When Private Social opened last fall, the occasion was marked with a red-carpet affair. Literally, the rug was rouge, and it was rolled out for the city's socialites, both actual and aspiring, all craving a first look into Uptown's latest offering to the upscale dining gods.
The pseudo-celebrities were out in force. Eight contestants from past seasons of Bravo's popular Top Chef series came to pay homage to the latest addition to that show's restaurant empire, this one helmed by Tiffany Derry, a contestant on the seventh season. Derry had also appeared on Top Chef Masters, but that wasn't enough to keep her first restaurant afloat. Go Fish, a suburban seafood spot, closed not long after she returned from taping.
Now in its ninth season, the Top Chef series has spawned an army of TV-approved chefs with serious draw. Diners flock to their restaurants not just for elegant (and often expensive) meals, but for a glimpse of that quasi-celebrity. Posing for pictures with guests is as routine as whipping up a Buerre Monté for these chefs, and investors have noticed. Many of these toques are backed with serious cash.
Top Chef Pork Buns $12
Bone marrow $14
Braised veal $26
Cheese plate $12
That money can buy expensive flatware and fine fixtures to outfit opulent dining rooms. It can even, perhaps, get diners into seats for a short while, in the weeks and months after these made-from-TV restaurants open. Return customers, though — the measure of every successful restaurant — have to be earned with an environment, menu and service experience that draw people back.
Private Social's environment is nice enough. The expansive space is tricked out in white leather booths and dark wood tables, and it's cut in two by the thin veil of a beaded metal curtain. The partition is an attempt to divide the restaurant into two distinct entities, each with separate offerings: Private and Social, if you couldn't guess. But it's not much more than a name. Menus meant for each side of the restaurant travel back and forth and dishes are repeated, making that divider seem like little more than industrial-weight kitsch. The noise bounces back and forth, too, and it brings with it a reminder of the restaurant's biggest weakness.
A review in The Dallas Morning News, which ran shortly after the restaurant opened, described "punishing acoustics," but nobody at Private Social listened. Perhaps they're deaf after repeated noise-exposure levels that could actually, seriously, warrant an OSHA violation. On busy nights, employees bustle and shout across what might be Dallas' loudest dining room. A mirrored glass wall works as a sounding board, tossing noise right back into the crowd that creates it. They only get louder in response. It's so noisy it ruins the dining experience, not that it needed any help being ruined.
Derry's cooking shows flashes of brilliance so bright it makes it hard to understand what went wrong with the rest of her menu. Like those sweetbreads perched in a pool of salty broth, poured table-side. Derry presented the entire thymus gland of a calf in one piece, covered in a thin but crisp coating. The crust gave way to protein that tasted like the most tender, delicious chicken nugget, lightly salted by that briny liquid. It was the best sweetbread presentation that has ever graced my table, but I'm hesitant to recommend it because the consistency is off in the rest of the menu.
A bone marrow dish was almost as good. The small femurs, split down the center and cut into 6-inch canoes, held a rich, jiggling, essence of life. Cut with the acid of house-made pickles, the messy dish was so addicting I scraped the bones clean. But what was with that supporting crostini? The thin, toasted bread slices were cut from a cheap, lifeless baguette.
The same bread marred an otherwise perfect clam saute. Chorizo's smoky paprika was a delightful punch that lingered at the back of my throat, and the sauce was soup-spoon-worthy. But the bread I used to sop up that broth reminded me of cheap Texas toast. It was the whitest of white breads.
The steamed snack touted as a Top Chef Pork Bun featured a store-bought round as well. This isn't a crime in itself, but the bread was sticky and lifeless, and I can't help but wonder how much the buns would improve if they were made freshly on site. This is, after all, a restaurant serving $30 entrees, not a dim sum joint in Richardson. A dedication to craftsmanship here should be a given. Instead the menu tailspins into errors that are much less forgivable.
Both monkfish and arctic char were overcooked across two visits. The former was capped with thin slices of truffle so devoid of fragrance it was a wasted addition to the dish.
Hand-rolled garganelli smelled amazing when it arrived. The steaming dish was heaped with fatty braised veal, cherries and pine nuts, but it marked the first time I've ever been served under-done fresh pasta, which literally cooks in seconds. The tubes of pasta clumped together during the cooking process, resulting in a tough and chewy finish.
The same thing happened to two bowls of ramen at lunch. Ramen is a serious dish in Japan — a religion complete with commandments that take cooks years to master. Derry's version committed two cardinal sins: The broth wasn't hot enough, and the noodles clumped at the bottom of the bowl like a wet, tennis ball-sized tangle of hair. Despite this, the pork belly, softly cooked egg with silken yolk and bok choy that decorate the dish were stunning.
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Dessert was fine. A galette holding sweet pears could have used a flakier crust, though, and the lemon sorbet it was plated with felt out of place. (The salted caramel ice cream elsewhere on the menu would be so much better here.)
The composed cheese course was a bigger flop: mounding cheese and marmalade and honey and greens and radishes on more of that terrible bread. If I could compose the bite myself I'd choose less of each ingredient. I'd also ditch the toast. Derry serves them up as a crostini, stripping diners of all control. A cheese for dessert course is one of the few plates that actually should remain deconstructed.
Private Social feels staged to me, even though the dining room is packed with paying customers. It's like the set of a television show, where dishes are preened like costumes and the make-up is caked on thick. The plates look pretty, and sauces and soups poured table-side from polished porcelain vessels invoke a dressy feel, but unmasked with a fork the dishes crumble into an unmemorable pile of unmet expectations.
During one visit, when I asked about a camera crew filming in the restaurant, my waitress told me she had to sign a waiver to work there. "You never can tell what's going on here," she told me. I could barely hear her, but I got the feeling she was suggesting that big things were always happening at Private Social. That's probably true when the chef and her flock are viewed through a camera lens, but not so much when frame is focused on the cooking — a shame, considering the price of admission.