Can an old restaurant learn new tricks?
An interesting experiment is underway at a Park Cities landmark. For 22 years, Sevy’s Grill has embodied the 1990s ideal of the fine-dining restaurant, with wedge salads, salmon fillets and well-dressed waiters who ask, “Would you like fresh cracked pepper on that?” Yes, time moves more slowly at Sevy’s, but a young chef is trying to bring the menu into a new century and maybe attract some younger customers, too.
Sevy’s is a fascinating glimpse into how a certain kind of Dallasite lives and eats. Historically, the people-watching was more fascinating than the food; the Observer has actually never reviewed Sevy’s aside from a description of the grand opening party. Now, many of the same customers who came for the opening are still around; almost uniformly white-haired and white-skinned, they chatter idly about their favorite boutique hotels in Paris.
At lunchtime, the dining room fills with business deals going down and gossip being whispered, and the kitchen turns tables with impressive efficiency. At dinner, wealthy baby boomers dress up and order bottles of Napa cabernet from wineries with prestigious names. (For those who don’t much enjoy Napa cabernet or chardonnay, the wine list feels awfully short.)
The food menu is a tale of two chefs: founder Jim Severson, whose nickname is on the front door, and Eric Freidline, who arrived a couple of years ago to give Severson a break and the menu a jolt of modernity. Freidline admits that progress has been slow, but he’s scoring a number of successes in an attempt to lead the Sevy’s crowd toward less rich, heavy foods.
“When I started at Sevy’s, I was trying to do foams, gels, fluid gels, we were doing all these gastronomic things,” Freidline says. “It didn’t work. People didn’t want Parmesan foam, people didn’t want sage air. They just didn’t like it. I had to adapt my cooking style.” Now he’s reached a happy culinary compromise.
To find the Freidline dishes, read between the lines of the menu or simply ask what’s new these days. The answer is likely to be something like a summery, scrumptious beef carpaccio, starring rosy-colored meat with the edges dabbed in a porcini rub for an extra savory underline ($15). On top of the meat: a frizzle of greens, a small pile of baked Parmesan cheese crumbled into crisps and a scoop of intensely mustardy ice cream. Yes, ice cream — but don’t take a whole spoonful; with whole mustard grains inside, a little dab is enough.
This summer’s squash blossoms are getting excellently tempura-fried with an indulgent stuffing of herbaceous goat ricotta ($12). If the cheese gets too rich, stop and nibble on the scoop of pickled veggies that comes alongside. The carrots are mildest; the onions will perk a palate up quick.
Even when old-school hits arrive, it’s easy to see why Sevy’s has kept a clientele happily returning for 20 years. The Maine lobster pasta arrives in an enormous bowl with a heaping bounty of claw and tail meat, all slow-poached and tossed in a bath of olive oil and finely chopped leeks ($29). The noodles are made from scratch with such flawlessness that they seem like they couldn’t possibly have been made from scratch. And, in classic 1990s style, the portion is big enough to feed three or four people.
Also mountainous, and delicious: the mashed potatoes, which get piled up underneath the salmon or sea bass. Salmon is grilled and served in a Tabasco butter drizzle ($28). Sea bass, an early August special and a fish that is far from being this author’s favorite, is heightened by a lemon-caper sauce ($36). Both fish get properly cooked with good old-fashioned cross-hatched grill marks.
The highlight, though, was a small side salad that came on the bass special, with tomatoes and bell peppers cut into long, thin slivers and smoky morsels of cured salmon. This might be a misinterpretation, but the smoked salmon salad feels like Freidline’s attempt to lighten up a pretty rich, old-school dish.
Truth be told, almost everything at Sevy’s is on the rich side, but the sins are often worth it. Consider appetizer flautas, which are fried after being stuffed with fatty duck confit ($13). Sinful, but delicious, especially when cut with a pumpkin seed salsa. The sides on the brined pork chop are similarly clever: braised endive that comes out a lot like red sauerkraut, a “risotto” made from barley ($29). It's a pity that our pork chop itself was overcooked to chalkiness.
The dining room itself is a reminder of how poorly many design trends age. Once upon a time, its rows of identical wooden poles and glowing orange light fixtures, all set in front of a big mirrored wall, made Sevy’s look like a softly lit romantic forest populated by eccentric owls. Now it looks a bit like a cave, and the light fixtures a bit like eyes of Sauron.
Waitstaff are friendly and accommodating; many of them have been here for years. Some offer their business cards to new customers, with the invitation, “Ask for me next time.” It’s a culture that’s designed to create regulars.
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Another hook for return customers: Freidline’s monthly wine dinners, at which he cooks up an array of one-off specials that bring Sevy’s menu, for a single night, into a different level of sophistication. Perhaps to appease conservative regulars, these menus tend to be coupled with wines from prestigious Napa wineries with big marketing budgets, like Silver Oak and Duckhorn.
That culture of regulars has its downsides. On one visit, we were told, “We are running a special menu right now, Lobster Fest.” Then there was a pause. “But it’s reservations only, so you can’t order from it today.”
The implication, of course, was that we had to come back. Sevy’s Grill thrives on the clientele — and the eight employees — who have been here since it opened in 1997. But as pleasing as the big platters of classic Americana are for them, changes are slowly coming to the menu, to lighten up the food and give it a seasonal bent. It’s a step in the right direction. If a new generation of diners starts pocketing the waiters’ business cards, maybe the drink list will evolve next.
Sevy’s Grill, 8201 Preston Road, Dallas. 214-265-7389, sevys.com. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday; 5-11 p.m. Saturday; 5-9 p.m. Sunday.