Back in July, there were a tense and strange couple days in the kitchen at RedFork, the then-brand-new gastropub in Knox-Henderson. An alleged gas leak had forced a short closure, and discord was swelling among the staff. So it probably wasn't a surprise when cook Ryan Carbery, on his way to work one day, got a call from his boss, owner Matthew Anderson.
But what Anderson told him was a surprise: Jeff Harris and Matt Balke, the high-profile chefs leading the charge, had walked. The acclaimed duo's pedigree — Harris from Craft Dallas, Balke from York Street — had generated serious buzz for the restaurant, but now they were gone. And they wouldn't be replaced by other top-name toques. Instead Anderson was offering the job to third-in-command Carbery, who'd bounced around catering jobs after Lazar, his first notable station in Dallas, had closed.
He said yes and went to work.
RedFork P.E.I. Mussels $12 The Burger $12 Steak frites $17 Crispy Half Chicken $16 Snout to Tail $18 Rigatoni Bolognese $14 Bread pudding $6
I first visited RedFork four weeks later, on a sweltering weekday evening in August. Carbery had yet to hire a sous and was running the kitchen on his own. It was a weekday evening, and the sleek and dark space was quiet. A couple sat at the bar. A four-top, one older couple, one younger, sat at a corner table. Sports played silently on the televisions while The Who filled the aural void.
While the cooking was as disjointed as the kitchen staff, there were glimmers of competence. A stellar burger and a beautiful roasted beet salad indicated a chef who understood the art of simple cooking. A sweetbreads dish, while lackluster, at least showed a seasoned front-of-the-house staff. After I left the plate mostly untouched — diners sign language for "there's something wrong here" — my waitress took notice. The flavor seemed off, I told her, and the crisp texture the menu promised was instead soggy and flaccid. The plate disappeared with an apology and an understanding nod.
Then my roast chicken was late, arriving nearly 20 minutes after our other entrees. Our dinner was in a tailspin. But there was Carbery, out to address the table, wild-eyed and with arms decorated in pink burn marks. He took responsibility, comped our desserts, removed the sweetbreads from the bill and offered a sincere apology. It's a good sign when a restaurant quickly and politely admits when it's done wrong. It says: pros at work. And that roast chicken, when it finally did come, boasted crisp skin and juicy flesh.
In the coming weeks Carbery rolled with the punches. He hired his No. 2, Drew Altimore, a catering chef who came up from Houston. Carbery honed his charcuterie skills, making speck and coppa and pancetta. A long-awaited pizza oven was installed and pies started rolling out of the kitchen. Through it all, the dining room hunted for an identity that would suit what the owners seemed to be going for: a polished menu built for the casual clientele.
But at that, it was struggling. On my last visit, a Tech fan, drinking from a bucket of Miller Lites, let out a touchdown-induced "Booyah!" just as a pizza arrived at my table. The cheese tasted fresh, and the sauce had a spicy zing, but the crust was lifeless and underdeveloped. It had no character. It had no chew. And whatever sophistication it had when it left Carbery's new oven was blown away by the booyahs.
Tech scored again, and more deafening cheers accompanied the arrival of mussels, large and full with a rich and buttery sauce that begged to be sopped up with buttered bread. It was heavy eating, as far as mussels go, but the dish has been consistently beautiful every time I've supped at the Fork.
Pasta bolognese would be a stunner, if only that rigatoni had a bit more bite. The sauce was lovely and aggressively flavored with sage, but the pasta was soft and cooked in under-salted water.
The staff didn't ask my preferred temperature when I ordered a steak, but the New York strip arrived a lovely medium rare, perfect for me but perhaps not for the next guy. Sporting an understated reduction sauce and the same killer fries that accompany the mussels, the tender cut boasted a nice sear. Again, here, the simple cooking shined, even when a side of Béarnaise sauce tasted flat.
The snout-to-tail plate was a bit of a misnomer. Pancetta, tenderloin and a soft roast shoulder all came from the middle of a pig, neglecting either end. The move seemed timid when I'd expected something bold, but then I looked around the room and wondered how many diners would be thrilled to eat head cheese, a fact Carbery confirmed when I talked to him. "It sells much better when I call it pork terrine," he told me.
Still, the plate was a beautifully composed example of peasant cookery. Each cut was cooked with its own preferred treatment, yielding crispy pancetta, tender tenderloin and a soft and smoky shoulder. The meats were tossed on a plate with pan-seared brussels sprouts, potatoes, carrots and a simple reduction sauce. You could envision eating like this in a small town in the hills of Tuscany — it's really that good. But then another big play prompts fans to erupt into cheers, whisking your Tuscan dreams back to your jerseys-and-wings reality.
There's not much in the way of sound treatment inside the strip-mall structure, and while I don't have a pocket dosimeter, I'm quite certain the football fans could rival a jet engine at take-off. When the game ended matters only got worse, as a solo guitarist tuned up and belted out the opening chords of an Oasis cover. Now conversation was impossible. The manager realized the problem and had the musician turn things down, but not before a three-top picked up their wine and plates and made for the patio, and not before the balladeer launched into Petty. I began to wonder why the RedFork sign wasn't in flames. Clearly I was dining in ambience hell.
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Desserts managed to temper Satan's torch some. The bread pudding balanced texture that was not too custardy and not too dry; a fudge brownie sported bananas coated in brûléed sugar. But the vibe of the place had soured my evening. I wasn't enjoying myself. The owners of RedFork are going to have to address these tonal deficiencies if they want to create an experience that resonates with the various customers that grace its dining room.
When the food is good, as it often is, I can picture the space as it was initially billed: a neighborhood restaurant serving chef-driven and simple fare. To pull this off they'd have to revisit their beer and wine lists, which lack inspiration, tone down the football and pay a little more attention to the space. Dyed concrete floors, wooden blinds and sleek booths aren't enough to turn a soulless strip-mall location into a cozy culinary den. The owners would do well to check out Nosh, or Nonna — two nearby restaurants that have a similar footprint, and whose paint, booths and window treatments give them a completely different feel.
Or perhaps RedFork could play to the customers I find there most evenings, enjoying live music and taking in the game. Bucket specials for beer would work then, but pig terrines and reduction sauces might feel out of place. A menu featuring roast chicken, steak frites, and bar classics like Reubens, hamburgers and chicken wings might fit better.
For now the restaurant straddles those multiple genres, attempting far too much for one space and one kitchen, even with two competent cooks behind the pass. As RedFork struggles to find its identity the biggest victim is Carbery himself, whose kitchen skills are lost in the dissonance of a sports bar meets Tuscan trattoria meets frat party.