Sometimes people ask how we choose which restaurants to review. The answers vary — because a restaurant features a big-name chef, because it represents something new for the Dallas area or because we thought the photos looked cool on Google Maps. Then there are the places we cover because our friends just won’t shut up about them.
The Charles is one such place. Early buzz online was ecstatic. Prominent food writers from other publications started asking if they could come along on our review visits. My boss told me that she thoroughly enjoyed a meal there. Then a rival chef confided to me he thinks The Charles might be one of the city’s very best restaurants.
That was the tipping point. I just had to see what everyone was talking about.
They’re not wrong. The Charles is a good restaurant, serving imaginative riffs on Italian cooking that can stray playfully from the source material. But the food, as enjoyable as it is, doesn’t top the sheer sensory overload of one of the strangest dining rooms in Dallas.
Interior designers Corbin and Ross See — who are partners in the business, credited by press materials on an equal footing with executive chef J. Chastain — appear to have taken inspiration from both the ruins of Pompeii and the bordellos of Nevada. The tops of Corinthian columns sit on bare metal supports that are the color of spearmint candies. Fake statues of Roman noblemen oversee a window into the open kitchen. Every chandelier in the place dates from a different era of Americana.
There’s a bar mirror framed by a creepy gold snake with heads at both ends. There are light fixtures that look, from a distance, to be carpeted in AstroTurf. The booths are cheetah-print. Wallpaper completes its stunning comeback to trendiness here, except in the bathrooms, which are covered instead with suggestive cut-outs from magazines.
Waiters wear monogrammed dark jackets with their shirtsleeves turned back over the wrist ends to reveal jolts of white. They have apron skirts, too, which go from the belt down. Almost every waiter is male; all of them wear ties except one man who prefers to undo his top three buttons. The only female server I encountered made her mark by apologizing for tilting a plate of pasta.
“It’s not as pretty now,” she said, practically heartbroken.
This description is not a complaint. The Charles is something special, in both the traditional and slang senses of the word, and its people-watching is stellar. Even on a recent Monday night, the dining room remained packed well after 9 p.m. Along with its neighbor Town Hearth, this is one of the best places in town to see Dallas being peak Dallas.
In addition to being a reality-theater enactment of human eccentricity, The Charles serves food. And much of the food is very good indeed.
Like the dining room and the customers, the menu celebrates eccentricity. There’s hardly one recognizable Italian classic in the house, thanks to Chastain’s creative reworking. Instead of Caesar salad, go for the chicories salad of curly, slightly bitter greens and a showering of herbs with an umami-heavy dressing ($12). Instead of calamari, try a small plate of celery slivers, ultra-thin slices of pickled radish and potent, tongue-lashing handfuls of fresh herbs, topped with some of the softest, most tender grilled octopus in Dallas ($17).
Those are petite starters — a dollar from the cost probably goes to dry-cleaning staff uniforms — but their flavors practically scream. The same goes for the kale, in a preparation of that finicky vegetable which is simply brilliant ($9). The Charles piles its kale into the grill, then tops the result with crumbles of ricotta salata cheese and slices of grapes. Underneath it all, providing a surprisingly perfect counterpoint to the smoky-savory greens, is a spoonful of yogurt dip.
Cappelloni, small purse-shaped pastas with filling, are exquisitely formed and cooked ($17). The dough is left a little thick to contain the insides, but the rich and slightly spicy veal ragu is worth it. And it’s clever to have warming red ragu on the inside of dumplings when, on the outside, they’re covered in a Parmesan cream sauce. The result is like the pink sauce at Campisi’s for people too fancy to order pink sauce at Campisi’s.
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The big, meaty main courses offer at least two examples of all this inspiration going slightly off course. One of them, however, changes constantly: “The Pie,” a massive pot pie served with grilled seasonal veggies ($26). One recent night, the grilled side was acorn squash — terrific — but the pie itself, nearly 6 inches tall, was filled with tender duck confit, which, honestly, tasted like any generic meat. On my next visit, The Pie had changed to chicken and sweet potato; I fully expect this kitchen to figure out which flavor combinations work.
As they adjust, they’ll probably make big changes to the rib-eye steak ($39). Served slathered in onions and hot pickled Fresno peppers, the beef — already rather thin — would fit right in at a Tex-Mex joint. But an odd boiled-beef texture means this rib-eye doesn’t hold up to the arrachera plates down in Oak Cliff.
That’s one misstep on a menu full of confident strides. Of more concern to some customers will be the cost: One person’s dinner can easily run to $60 without ordering a single drink, and drinking will not ease the pain, since three-quarters of the red wine bottles are over $90. The Charles will be a special occasion for most, then, although the dining room seems full of the kind of Dallasite for whom random Monday nights are reasons to splurge. It’s certainly seductive to join them. Sitting in this exquisitely odd dining room, admiring the black-tied bar staff and chowing down on dainty portions of octopus and gnudi, I felt like splurging, too.
The Charles, 1632 Market Center Blvd. 469-917-9000, thecharlesdallas.com. Open Monday through Wednesday 5:30-10:30 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday 5:30-11:30 p.m.