If the Kitchen LTO concept has a weakness, it’s an over-reliance on fads. Every six months, the Trinity Groves restaurant holds an application process to select a completely new menu and chef, offering underappreciated chefs the chance to (briefly) run their own restaurant. The final decision is based on popular vote, with each finalist cooking up samples at a tasting night party.
To run this incarnation of Kitchen LTO, Nick Amoriello, most recently executive sous chef at Rapscallion, beat out a group of contenders that included concepts of Caribbean and Korean soul food. His entry: “modern Texas cuisine.”
I didn’t attend that tasting party, but on paper a Korean or Caribbean soul food LTO sounds way more intriguing. The problem facing Amoriello is, in a city that already boasts Filament, Rapscallion, Wayward Sons, Smoke and a half-dozen other “modern Texan” landmarks, is there really room for one more?
The answer is, mostly, yes.
Amoriello and his team work best in one area where Dallas dining still lags a bit: wild game. The antelope ribs offered when the restaurant opened are already gone, but don’t despair. Venison tartare ($16) is the standout appetizer, visually stunning and harmonious on the tongue, the meat topped with a runny quail egg.
On the main courses, it’s all about rabbit. Each night, a limited number of rabbits are available; signal interest to the waiter immediately to get dibs. There’s a half-portion ($26), but don’t settle for half measures unless you’re dining alone. The whole rabbit ($42) is a succulent feast of juicy, smoky meat. Eat the legs with your fingers, tearing into rabbit well seasoned with garlic, parsley, salt and pepper. Slices of breast meat sit at the bottom of the platter, patiently sopping up drippings to amplify their gamey flavor.
Other items aren’t always as exciting. Fish dishes tend to be perfectly seared and served with tastefully done vegetables, but similar food is found at a dozen other restaurants around town. A side order of roasted broccoli with shaved romano cheese and lemon aioli ($8) was terrific, but I knew it would be, because it’s a recipe I make at home.
Another side, macaroni and cheese ($11), deftly combines cheddar, Gouda and goat cheese. In a city with a mac and cheese epidemic spiraling out of control, this is some of the gooiest and best — and priciest. Upon asking my dining partners, “What’s the smallest serving you’ve gotten for $11?” They all pointed straight at our tasty teacup of mac.
Amoriello won the LTO job at the tasting party by cooking up pork belly with a Carolina-style barbecue sauce, sweet potato puree and a salad of Brussels sprouts and oyster mushrooms ($26). On a first visit, every component was on point except the pork belly itself, which required about a month of chewing per bite. The pig redeemed itself on a return trip, when it was butter-soft and melt-in-the-mouth. Kitchen execution can be the difference between a dream dish and a nightmare.
The good news is LTO 6.0’s vegetables are much more consistent. In fact, this might be the only restaurant in town where the specialty is an entire rabbit but vegetarians can eat as happily as Bugs Bunny. There might be a twisted joke in the fact that the rabbit dish itself is served with slim, farm-fresh, gorgeously smoked carrots.
A beet salad appetizer ($12) wowed the entire table, its fork-tender beets paired perfectly with mandarin orange slices. This might change a confirmed beet-hater’s mind. The pork belly dish might win some converts for Brussels sprouts, prepared here by sauteing the individual leaves. The best part of the seared snapper main is its veggies, too, since diners can wrap a bundle of fresh peas in a curled-but-not-overcooked onion sliver.
Supporting elements are strong at Amoriello’s Kitchen LTO. The cocktail program focuses on well made classics (all $11), like a Manhattan with a splash of port and a perfect Vieux Carré. One clever novelty is a pecan sour, replacing pisco with Cathead Pecan Vodka from Mississippi. There’s also a short wine list, mostly good values under $50, though it’s worth paying extra for superb Van Duzer Willamette Valley pinot noir ($56) if you’re ordering the rabbit. Service is unfailingly polite, but a busy dining room can mean a long wait, even for drinks.
The pop-up’s desserts might not compel anyone away from a trip to Kate Weiser or Cake Bar. But you won’t be disappointed if you stay, especially if you like apples. Johnny Appleseed is fancified caramel apple, with the caramel stuffed down the middle of the fruit before the whole thing is baked. Its side is a flavorful but oddly crumbling goat cheese ice cream. The best dessert of all, though, is a humble ginger snap cookie. Technically the ginger snap is a garnish for a custard, but ask politely if they can maybe just bring you a few cookies. The recipe, we're told, comes from the chef’s grandmother.
Trinity Groves’ “food theme park” atmosphere can encourage creativity, but it also creates a Shark Tank-like atmosphere of capitalist frenzy. The Kitchen LTO concept ratchets up that competitive streak, because if anyone who wants to try this concept has only four more months to do so. The digital timer, counting down the seconds until the current concept disappears, is both a cool marketing gimmick and slightly terrifying.
So why dine at LTO 6.0 under Amoriello? There are consistency issues, which subside during weekend hours when the A-team is in the kitchen. (Amoriello himself was absent on both of my visits.) But for exotic items like venison and rabbit, this is one of the best spots in town, and the crew is equally adept with veggies. At the height of the “modern Texan” restaurant bubble, this town is big enough for one more.
Kitchen LTO, 3011 Gulden Lane, 214-377-0757, kitchenlto.com. Open 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a..-2:30 p.m. and 5-8 p.m. Sunday.
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