I'm sitting on a wooden bench at a crafty-looking picnic table in a minimally decorated beer hall in Oak Cliff. Artfully arranged on a slate before me are a small collection of chicken feet fried golden-brown, bundles of collard greens and pumpkin-colored sweet potato hush puppies. Tiny mounds of Microplaned ham have been dropped here and there, along with toasted crushed peanuts; dots of red jalapeño sauce decorate the slate. It looks like something you'd find in a four- or five-star restaurant.
This is bar food?
Apparently so, Small Brewpub-style. At the 2 1/2-month-old place a block from the Texas Theatre on Jefferson Boulevard, you're meant to order at the bar and leave a credit card to open a tab; a bartender (who's probably one of the investors, Joshua Dawn or Benjamin Pocta) will deliver the plates to the table. If they're not too busy, they'll actually take your order tableside. The DIY attitude and communal seating "resonate well" with the Oak Cliff neighborhood, says owner and head brewer Aaron Garcia. The former carpenter and metalworker was a home-brewer who had exactly no professional beer-making experience before opening Small Brewpub, which makes three microbrews and also serves a rotating selection of "guest brews." Looking for a glass of wine? Look elsewhere.
I was somewhat apprehensive about ordering chicken feet, having encountered more than a few offputtingly slimy renditions in Chinese dim sum emporiums. I needn't have been: These were good - hot, crispy-chewy, almost addictive. Together with the greens, the snappy collard green pistou hiding beneath them and the tender hush puppies with their soft, lightly sweet centers, it made a terrific plate, punctuated in all the right places with a flash of preserved lemon, a spike of jalapeño heat.
Experience this food, and you might not be surprised to learn that chef Misti Norris' last gig was as sous-chef at FT33, Matt McCallister's five-star Design District restaurant. Her dishes have a naturalist aesthetic similar to those at FT33; her flavors, bigger and bolder than her mentor's, resonate as decidedly Modern Texan.
Charcuterie is part of the picture: The evening's selection is listed on a blackboard above the white tile-backed bar, and Norris' renditions can be spectacular. Standouts have included a full-flavored lamb country pâté studded with pistachio, a chunk of rich chicken rillettes topped with a velvety layer of fat, something Norris calls "goatwurst" - a slightly coarser, more robust and delicious version of liverwurst, delicate chicken liver mousse and fine slices of hammy-tasting, salty, deep-flavored veal heart tasso.
Chicken feet, veal hearts, what? Ah, yes, the brief menu almost seems designed to scare some people off: There are also pig's trotters, lamb bellies, chicken hearts, sweetbreads and boudin. Don't look for a burger; it's not there.
If you're even the tiniest bit adventurous, go with it: Norris' cooking isn't nearly as scary as it may sound. The chicken hearts, for instance, which look like slices of black olive (with a similar texture) are tamed by pickling. Norris uses them as an accent on a wonderful dish of smoked chicken medallions, moist and silky and served with chard three ways (pickled leaves and stems, coriander-spiced purée and a few crinkly dehydrated leaves) and benne seed duqqa - Egyptian-style spiced, ground, toasted sesame-seed condiment - scattered around. Under the chicken, a gently spiced white-bean purée mingles with the chard purée. Altogether, it adds up to sophisticated, expressive soul food.
A chunk of lamb belly was delicious, too, meltingly tender, deeply lamby and set on a cream sauce boosted with Nufenen, a funky Swiss cheese, spooned in a ring on the plate and arrayed with roasted broccoli florets and stems, shaved black radish, fried sweetbread nuggets and pulverized roasted barley powder (the same roasted barley used to make dark beer), with a drizzle of herb-garlic oil.
There's a dramatic-looking pig's trotter filled with fennel sausage and set off smartly by a vibrant salsa verde; dots of intensely flavored fermented strawberry preserve add the right counterpoint without going too sweet. Lightly pickled chowchow with pinto beans spills over one side of the trotter. There's nothing rote or reflexive about this cooking. It's original, it's thoughtful, it works - and it goes really well with beer.
It's also extremely ambitious for this setting, and sometimes the kitchen falters. One night, a dish Norris calls "gnocchi" took forever coming out of the kitchen, though the place wasn't terribly busy. More like a long bar of moist and custardy savory cheesecake complemented by a gorgeous lineup of tiny root vegetables, the gnocchi was burned on top. (Next time it was better.) A bowl of handmade tagliarini had admirable texture, but swam in a sauce that was too buttery, too salty. And the single dessert available - only on the nights dinner is served, Thursday through Monday - left me cold both times I tasted it. A bowl of bittersweet chocolate rice pudding, boldly spiked with chile and swirled with tarragon oil, lost me with the liquid (egg whites?) that wept under its meringue topping.
But more often, the plates are spot-on, including on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when only an abbreviated "bar snacks" menu is up for grabs. I loved a pickled egg whose yolk was cooked to just-gelatinous; Norris garnishes it with a dusting of kimchi powder, a petal of charred onion and tiny puffed sorghum grains. Ditto her take on boudin: beautifully fried balls of wild boar, sherried chicken liver and rice that are set up beautifully by a brilliantly refined warm apple sauce, candied barley grains and fragile, delicate sheets of dehydrated Pink Lady apple.
Garcia's pleasant microbrews, such as a gently black-peppery pils, a lightly hoppy "Porch-Mate" American pale ale and a rich chocolate stout, come in 10-ounce and 16-ounce sizes, reasonably priced at $3 to $5 and $4 to $5 respectively. The first two work particularly well with the food, as do the half-dozen or so "guest brews." There are also well-mixed vintage cocktails with the friendly price of $5 each, and a half-dozen modern cocktails ($8).
Small Brewpub is laid-back in a way that won't appeal to everyone, but it's daring and original, a great place to experience some of the most interesting and ambitious cooking in Dallas at the moment - from a 29-year-old chef, no less, and at an eminently reasonable price. Keep your eye on Norris: She's the real deal.
Small Brewpub (3 stars)
Price: $$$ (bar snacks $2 to $22; dinner dishes $9 to $22; dessert $9)
Service: Order at the bar, and someone will bring the food to the table, though orders are taken at the table if it's not too busy. The staff is thoughtful and passionate about the food and brews.
Ambience: Laid-back hipster beer hall
Noise level: When it's busy, shouting across the table is required.
Location: 333 W. Jefferson Blvd., Dallas; 972-863-1594; smallbrewpub.com
Hours: Dinner Thursday-Monday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.; bar snacks and drinks only Tuesday-Wednesday 4 p.m. to midnight
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar, with three or more beers brewed in-house available on tap, along with a selection of a half dozen or so guest brews and craft cocktails. No wine is served.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor