Kitchen LTO has come back to life, in triumphant fashion.
After its sudden closure at Trinity Groves, when the Shark Tank-style restaurant development declared it unprofitable, Kitchen LTO announced a move to Deep Ellum, financed by a crowdfunding campaign. (Read more about that story in our interview with owner Casie Caldwell.) On Tuesday, Oct. 25, opening night arrived, and the restaurant officially completed its improbable, crowd-backed journey back to life.
There are some big changes to the concept, and frankly, they're all good things. For one, the new Kitchen LTO is a smaller space, just 11 tables and a petite bar; it's the perfect size for experimenting and doing adventurous things. The new dining room is smaller than the old restaurant's patio. And that more intimate space really fits the restaurant's secondary business as an art gallery. You can get up close to experience Melissa Ellis's big, complex, brightly-colored paintings at this smaller space.
Another welcome change: Now the restaurant's chef and menu change every six months, not four, and new chefs are selected by the ownership, rather than chosen by vote at a public party. I'll be honest: The general public wasn't always the best at picking out cool menus.
And the ownership really picked a winner this time. Josh Harmon is an ambitious rising star who's worked under the likes of Stephan Pyles, and he also brings an artistic bent to his plating, maybe because he started out in film school. His menu for LTO 2.0 looks Southern on the surface (think shrimp and grits), but dig a little deeper and it's all Asian. It feels like they opened a Southern restaurant in Seoul. Even on the very first night, that combination made for thrillingly good results.
Harmon's LTO offers a series of banchan ($2), the tiny snacks you get at Korean restaurants, but these are ultra-creative bites. There is kimchi, but it's made with romaine and topped with melted blue cheese. Spicy, crisp, cheesy: delicious. An even simpler combo I loved was a creamed goat cheese with a touch of horseradish, topped with berries and a few flecks of crunchy tempura.
Our waiter, who understood the food and explained it passionately, told us that Harmon is a big believer in having every flavor (sweet, spicy, salty, umami, bitter) present in just about every dish, and that makes sense of some of the brilliant combinations in the banchan. It explains the sweet-sour-spicy Thai chili glaze on the duck leg, a main course that's flawlessly cooked, moist duck meat falling off the bones. And Harmon's quest for balance explains why that duck leg comes with pickled and bitter vegetables, and a swipe of yogurt sauce on the edge of the plate.
Does it sound like he's robotically ticking flavor boxes? Because that's not the case. Only one plate failed to satisfy, a trio of rather thin green tomato slices tempura-battered and fried. This time, the fried green tomato toppings (aged feta, "Chinese sausage," a sweet syrup) reminded me of that Dr. Seuss poem where the kid wears 1,000 hats. Eventually everyone in the kingdom forgets that, underneath all the hats, there's still a kid somewhere.
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But hey, this was the restaurant's first night, and that was one dish. The duck leg is awesome; the fried oyster, served with punchy pickles on a Chinese steamed bun, was a delicious starter. I love the banchan in both theory and practice, and our dessert, a sort of pistachio coffee cake with a burst of cream, fruit and edible flowers, was nearly as fabulous as it looked. (Maybe a bit of cream inside, or in a layer, would be a nice touch.)
So props to Kitchen LTO for roaring back with a menu far more inventive and ambitious than it needed to be. Props for its continued willingness to experiment and bet on upstart young chefs. Props for shrinking the space and bringing more attention back to the visual arts.
And, of course, props for being alive in the first place. Welcome back, Kitchen LTO. Judging from re-opening night, the best may be yet to come.
Kitchen LTO, 2901 Elm St., kitchenlto.com, open 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to midnight Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to midnight Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Lunch hours to be announced soon.