Restaurant Reviews

LARK Brings Lunch to the Park

Downtown Dallas was starved for natural beauty. Not that a five-acre deck park built atop a busy freeway is natural, really, but there are large swaths of grass that are sometimes green alongside the plastic turf dogs seem to love. The grass would be greener if a large part of the city's population didn't come trample it every weekend. Dallas needs three or four more Klyde Warren Parks, and it could use a few more restaurants like LARK on the Park, too.

Klyde Warren opened last October and has been packed every day the weather has been remotely agreeable. LARK opened five months later in March, just off the west side of the park on Woodall Rodgers Freeway, and has been a hot spot since.

The buzz was expected. Owner Shannon Wynne is also responsible for Meddlesome Moth in the Design District, which boasts one of the more impressive beer lists in the city and has maintained a steady business for three years. His new restaurant builds on that momentum, adding refinements that make for a much more compelling dining experience.

LARK has a good beer list too, but the offering is narrowed to 18 taps, and creative cocktails and a trim wine list now share the spotlight for a well-rounded beverage program. The dining room is an upgrade too, with massive chalkboards displaying drawings from local artists. The works wouldn't stand at the nearby Dallas Museum of Art, but they will rotate four times a year to keep things fresh. And an impressive acoustic design lets you take in the scenery headache-free, even when the dining room is packed. (It often is.)

The dimpled foam and carpet on the ceiling may not look as impressive as the natural cork walls, but in tandem all of the materials accomplish some impressive sound dampening. On busy nights the dining room is filled with the din of contented dining, and while everyone seems lubricated with plenty of alcohol, no one has to shout. Comparably sized dining rooms would be at a roar with a crowd like this — wingtips, suits and slinky dresses at one table, flip-flops and sundresses at the next.

But the biggest advancement in Wynne's new restaurant is undoubtedly the food. Where Meddlesome Moth is trapped in buttery pub grub, LARK is a bird set free by the creativity of husband-and-wife chef team Dennis Kelley and Melody Bishop. The pair came to Dallas from Los Angeles, where they worked at Tavern, a restaurant owned and operated by Suzanne Goin, who studied under Alice Waters and preaches her own mix of locavorism based on the freshest possible ingredients. Kelley and Bishop bring this same seasonal sensibility to Dallas. Actually, the chefs themselves have traveled a greater distance than many of the ingredients that end up on their plates.

If you stumble into Tom Spicer's FM 1410 market and the mushrooms are all missing, there's a good chance either Kelley or Bishop were there moments before you. You'll find those fungi in a compelling coq au vin with tender pearl onions and lardons of perfectly not-too-smoky bacon. If the woodsy flavor moves you, try the wild mushrooms on their own as a compelling side dish topped with persillade. The mixture could have used a bit more parsley to live up to its name, but crunchy breadcrumbs topping the mushrooms added texture, and the mushrooms packed an entire forest's worth of woodsy flavor.

Other side dishes, including roasted baby carrots as thin as carpenter's pencils, asparagus and baby artichokes, showcase a kitchen that likes to handle fresh vegetables gently. It's a refreshing change from the butter and cream often used to make lesser versions of these ingredients edible.

And how about those peas with curried potatoes tucked inside tiny half-moon pillows to mimic classic samosas? The green pearls pop with garden-fresh flavor alongside a small dice of soft potatoes cooked in a buttery sauce. It's a shame the cilantro chutney served as an accompaniment is weighted down with so much olive oil. A more simple condiment acidulated with lime would sing more brightly and balance the buttery flavors in the pastry. Still, the starter is a nice one.

If you've ever hulled and blanched peas, you know there's a lot of work that goes into these tiny green orbs. That's probably why you see prep cooks constantly fussing over whatever is next when you dine at the bar. Open kitchens are almost standard in modern restaurants these days, but the view from the end of the bar closest to the dining room at LARK seems opened even more.

During the day, prep cooks fill half the kitchen, roasting massive hunks of beef for sandwiches, slicing and marinating pork belly and pulverizing herbs in a blender for sauces. On the other side, cooks near the pass thoughtfully dress salads, assemble sandwiches and send out plate after plate to the dining room. The lunch menu here is a good one, with house-smoked deli meats, compelling fresh greens and a lamb burger that could easily shame versions served at most burger restaurants.

At night the whole kitchen cranks. There go those peas again, now alongside seared scallops on a bed of risotto. A hanger steak follows, perfectly seared a deep mahogany on the outside with a rich, ruby center. A special of mussels and clams in a deep bowl of broth wafts steamy aromas of chipotle and ancho chiles. Ask for extra bread if you're lucky enough to see the off-menu shellfish again — you're going to want to sop up every last bit of that spicy sauce.

While a smoked duck breast decorated with thin slices of sweet kumquats arrived two shades past medium-rare during one of my visits, missteps are the exception. Kelley and Bishop bring a refreshing style of cooking from the West Coast that maintains a lightness that can be hard to find in Dallas. You'd do well to find yourself in the LARK after an afternoon at the park, but the restaurant is worth a visit on its own.

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Scott Reitz
Contact: Scott Reitz