Food News

Tillman's Roadhouse Chef Dan Landsberg:
Blending Down-Home with Upscale

In the beginning, there was Tillman's Corner.

This was in the era B.C. -- before cool -- when roosters still roamed the ungentrified land of Oak Cliff without fear of city code inspectors or the heedless, speeding wheels of a yuppie's Trek.

It was 1992, and Ricky and Sara Tillman created Tillman's Corner in the Bishop Arts District.

And it was good.

Chef Ricky happily cranked out New American fare that drew customers to Oak Cliff before the arrival of today's hipsters. (Dallas food historians will appreciate that Ricky was a former sous chef at The Mansion and was related to Bill Tillman, former saxophonist for Blood, Sweat and Tears.) The Tillman's were visionaries, developing their ideas (and real estate) to help rebuild the once-thriving North Oak Cliff neighborhood.

After five successful years running Tillman's Corner, Ricky died, leaving the restaurant in Sara's hands. In 2008, she looked to change the restaurant's image.

And thus Tillman's Roadhouse was born.

Enter Chef Dan Landsberg with his backpack full of vision and his ideas of upscale chuck-wagon cuisine.

"What attracted me most to Tillman's was in part the legacy of Ricky and his love for the food," Landsberg says. "But he also wanted a place you could come, regardless who you were, and have the same type of cuisine you might have at these other top places in town - but it didn't have to be expensive. That concept really resonated with me."

Landsberg's cuisine is playful and energetic. He turns Texas standards on their heads with dishes like his chicken-fried steak -- a pounded hanger steak adorned with charred poblano gravy.

The same spirit was found at Fog City Diner, one of Landsberg's first real restaurant experiences after he graduated from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. Landsberg was working at the original Fog City in San Francisco when he was transferred to Dallas to open Fog City in the spot now occupied by the McKinney Avenue Truluck's. Among the Dallas Fog City's original investors when it opened in 1995 was Troy Aikman, which helps explain the success it enjoyed -- briefly, anyway -- before it closed in 1998.

Landsberg returned to Dallas in 1996 for a stint as chef de cuisine at Toscana Restaurant, where he worked alongside David Holben (now at Del Frisco) and Gilbert Garza (now at Suze in Dallas). He also spent three years at the Dallas Museum of Art working catering and going back and forth at the restaurants, including Seventeen Seventeen.

"The museum was inspiring," Landsberg recalls. "It gave me an appreciation for art that I didn't know that I had. Working around the art was an incredible opportunity. There were exhibits that we were asked to recreate some of the pieces on the plate. That was a great creative experience, with a different perspective."

Landsberg also worked as the executive chef for Stephan Pyles at his landmark restaurant on Ross Avenue, which opened in 2006.

"That was also a great experience for me, working with Stephan. I learned so much more about Texas cuisine and all the ingredients that were available. I was thankful that Stephan had that much confidence in me," Landsberg says.

A year later Dan ran across friends he had met at Seventeen Seventeen, Rob Daily and Todd Fiscus, who were working with Sara Tillman on the Tillman's redo. Rob and Todd are partners who had been dining at Tillman's for years and wanted to see the transformation take place using their designs, which infused both a "high-brow and low-brow" feel at the restaurant.

Soon Tillman's Roadhouse was in full swing. At the same time Hatties (near neighbors of Tillman's) was gaining more popularity, Eno's had opened around the corner along with Zen Sushi, and more opportunity for other restaurants in Bishop Arts became available, giving the area's revitalization efforts a major boost.

Today you will find Landsberg bouncing back between Tillman's in Oak Cliff and the newest location in Fort Worth. The Fort Worth version enjoys more tables, a larger bar, an expansive patio and a kitschy Southwest feel that works amazingly well. The location also is more beef centric, adding extra cuts to the menu such as local grass-fed fed steaks, while the Oak Cliff spot has the added crispy duck confit served with farro and a Rio Star grapefruit and Campari sauce.

Both locations dish crowd favorites such as Venison Frito Pie and the restaurants' answer to the standard fried potato: the Trio Of Fries that includes Parmesan black pepper Kennebec fries, chili-dusted purple Peruvian fries and smoked salt scented sweet potato fries, all served with house-made ketchup and horseradish pickle mayonnaise.

Even the old campfire favorite, S'mores, gets the Tillman's treatment. It's an all house-made lineup of orange, maple and coffee marshmallows, cinnamon grahams and dark chocolate bark, which allow you to make the treats table-side.

Together, Landsberg and Tillman's has created restaurant and menu that is both traditional and New American, hip but not off-putting.

In fact, it's a lot like Oak Cliff itself these days.

We will continue our look at Landsberg tomorrow with a Q&A, and on Friday the chef invites us all into his kitchen for a look at one of his original recipes.

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Steven Doyle

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