The last time I ate a fancied-up chicken-fried steak, I was at Tillman’s Roadhouse, where someone thought battered and fried filet mignon was a good way to command a higher price for a humble plate. The breading came loose the second my knife descended, revealing soft, medium-cooked meat. Red juices turned my peppercorn gravy a hideous flamingo pink. I didn’t like it.
I wasn’t sure what to think when my chicken-fried rib-eye first hit the table during a recent meal at Pink Magnolia in Oak Cliff. I was glad it wasn’t a full-sized steak, for starters. This cut was pounded into oblivion, as it should be, and cooked completely through in one of the few instances in which beef tastes better well done. The scent caught me off guard, though. Is that maple syrup? The steak was perched (another way to justify a price hike) on a bed of braised greens that had a sweet, subtly smoky flavor that bled into a measure of creamed corn. I inhaled the plate because fried things covered in gravy almost always taste good, but I wasn’t sold on the sweetness that made its way into the dish. The plate seemed confused.
Pink Magnolia opened on West Davis Street in early September and most of us had a good idea what to expect. Chef Blythe Beck had recently completed an extended tenure at Kitchen LTO, where her self-described naughty take on Southern cooking enraptured her fans. The chicken-fried rib-eye was a hit there, too, at least according to the table of women dining behind me who were elated to see their favorite dish made the move. That table of six ordered three of them.
Beck took over the old Driftwood space, covering the aqua blue walls with taupe and replacing driftwood sculptures with green plastic hedging. Two porch swings sway out front and a small patio offers a few tables of outdoor seating, but the dining room is a little stiff, especially compared with the bathrooms, which are wallpapered with a collection of homespun recipes. Just try not to be sucked into directions for drop cookies, salt-crusted rib roasts and “pink stuff,” a cranberry fruit salad bound in mayonnaise and cream cheese.
Sometimes I wished Blythe’s cooking had taken a cue from the bathroom walls and been a little homier. Her hush puppies were perfect orbs of cornmeal neither oily nor dry, served with a zippy mustard dipping sauce. The lobster added to the mix, presumably to dress things up, added a day-old fish fry scent that only brought the hush puppies down, instead.
Other times I wished the cooking here was a little less relaxed, as with the Southern relish plate that paired cadaver-gray sliced ham with blanched carrots that someone forgot to season. Boiled veg and oddly shaped batons of salami do not make for a compelling charcuterie plate, but I’ll admit I couldn’t keep myself from eating the pimento cheese and flatbread.
Same goes for a green bean casserole, which wasn’t a casserole at all. Bright green, snappy beans swam in a thick, creamy soup, with large chunks of ham in the mix. Far from the integrated, baked and gooey side dish that graces so many Thanksgiving tables, this version hadn’t come together.
The cooking here is dodgy, and with a dining room as packed as this one on a Friday evening, Beck could have little incentive to fix things. Shame on me for assuming I could make a last minute reservation for three at 7 p.m. at such a popular restaurant. And shame on the hostess for accepting my request when it would soon become obvious the restaurant was booked well beyond its capacity. I was seated at 8:30 after turning down a table on the empty and chilly patio, and held in Pink Magnolia jail for a full three hours before my dinner was finished. That’s a lot of time to sip cocktails and debate the merits of a restaurant. I found myself wondering what, exactly, makes the creamed corn naughty, as the menu describes, and how naughty is it? Are we talking parking ticket naughty or pink, fuzzy handcuffs naughty, and if Pink Magnolia were in the Urban Dictionary, would it be a noun or a verb?
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I wish she’d been naughtier, perhaps breaking from flavor conventions to turn out plates that really surprise. At Rapscallion, chef Nathan Tate sneaks the flavors of Sichuan into his fried chicken, giving the plate some electricity. The meatloaf served at Pink Magnolia is just meatloaf, infused with bacon and served heaped on mac and cheese with Brussels sprouts leaves.
Grilled pot roast seemed a lot like normal pot roast, with a thick, sweet sauce that clung to every shred of meat. The same goes for unsurprising deviled eggs, their yolks whipped into a stiff dressing and almost artfully piped into halved egg whites. A nicely cooked red fish was similarly unremarkable. It was not naughty in any way, but the sort of plate you’ll forget seconds after leaving the restaurant, unless you’re an admirer of Beck’s, whose television time and warm personality have endeared her to her fans. A small bar frames her workstation, where customers sit very close, watching as she presides over plates leaving the kitchen.
But with a restaurant as packed as this one on the weekends, there’s not enough Beck to go around, leaving a vacuum that’s not quite filled by her cooking. Without her personality, Pink Magnolia becomes just another expensive Southern restaurant with a trendy dining room. The food can’t stand up on its own.