The restaurant business isn't known for stability. Flux and dysfunction are built in to the gig, in menu and operational tweaks and makeovers, staff changes, backroom drama and bloodshed in the budget. Restaurants are more likely to close than they are to stay open during the first year in business, and those that aren't doing well often tweak their concepts or designs. All that said? Front Room, in the Park Cities, really needed to get its shit together.
When the hotel restaurant, which operates in tandem with the Lumen just off SMU's campus, was first announced in summer 2012, Scott Townend was tapped as opening chef. But by the time a first review was published in The Dallas Morning News that fall, a new chef, Nick Amoriello, was manning the kitchen. It might have been the tepid nature of that review, but Amoriello didn't last long, either. He was replaced by Tim Bevins, who brought with him the kitchen chops and a reverence for simplicity he had honed since his days at the W Hotel's now-defunct Craft.
Bevins didn't last either. The restaurants manager, Consilient Hospitality, was replaced by NL Group, and Bevins picked up and moved to Austin to work on a vegan menu. So just into its second year, a fourth chef, Michael Ehlert, stepped up to the pass at a restaurant that had been recently remodeled and rechristened Front Room Tavern.
So the bad news is that, despite the tony surroundings and contemporary facade, the space might just be doomed. The good news: Front Room 2.0.1 is the most likable of the restaurant's incarnations.
Gone are the chilly blues and creams of the former diner's mid-century motif, replaced by warm browns and taupes that evoke a more pleasant look from the same period. Edison bulbs cast a dim amber glow that gives the space a monochrome but warm and welcoming feel. The dining room doesn't exactly conjure up the rough-hewn lines of a rustic tavern, but find the right booth and you'll think you're in L.A., some time in the '50s. All that's missing is a thin haze of Lucky Strike smoke hanging like a plume from the ceiling.
So of course there is steak au poivre on the menu, though the "p" should be capitalized and placed in a bold font, because this strip steak is coated in enough pepper to fire a bullet. Pink and white peppercorns join fruity coriander and traditional black pepper, lighting up your mouth with floral heat and a faint electricity. The freezer fries that share the plate aren't nearly as interesting, though they gain some life if you drag them through the sauce that's draped over the steak. Hey, chef, how about a gravy boat of this stuff?
Ehlert moved to Dallas from New York in 2012 and has bounced around town as much as the Front Room has changed up its game plan. What's consistent, though, is the cooking that pops up wherever he lands. Big, meaty dishes, creatively constructed plates and a burger that would only be at home in an upscale tavern: It all followed Elhert as he jumped from the Chesterfield to Campo to Hibiscus, with a few temporary spots between. Ehlert eventually made it to the Front Room where he has established his own style, cooking modern takes on tavern fare that while still recognizable mostly ceases to be casual.
Fritters are little more than greasy golf balls of fried dough at most taverns that serve beer from big mugs with handles. But under Ehlert's direction, they're delicate quenelles of coarse pea purée, fried to a crisp and not at all oily, with a sauce made from yogurt and grilled onions to lend an unexpected tang. The salmon ceviche is similarly dressed up, in a salt-rimmed cup with tortilla chips for fishing, as is the chicken liver mousse, served with crackers and a chunky fig mostarda.
Ehlert's dishes are mostly beautiful, though the kitchen does sometimes botch the finer points. On one visit, lobster cavatelli boasted undercooked pasta, and a pork schnitzel required deliberate knife work -- a shame since the meat boasted so much flavor. A brine imparted sweetness throughout the cutlet, and the lemon wedge that usually accompanies this plate was swapped out for a sauce that pooled around the baby kale hiding beneath the pork and screamed with an acidic tang.
Flubs seem rare, though, and king salmon, roasted chicken and Ehlert's burger are all satisfying. The salads are surprisingly good, especially an endive salad with crème fraîche and roasted pear, and a baby greens salad that contains little more than tender roughage and thin radish slices dressed in lemon vinaigrette -- refreshing. If the Caesar salad were treated with the same aggressiveness as other dishes it might have more anchovies, either in the dressing or draped over those baby romaine leaves. Still, it too is an honest take on a classic dish, which is precisely what Front Room's menu is all about. This incarnation feels like a restaurant that has embraced its setting, décor and menu in a cohesive way that tells a story: comfortable tavern food tailored to an upscale hotel, across the street from SMU. For the guests staying at the Lumen, there is no reason to leave for dinner, and for the rest of us, Front Room is worth the drive in a way few hotel restaurants are.
Nowhere else is this more true than the dessert menu. Pastry chef Alison Morse's salted caramel pot de crème will have you scraping the bottom of the glass jar it's served in; a chocolate trifle might have been lifted from the page of a vintage Woman's Day magazine. And if you see a copper mug floating around, it's not always a Moscow mule. Morse plops a few scoops of ice cream in the shiny cup and then your server tops it off with ginger beer at your table. Two soft ginger cookies finish off a dessert that will turn you into a 4-year-old with one drippy spoonful, making the Front Room a tavern not just for the beer guzzling adults, but the children inside them, too.
Front Room Tavern
6101 Hillcrest Ave., 214-219-8282, frontroomdallas.com, 7 a.m.-11 p.m. daily, $$$
Texas pea fritters $10 Mixed greens $9 Pork schnitzel $24 Steak au poivre $35 Chocolate trifle $8