine 19th-century New England snow and dumping Aunt Jemima syrup on whatever fell around Detroit when the River Rogue plant was chugging.
There are plenty of other restaurants that serve good pork chops and ham sandwiches. But La Grange is the only local place I know where the bar has the creativity and patience to produce a storybook dessert, and—unlike Betsy—the vision to steep it in bourbon.