When I first arrived in Dallas, I lobbed the same culinary questions at anyone who'd admit to having eaten out: Which local farm gets all the menu play? Who makes the best pizza? Where can I get a decent bagel-and-lox plate? And is there a restaurant that's been around forever, a restaurant so deeply entrenched in Dallas that rumors of a change in its recipe for salad dressing make the evening news?
While I'd steeled myself for lackluster barbecue and an anemic Ethiopian food scene, I was sure I'd find at least a few mothballed vestiges of Dallas' edible past. Almost every great American city has a restaurant that's central to its storyline, a place where forgotten politicians got themselves into trouble and Jazz Age celebrities' mealtime quirks helped shape the menu.
So I was stunned to learn that the eateries Dallasites' parents and grandparents revered are mostly gone now. It seems being a food writer in Dallas means never having to say "venerated."
Apparently that void hasn't escaped the notice of well-established restaurants elsewhere, including Perry's Steakhouse and Grille, which this spring imported a three-decades-old Houston tradition to the corner of McKinney Avenue and North Olive Street. The concept has weathered the trip north beautifully. The steaks aren't any less satisfying, or the service any less attentive because the lineage is borrowed: Dallas is fortunate that Perry's and its fiercely preserved fine-dining heritage have alighted here.
Perry's got its start as a butcher shop, building its reputation on thick cuts of flavorful prime beef. The shop housed a basic deli, but Bob Perry's son Chris was certain its adoring carnivorous customers would support a real restaurant, with uniformed waiters, linen tablecloths and leatherbound check presenters. He opened the first Perry's Steakhouse in 1986.
There's no trace of Perry's butcher shop roots at the new Dallas location, but the restaurant seeps the sophisticated glamour that presumably inspired Chris Perry to think beyond display cases and paper-wrapped T-bones. The interior isn't too baroque or too trendy: A gorgeous glass-fronted wine library stocked with more than 5000 bottles is the focal point of the subtly lit main dining room, obliquely scattered with little single-table nooks and alcoves. An abbreviated second floor sits atop a spiral staircase, which must be great fun to descend to the soundtrack provided by Perry's genteel pianist. Any red-blooded American could guess the menu here.
Perry's largely conforms to expectations, serving raw oysters, shrimp cocktail, lobster bisque and creamed spinach. But some of the restaurant's modest departures from steakhouse classics were among the best dishes I tried, including Perry's renowned tableside-carved pork chop and an appetizer of fried asparagus.
I've rarely had an upscale fried starter I liked as much as Perry's snappy asparagus stalks, encased in a thin veil of clean-tasting fry and crowned with the highest-grade chunks of succulent blue crab. Lump crab and asparagus don't qualify as daring pantry picks in a steakhouse, but they're not always combined to such rewarding effect. As with all successful simple preparations, the dish's deliciousness hinged on the quality of its component ingredients; the vernal asparagus was remarkably fresh and perfectly crisp-tender. It's not often I come across a vegetable that's had a run-in with hot oil and find myself left with an overriding impression of greenness.
The kitchen at Perry's clearly doesn't have any of the contemptuousness for vegetables that can tarnish a steakhouse experience. There are 15 vegetables on Perry's list of shareable side dishes, including potatoes done five ways, cauliflower, English peas and rutabagas, a wonderfully geeky choice even by root vegetable fans' standards. I wasn't too impressed by the cooked vegetables, but liked both the salads I sampled. Perry's knows its way around an iceberg wedge. A pleasant Caesar salad, wearing a canonically correct dressing of lemon juice and olive oil in perfect proportion, was spruced up with burly anchovy filets and roasted pumpkin seeds.
My meals at Perry's weren't flawless: The basket of wan, overage bread that landed on my table was an unwanted relic of days when bleached white flour ruled the nation's bakeries. The bread arrived warm on my second visit, but heat's not a worthy substitute for taste. Even when caked with cheese and set afloat in a rich onion broth, as in the restaurant's French onion soup preparation, the bread still managed to disappoint.
Yet the few irritants I encountered at Perry's seemed just a well-placed phone call or two away from resolution. I'm not sure why the restaurant uses cheap white doilies to decorate their plates, or degrades its otherwise grand flaming dessert service by putting the brown sugar, nuts and butter on its rolling flambé cart in clear plastic ramekins that Perry's highly professional servers handle with incongruous flourish. Perhaps the restaurant's managers think guests, lost in the butter pecan haze of a crackly sweet Nutty D'Angelo served over ice cream, will forget to quibble about the homey touches.
Dessert's a must-do at Perry's, no matter how many ounces of dry-aged beef precede it. Perry's marvelously silky steaks, patted with salt and pepper, are excellent—although perhaps prepared with a shade less aptitude than the remarkable meat deserves. My filet mignon, ordered rare, had more pink than red at its center. While the steak was sufficiently flavorful to survive overcooking, I much preferred an arrestingly marbled bone-in rib-eye.
But it isn't hard to find fabulous $40 steaks in Dallas. Perry's might be doomed to follow the same path other beloved transplants have taken straight out of town if not for its pork chop.
Perry's insists on calling its jubilant celebration of swine flesh a pork chop, but the massive cut includes a swath of loin and four ribs. Bob Perry certainly wouldn't have let it go at his butcher shop for the price of a pork chop: It's a roast. And it's amazing.
According to the menu description, the chop's cured, roasted, slow-smoked and then given a protective caramelized coat before being stuccoed with garlic butter and served with a slice of lime. Perry's calls its juicy, gleaming chop "famous." A devotee who's started his own Facebook page to honor the dish calls it "the meal of the gods."
If the gods are thrifty, they most likely take their meals on Fridays, when Perry's offers a lunch-sized portion of its chop for $10.95. Considering that most sandwich shops charge about $7 for deli ham on wheat with mustard, that's a fairly incredible deal. But it gets better. Say you wanted your ham sandwich trimmed into cute triangles, maybe with the crust taken off. There's not a sandwich artist anywhere who's going to oblige your request for $7. At Perry's, the bargain chop is carved tableside, same way the servers do it for the bigwigs who broker deals over dinner. Plus, it comes with whipped potatoes and housemade apple sauce.
The potatoes and applesauce are probably best ignored—both sides are too creamy and monotonously seasoned—but the elegant chop, glistening with a hint of cayenne, is impossibly robust for a piece of pork that didn't just emerge from a pit.
Even if the pork chop wasn't so exciting, paying so little to enjoy a civilized lunch would still qualify as a steal. Sitting amidst cocktail-sipping gentlemen clad in suspenders, with the stereo set to Bobby Darin singing "Artificial Flowers," feels like an awfully classy alternative to warming up a frozen burrito.
Perry's is an irrefutable argument for the pedigreed restaurant. And perhaps in another decade or two, Dallas will have one of its own.