Confession may be good for the soul, but it’s probably not the best way to begin a restaurant review. But in the spirit of full disclosure, certain things must be acknowledged: I haven’t been a fan of Dallas, Texas since November 22, 1963. When you combine the horrific events of that day with an general dislike of Cowboys (I’m a Giants fan), big hair and bigger belt buckles, you could say this city on the Trinity River ain’t exactly my cup of chili. The fact that I haven’t been here in twenty-five years has kept these prejudices firmly entrenched, even though this city has now outgrown them by such a degree that thinking of Dallas as a cow town is like referring to Manhattan as a Dutch trading post.
Maintaining an opinion without having all the facts is a great time saver, as E. B. White said, and fifty years is long enough to hold a grudge, so, with conscience cleared and cynicism swept aside, I recently ventured to Dallas to see just how dining out is faring there in the 21st Century. Along the way, I encountered the best of Texas, a few venerable institutions, and enough top-flight, drop-your-fork delicious dishes to keep me licking my lips for days. The dining scene here is now so dynamic that the following choices barely scratch the surface of the food and drink that’s available, but you could do a lot worse that following this itinerary should you find yourself deep in the heart of the Big D.
Stephan Pyles (pictured above) is to Dallas what Wolfgang Puck is to Los Angeles — the chef who first put his city’s food scene on the map. He did it by showing the world what could be accomplished by cross-pollinating the bounty and culinary traditions of the Lone Star State with the patchwork quilt of cultures that makes the place so fascinating. These days, among his many philanthropic pursuits, he occupies himself with expanding the gastronomic possibilities of the various foods that have enriched his home state, combined with his love of South and Central America.
We found one of his newest creations — San Salvaje (pronounce San Sal-VAH-hay) — to be fusion food writ fine, combining elements of every Latin American/Caribbean comestible you can think of with strongly flavored, take-no-prisoners seasonings that are the hallmark of a thoughtful, confident chef. Whether it was a gorgeous amberjack ceviche (given a kick in the pants with Rocoto chile), sweet corn Humita (an Ecudoran tamale) brimming with lobster and avocado, or a Peruvian cazuela de pollo with fennel and aji panca (chicken casserole with red chile), the menu echos the work of Gaston Acurio and Norman Van Aken, while still managing to remember the Alamo.
If it’s yee-ha food you’re after — the sort of upscale, Tex-Mex cuisine that Pyles made famous at Star Canyon in the late 90s — stampede your herd over to Stampede 66, where a nitrogen-frozen prickly pear margarita will put you in the mood for the best fried oyster tacos this side of Galveston. Looking for something purdee-er? (As they say in these here parts.) Then the eponymous Stephan Pyles will fill the bill with peach-glazed Texas quail, roast garlic custard “Tamale Tart,” and a fenugreek-rubbed lamb rack that pays homage to his love of Morrocan spices.
Bringing a steakhouse to Dallas would seem as superfluous as hauling coals to Newcastle. Not for nuthin’ do longhorn steer sculptures pop up around here more than beehive hairdos. But that’s just what bad boy chef John Tesar (who opened RM Seafood with Rick Moonen in Vegas a decade ago) has done. His newest restaurant, Knife, has even the cattlemen doffing their ten gallon chapeauxs in appreciation. What sets Knife apart is the expansiveness of its menu and the plethora of cuts — some of which are aged in house — all of which are the best beef money can buy. If variety be the spice of life, then having twelve different steaks makes a zesty statement. Texas’s 44 Farms and Niman Ranch supply these proteins (with a mouth-watering assist from A-5 Japanese rib eye), and together they are as strong a lineup as you with find in any carnivore emporium in America.
Tesar’s feud with a certain Dallas critic (who, apparently, didn’t care for his roast chicken) has become legendary, but don’t let that dissuade you from the rest of the menu. Having tasted most of it — from his yellowtail crudo (with Texas ruby red grapefruit) to a textbook duck confit risotto, to a bacon tasting (yes, a bacon tasting) — I can confidently proclaim Knife the ultimate, umami-bomb of a restaurant.
If all of those aren’t enough to get your heart beating faster, tuck into The Ozersky for burgerliciousness at its best. Burger maven Josh Ozersky — who wrote a book about the almighty ground beef sandwich — no doubt approved the design of this one: a soft, squishy bun encasing a medium sized patty of almost-obscene juiciness, covered in a melted wrap of American cheese. It was so good that after tasting seven steaks, four pastas, six appetizers, three salads, and every side dish and piece of charcuterie in the joint, I still polished off the whole thing. [Editor Note: Josh Ozersky, carnivore/writer extraordinaire, recently passed away at the age of 47].
THE DOWAGER QUEEN
As long as I’m baring my soul, I have to admit I’m a sucker for small hotels. And I’m really a sucker for small, elegant hotels in the ritzy part of town with impeccable service, beautifully appointed rooms, and a killer cocktail bar. Maybe it’s the feeling of intimacy combined with luxury; or maybe it’s the fantasy of wanting to live this way 24/7, but from the moment I throw my suitcase on the bed, I feel like F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 1920s — minus the alcoholism, the dissipation and the bat-shit crazy wife.
