Sharon Hage went about everything the wrong way when she opened York Street way back in May 2001. Not only was she among the first to tie her menu to the vagaries of seasonal, often local, organically grown ingredients, the chef also violated all the rules of small business success.
Take the old adage "location, location, location." She set up in an old garage behind an independent tire shop on some weary East Dallas side street. Signage is important, right? The restaurant has no marquee, no street-side reminder to turn here, no eye-catching lights—just a small, dark metal script above the door. For guests looking to park, there's...um, whatever space you can find along the curb. Size? Even at 40 seats, it's a tight squeeze in the dining room. Those arriving early and forced to wait for their reserved table will find a couple of chairs outside, under the stars or whatever North Texas skies decide to throw at them.
"It's a horrible business model," Hage admits.
Yes, but York Street is also one of the most consistently remarkable, successful and—lately—mimicked restaurants in recent Dallas memory. The owners of Bolsa planned that Oak Cliff space as an inexpensive version of Hage's creation, for example. If you want a reservation to York Street on Saturday night, it's best to call at least one day in advance, maybe two. The place was full on my last weekend visit, and when I call later to find out how she managed to forge this tiny hideout into one of the city's longest-running destination restaurants, Hage laughs and shouts out to a guest: "Hey, Tristan, I've got Dave Faries on the line," she exclaims. "He says I'm going about this the wrong way."
Turns out Tristan Simon, owner of Cuba Libre, Hibiscus, Fireside Pies and The Porch—restaurants featuring visible logos and a ton of valet parking—is finishing up dinner at York Street. "It all depends on what currency you value," he says of Hage's unassuming business plan. While he went for the big splash and popularity, she sought to carve a small but devoted following of those who appreciate care and subtlety without the scene.
"This is one of my two or three favorite restaurants," Simon acknowledges.
Even after nine years, York Street hasn't slipped, not even a smidge. The menu still changes almost nightly. On my last visit it included walleye, a North American—as in Minnesota, Canada and other frozen parts—variant of the European pike perch and a fish not often found in Texas restaurants. Visit Minneapolis or Fargo in the winter and you'll find fried walleye in just about every restaurant. But Hage treats the fighting fish with unusual devotion, seasoned sparingly and sautéed gently to firm up the delicate flesh without covering its fine flavors. So you end up with two creamy white fillets, rich and almost nutty in character. Set up by the slightly grassy and cleansing bite of celeriac, it's one of the best presentations of walleye possible. Steamed littleneck clams are pulled from the heat just at the point when they plump to a pillowy texture and served in a broth laden with garlic and ginger—intense and prickly, but also light enough to allow the flavor of shellfish through.
This is the work of a chef who still loves her job, who just won't settle into a formula. "Product motivates me," Hage says, pointing out how excited she gets when walleye comes on the market. "The seasons motivate me."
Oh, there are a few tried and true items. You'll always find some form of organ meat on the menu, for instance—though the offerings vary. Two weeks ago it was Kobe beef tongue. The chef also shows a touch of whimsy, on my last visit listing osetra caviar and a dish called "porky pig."
Traditional service calls for caviar to be served with chopped hard-boiled egg, diced onions and other sharp, fatty and acidic elements designed to cope with the pronounced taste of packed fish eggs. Hage opts to place a dollop of the black gold atop a mound of basic egg salad: eggs, dry mustard and homemade mayonnaise, mixed up just right. The so called porky pig allows her to plate slices of tender roast pork with slabs of belly, ribboned by veins of gossamer fat. In both cases the meat is ruddy and tart with an acrid background. Where the dish really shows its sly wit, however, is in the sides: creamed corn, polenta and crumbled cornbread, spreading from underneath the meat. The arrangement struck me as humorous, at least. Was it corn, cradle to grave? Polenta three ways (not yet ground, wet and dry)? To Hage, the polenta simply soaks up rich flavors flowing from the meat, the milky kernels contribute bursts of natural sweetness while cornbread breaks the soft texture, also bringing the dish back to its ham and grits roots.
However you look at it, this is a clever dish.
The truly admirable thing about Hage is that she never accepts accolades. Point out that other restaurants now follow her lead, she just shrugs. Praise her work and she thanks you with gracious surprise, seeming genuinely pleased that someone likes the restaurant's cooking. Ask her about trends (and I've done this many times over the years), she'll apologize and say something like "I only really know what's going on in my kitchen."
Undoubtedly Hage is aware of her talent, but this cloistered focus is refreshing. Other restaurants sense a rising trend and try to take advantage of it. Some successful chefs look to expand, creating a brand if not an outright chain. And many places cover meats and seafood in bold or familiar seasoning. You enter York Street to see how a chef brings pork or beef, shellfish or whatever to its most revealing expression. Hage bares her main ingredients, then looks for a way to touch them up just enough to accentuate whatever it is that makes them unique.
Who knows? Maybe doing this on a beaten side street in some nondescript building was the only way people would notice. And after nine years, she's still opening eyes.York Street 6047 Lewis St., 214-826-0968. Open 6 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, also 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesday. $$$-$$$$