It had all the makings of an epic tale. Eric Brandt, a competent and capable chef, and Victor Hugo, a front-of-the-house guy with exceptional customer service skills, had grown restless and needed a change. They'd been working together at Bistro 31 in Highland Park, where Brandt plated up Americanized riffs on French cuisine under Dallas restaurant kingpin Alberto Lombardi. But like many restaurant employees, the two yearned for a place of their own. They even had the drive and resources to do it. So one day they slipped across the Trinity River into Oak Cliff and quietly opened VH in the most unlikely location.
The house at 1115 N. Beckley Ave. is hardly known for producing successful dining establishments. Campo, the modern restaurant inspired by Argentinian wanderlust, ended almost as quickly as a summer love affair, and after three chef changes, with about as much drama. Outpost came next, but opened to a chorus of crickets quietly chirping the night away, despite two ownerships. All of this while Jonathon's next door taunted with hours-long waits for brunch on the weekends, serving straightforward, casual breakfast fare.
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Hugo saw promise in the space, though, and after a quick coat of paint in gunmetal blue for the dining room, a new sign and some fancy lighting, VH was ready for business, offering casual dining and drinks at the same oddly shaped bar that's framed the space since the Campo days.
The story was enough to convince a few other staff members from Bistro 31 to make the pilgrimage across the Trinity, but it was not enough to conjure inspired dining. No doubt, VH is a very good restaurant, with execution that chefs at far more popular spots around Dallas often lack. The problem is that VH is not a terribly interesting restaurant. It's like Hugo and Brandt ran with excitement and promise from a stuffy, commercial restaurant, only to open another Lombardi concept that's only slightly less commercial and stuffy.
Not that you'll complain when a slab of mahi mahi encrusted with finely crushed macadamia nuts lands on your table. The fish is cooked perfectly, giving way in large, shiny flakes of white flesh, and shares the plate with snap peas and a massive pool of warm, buttery cream sauce. But you won't exclaim, either. You won't bound off to your next engagement, or tell your coworkers at the office the next day about the amazing fish dish you were presented at VH the other evening.
And that only makes it harder to get excited about other dishes that emerge from Brandt's kitchen, many of which are also variations on butter and cream sauce. There's shrimp with orecchiette, chorizo and kale in a roasted garlic cream sauce, and grilled salmon with chorizo and kale in a roasted garlic cream sauce. If you would prefer something from the land, there's even chicken with linguine in a butter sauce. VH has only been open weeks, but it's hard not to look at plates like these and get the feeling that the restaurant is a bit dated.
Not so with the pot roast; the classics never go out of style. Brandt plops a sizable hunk of braised beast on a bed of grits enriched with cheddar cheese, along with kale and soft onions. Order this and you might find yourself taking notes beneath the table, hoping to elevate your own pot roast at home, and wondering how Brandt got those onions such an odd shade of red. (The chef simmers them gently in red wine.)
A few of the appetizers are more exciting, too. A server sold me on a grilled calamari dish, dressed in a sturdy vinaigrette. Surprise! It was grilled baby octopus. Still, with potatoes and olives the dish was delicious, even if my server got the seafood mixed up. Sweet potato johnnycakes topped with a loose salad of blue crab and mango, and taquitos stuffed with goat cheese and tender duck meat were unexpected and well thought out dishes. Why can't the menu have more of these?
The only appetizer I didn't enjoy was the shrimp and melon ceviche. The shrimp were grilled before they were marinated, then mixed with melon and cucumber to create more of a shrimp salad than a ceviche. The ingredients were cut coarsely, making it hard to scoop up the mixture on the tortilla chips that were served alongside. The flavors were good, though.
I would have liked to try the grilled chorizo, but the kitchen 86'd the dish every time I visited.
Desserts don't really pick up the pace, either. You can get a hunk of German chocolate cake that's on par with a slice you'd get at a run-of-the-mill café, or a slice of carrot cake with nearly as much cream cheese frosting as cake. How about the cookies instead? They're studded with bits of pretzel and chocolate and come with two scoops of soft vanilla ice cream.
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You should consider the prices, which are reasonable, if the menu has you drumming your fingers on your tabletop. The most expensive entrée is $24 and many hover down in the teens -- prices that would make any restaurant worth a shot from a diner's perspective. The question is whether enough diners will return after that first try to keep VH from being the third restaurant at this address to close.
Outside VH, Dallas' dining scene is continuously evolving. Chefs travel all over the country and bring back ideas to tweak and make their own. They're coming up with dishes that are both familiar and inventive at the same time, and they're creating dining experiences that have a theme or tell a cohesive story.
VH's kitchen has the chops, now the restaurant needs a plot -- something to thread all of the menu items together into an arc and leave a lasting impression. That's the stuff that gives a diner an excuse to talk to their friends about a great meal long after they've added a tip and signed the check. That's what gives a restaurant a pulse and vibrancy. And that's what keeps restaurants open in the long run.
1115 N Beckley Ave., 214-946-1308, vhrestaurant.com, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m-11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.- 1 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday, $$$.