Dallas is full of great hotels big and small. Hipsters and the hip at heart should check out The Joule in the downtown arts district for its lobby — which doubles as a small art museum — even if you’re not checking in. But if you want to feel like an oil baron (or rub shoulders with one), the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek (pictured above) is where you can channel your inner J.R. Ewing. Start your evening in the leather lined, testosterone-filled Mansion Bar, and then mosey on over to the Mansion Restaurant where Executive Chef Bruno Davaillon (formerly of Alain Ducasse’s miX in Las Vegas) presents a menu of haute cuisine done “Texas style”, which in this part of the world means your Texas quail will come atop farra verde and a crispy young chicken comes adorned with local ramps. We couldn’t find any fault with Davaillon’s duck a l’orange, either, even if it seemed about as Texan as the Eiffel Tower.
“Eating barbecue made by white folks is like going to a gentile internist. Things may turn out okay but you’re not playing the percentages.” – Calvin Trillin
Barbecue and Texas go together like country and western, but amidst all the hype for Hill Country brisket, and the breathless praise heaped upon the Pecan Lodge in Deep Ellum (gotta love that name), there are joints that have been flying under the radar for decades — even though finding a seat in one at lunch or dinner is harder than getting a drink at a Baptist wedding. Smokey John’s is just such a place (in business since 1976), and the line out the door forms quickly everyday around noon.
“You know you’re in Texas when you get beef tips as a condiment,” said one of our dining companions, and she was right. As with Knife, we gamely, intrepidly, without a thought to our own safety, (or the size of our waistline), braved the blizzard of ‘cue, and pretty much the rest of the menu, (are you sensing a theme here?) that John Reaves’ sons, Juan and Brent (pictured above with Dad and sister Yulise), placed before us. In terms of overall, lip-smacking, hickory-smoked toothsome-ness, their sliced pork and ribs can compete against anyone’s for pure, smokey-sweet, pork pulchritude.
This may be cattle country, but the pork at Smokey John’s is what really sings. Pecan Lodge might get the nod for its peppery, preternaturally moist brisket, but its ribs were seriously undercooked and a serious disappointment, while the southern sides at Smokey John’s — from the greens to the taters — are in a league of their own, and the house-made, hot garlic sausage (as in real hot and real garlicky) is all that and more. P.S. Don’t miss the chicken, the chili or the fried catfish either. Take that hipster Deep Ellum barbecue.
Her cuatro leches cake (drizzled with a dense, smokey-sweet caramel sauce) is justifiably famous, and the variety of rolls and cakes we sampled put to lie the idea that too many Latin American pastries are either too sweet, not sweet enough, or filled with lard. The coffee here is outstanding as well, and the double butter brioche cinnamon roll ought to have a Schedule 1 narcotic label attached to it.
Phil Romano (of the Macaroni Grill Romanos) is the brains and the financial brawn behind Trinity Groves — a real estate project that is best described as a dining theme park. The large industrial building on the western end of the Margaret Hill Hunt Bridge presents a number of dining options — all conveniently lined up for your perusal along the former loading docks. It is a testament to how far this city has come that such an ambitious project — located literally on the wrong side of the tracks — has been so well received by folks who probably never in their wildest dreams thought they’d come to this part of town to eat. But come they do, for business lunches and dinners, and no self-respecting chocoholic leaves without a trip to Kate Weiser Chocolates.
Weiser’s confections defy the usual adjectives. They are scrumptious to be sure — from her buttery popcorn bon bon, to a “Ninja Turtle” filled with caramel and roasted pecans, to a Key Lime Pie that tastes like a bite of South Florida in a nub of white chocolate — showing a deft hand with odd but compelling flavor combinations that somehow always work.
As delicious as these confections are in the mouth, they are just as jaw-droppingly beautiful to the eye:
So visually dazzling are these little pieces of abstract expressionism, that eating them seems almost a sin, until you take a bite, and find yourself in the midst of chocolate bliss.
Dallas’ restaurant scene has come a long way in the past ten years. “We’re finally becoming the city we always thought we were,” is how Pyles puts it. What began as a crossroads, joining the Deep South with the American West, is now the fourth largest metropolitan area in the United States. These days it has far more in common with Chicago than it does with Baton Rouge, and anyone who turns their gastronomic nose up at the place needs to park their preconceptions at the city limits, and dive in. It should only take a few bites before they’re seeking absolution for their sins.
1717 McKinney Ave.
Dallas, TX 75201
2100 Ross Avenue Suite 100
Dallas, TX 75201
1807 Ross Avenue #200
Dallas, TX 75201
THE MANSION RESTAURANT
Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek
2821 Turtle Creek Blvd.
Dallas, TX 75219
5680 North Central Expy
Dallas, TX 75206
SMOKEY JOHN’S BAR-B-CUE
1820 Mockingbird Lane
Dallas, TX 75235
2702 Main St.
Dallas, TX 75226
LA DUNI LATIN CAFE
4620 McKinney Avenu
Dallas, TX 75205d
KATE WEISER CHOCOLATE
3011 Gulden Lane #115
Dallass, TX 75212