One of the most effective tools in a chef's arsenal is the element of surprise. Whether by disguising one dish as another to alter perception and fool the palate, or by combining flavors and textures in ways that defy expectations, these little direction-changes have a tendency to become lasting food memories, good or bad.
I've seen a chef form mozzarella into an oval nest, filled with a firmly set purée of yellow tomato. What looked like a halved, hard-boiled egg was actually an exciting take on Caprese salad. I remember it every time I see the staid red, white and green classic in other restaurants. A four-star interpretation of a humble dish like meat loaf is common play, too, as is hiding embellishments inside little parcels of pasta, spheres of fried breading or carefully constructed, ring-molded mounds of food. If a dish gets you thinking, you're more likely to talk about it the next day, and rope in a new set of diners.
Oso Food & Wine, the new restaurant by owner Michael Cox and chef Kelly Hightower, is full of surprises, though I'd wager some are unintentional. My first meal at the restaurant was a surprisingly bad one. A dill pasta dish, dressed with an intact segment of braised oxtail, was messy. As I picked it apart with a fork, coriander crème fraîche mixed with beet salsa, yielding bright magenta goop that gave the dish a cartoon-like appearance. The flavors worked fine, but they couldn't save the tepid clump of noodles tangled at the bottom of the bowl.
A pork chop -- pounded so thin it nearly eclipsed its plate -- was cooked unevenly. The breading was an ideal rich golden brown in some parts, but pale and oily in others. It was served with an egg raviolo, bacon, greens and salsa verde, making for a heavy plate. Combined with that pasta, I began to suspect Oso was not worth the time. However, it turns out those plates were not the best indicator of Hightower's kitchen skills.
On return visits, I was surprised to experience cooking so good it shook me awake. Hightower's kitchen turned out a thoughtful procession of dishes that impressed. Middle eastern flavors dominate, but other dishes radiate outward geographically, grabbing tricks and techniques from Italy, France and Spain. Unlike the pork chop and oxtail pasta dishes, most of these come together nicely.
It takes a lot to make a tuna steak interesting; the ubiquitous fish has been seared to death. But spiced yogurt and harissa are almost enough to enliven the dish on their own, before the addition of grilled eggplant tabouli. Halved cherry tomatoes burst with acidity, golden raisins add sweetness and fresh herbs contribute other unexpected flavors. It delivers a lot more than the menu promises and it will have you rethinking the simple parsley salad. And what's that drizzled around a plate bearing a fresh branzino? Honey seems odd at first, but it's not when you taste the vinaigrette bathing the roasted potatoes, fennel and olives that share the plate. The sweetness keeps the tang of the vinegar dressing in check, unifying the plate. It's good enough to make that ugly, breaded pork chop a distant memory.
A sirloin kebab is just as impressive. (Ask your server to be sure your beef isn't overcooked.) It's paired with saffron-kissed rice loaded with pistachios. The floral, fruity aroma of sumac wafts up from the plate as you sink your teeth into well-seared meat. Why don't more Middle Eastern restaurants in Dallas make use of the spice?
Hightower's cooking is more noteworthy than the dining room, which could belong to any other restaurant catering to affluent customers in North Dallas. A few drum shades hang from the ceiling in different sizes but they don't cast light with any purpose, and the room of purples and mustard yellows is as dim as it is dull. The attentive, kind staff warms it up, though -- even if some interactions are a bit clunky. After sharing one appetizer with a date, side plates were cleared from the table. We never received replacements, so we were forced to awkwardly reach our forks as we shared the second appetizer.
Still, a drop or two of tomato sauce on the table top is a small price to pay for flavorful and tender meatballs made from chicken and flecked with herbs, bacon-wrapped dates, and chicken livers swimming in a spicy tomato sauce. They're all good for sharing, but the mezze platter should be your table's centerpiece. Hightower replaces pita with crusty bread and it serves as a base for puréed eggplant with plenty of smoke, bright and crunchy fatoush, garlicky hummus, feta cheese, olives, peppers and bright green falafel. It's a solid start.
When it's time for dessert, you might expect the prosaic offering of baklava and rice pudding, but surprise! You're wrong again. Hightower executes a triple play of desserts, each as satisfying as the next.
The date cake isn't dense and sugary, but light and fluffy as a well-baked muffin. The sauce it's paired with is borderline cloying, but all together it works. Lemon curd with freshly baked biscotti is your light option and the chocolate "harem" is a hazelnut tart paired with ice cream that's so chocolatey it could be mistaken for frozen fudge. Decisions are difficult when everything's good.
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More dessert menus should be this simple: Three strong offerings that each cater to a different craving. Instead, many restaurants' menus span five or more items, with redundancies and disappointments waiting like mines in a field.
Actually, more restaurants that tackle ethnic flavors should take note of Hightower's kitchen as a whole. Often when chefs take on a cuisine that's perceived to be exotic, they dilute elements that give dishes authenticity and character, producing plates that are shallow and dull. Hightower, on the other hand, has found ways to stray that elevate the dishes while maintaining their integrity. The result is a surprising new restaurant that fits perfectly in its neighborhood. That it's worth a visit from more distant diners is the biggest surprise of all.
OSO Food & Wine 11910 Preston Road, No. 209, 972-789-1630, osofoodandwine.com, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday. $$$
Lamb kofte $10 Mezze platter $17 Sirloin kebab $21 Grilled tuna $27 Branzino $32