Restaurant Reviews

Review: Petra and the Beast Serves Delicious Inventions Without Pretensions

Charcuterie boards at Petra and the Beast are a mix of meats, enough for four people to share.
Charcuterie boards at Petra and the Beast are a mix of meats, enough for four people to share. Alison McLean
Four years ago, chef Misti Norris told me about her idea for a temporary pop-up restaurant, which would go on a trial run for six months.

“I want to do charcuterie and noodles,” she said then. “The perfect pairing, right? Everyone’s favorite things.”

She was right. Three years after it opened, Petra and the Beast isn’t temporary anymore; it’s grown roots in its East Dallas neighborhood and gained national acclaim. It occupies a sort of miraculous middle ground: a renowned hub of innovative cooking where, far from needing reservations, any random customer in flip-flops can drop by for lunch.

Petra follows a two-restaurants-in-one model, with reserve-ahead tasting menus on Saturday nights and casual walk-in service the rest of the week. Revolver Taco Lounge had pioneered a similar dual format a few months earlier, and now hybrid format kitchens are spreading across Dallas.

Every day except Saturday, then, Petra is walk-in, BYOB and a la carte, mostly divided between charcuterie and noodles, with an additional menu section modestly called “snacks.”

The charcuterie board has won a reputation as the best in Dallas, a city obsessed with putting cured meats on pieces of wood ($40). Part of Petra’s edge is its bold, punchy mustard, which isn’t spicy, exactly, but can still clear a nose or two in enough quantities. There are always pickled veggies, too, and big, bubbly, light crackers stacked up with meats on either side to act as bookends.

A typical charcuterie board involves a mix of six, and enough of each for four people to share. Look for possibilities like lonza, pork loin with a thin ribbon of fat around the edge, cured with lemon zest and Sichuan peppercorns; a rich, umami-heavy oxtail terrine with sunflower seeds hidden inside; country ham way better than the ham in the countryside of my childhood; super-spicy bresaola; and whipped ham which comes spread on toast like meat butter.

Next move on to the “snacks,” which range from salads to pig tails. Before the pandemic, snacks came in little paper boats; now, surprisingly, they’re on plates.

On my most recent visit, we snagged the last bowl of a “snack” of poached quail legs stacked alongside crisp charred slices of okra, cherry tomatoes cooked till bursting and a hearty Scotch egg ($16). Another early summer snack: a fabulous roasted maitake mushroom served whole, with buttermilk dressing and dots of spicy chili oil ($16).

click to enlarge Foglie di ulivo at Petra and the Beast - ALISON MCLEAN
Foglie di ulivo at Petra and the Beast
Alison McLean
Norris is attracted to unusual pasta shapes; this year there have been dumplings in the shape of enormous crowns and medium-sized Turkish manti dumplings folded up like little pyramids. This summer she’s introducing Dallas to foglie di ulivo, which means “olive leaves” after their shape ($15). Petra gets the toppings right — charred corn, basil, a corn cream sauce — but the noodle itself, thick and doughy, isn’t my new favorite shape.

Even the desserts are among the most sophisticated and beautifully plated in town. They tend to be presented with everything all in an arc on one side of the plate, which artists refer to as negative space and which non-artists might call a mostly empty plate.

Whatever. Fancy-looking food is fun, especially when its pleasures turn out to be straightforward, like a recent construction of chocolate mousse, peanut brittle, plum jam, plum caramel and pickled plums. Taken together, it all came out tasting like the Alice in Wonderland version of a PBJ ($11).

A diner who joins Petra for its Saturday night six-course tasting menu ($135 per person) can expect pleasures both simple and sophisticated. Some dishes are full of technique, spice and imagination, using familiar ingredients in surprising ways. On the other hand, some dishes are topped with perfectly battered wedges of fried okra.

I’ve gotten to experience two Saturday night tastings. The more recent dinner, this June, was a highlight reel of summer vegetable creativity: eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers, leeks, maitake mushrooms, okra, field peas, Texas peaches. The parade was so rich and varied that by the time a chicken dish arrived for the main course I was already full.

click to enlarge Chef Misti Norris (right) and general manager Nicole Gossling - ALISON MCLEAN
Chef Misti Norris (right) and general manager Nicole Gossling
Alison McLean
Take the bowl of peas: Those peas were creamed with a few whole peas mixed in for contrast, then topped with bits of rice cracker for crunch, fronds of dill and three andouille sausage meatballs. (Remember, Norris is from Louisiana.)

Petra stuffed its leeks and mushrooms into generously filled dumplings — enormous, mutant versions of the pyramid-like Turkish manti — and then topped them with pickled-then-grilled leeks and crumbled-up cotechino sausage. After that course, cucumber and garden-fresh mint got to shine in a cocktail with gin and Topo Chico.

Three things stand out about the way that Norris and her tiny crew serve these tasting menus. First, the Saturday dinners are served at either 5 p.m. or 8:15 p.m., which requires choosing whether one feels like having the early bird special or staying up mighty late. This is not my favorite part.

Second, meat is used here as a trick to add flavor, not as a focal point for the dish. That’s maybe surprising coming from a restaurant that’s most famous for its charcuterie, but Petra’s meats often appear on its formal tastings not as full plates but as little exclamation marks chopped and scattered atop noodles or veggies.

Third, the service, led by general manager Nicole Gossling, is some of the best in the city. Hardly any other place in town is this welcoming. Between the people, the artwork (which Norris painted herself) and the emergency umbrella stash to help diners to their cars in surprise showers, eating at Petra feels like going to a crazily talented friend’s house party.

My first tasting dinner at Petra was very different from the second, because of the context: It was on March 14, 2020, two nights before Dallas County shut down indoor dining. All of us in the dining room innocently thought that if we sat far apart, and if nobody coughed, we’d be fine.

It’s a bittersweet memory of a final moment of ignorance. There is some pain in the experience of looking back a year and a half at our naivete and optimism before the pandemic, our belief that this would all be over in a few weeks. I still vividly remember that night’s food—incredible, of course—and the wines we brought from home, but the memory makes me feel slightly guilty.

But the hopeful thing is that Petra and the Beast is still here, and still great. It has a local following but a national reputation. It even has plates now. And it was supposed to be a short little pop-up.

Petra and the Beast, 601 N. Haskell Ave. Open Wednesday-Friday 12-9 p.m., Saturday night by reservation only and Sunday 5-9 p.m.
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Brian Reinhart has been the Dallas Observer's food critic since spring 2016. In addition, he writes baseball analysis for the Hardball Times and covers classical music for the Observer and MusicWeb International.
Contact: Brian Reinhart