Hold onto your forks: We're headed into what could be a wild ride on the Dallas dining scene this fall.
The season kicked off last week as chef Blythe Beck and Kitchen L.T.O. owner Cassie Caswell opened Pink Magnolia, a Southern restaurant, in the former Driftwood space in Bishop Arts. There's a new executive chef (Jacob Williamson) at Five Sixty and a new team (John Tesar and Ross Demers) in place at Oak. A slew of high-profile debuts are planned through November from the Proof + Pantry team, Nick Badovinus, Lisa Garza-Selcer, Patton Robertson, Tim Byres and partners and Matt McCallister, along with a new restaurant in the works at the Joule Hotel (read more about them here). Add to that other recent chef changes and several seriously talented chefs on the loose, and it all adds up to the most exciting dining season in Dallas in years.
It all adds up to an incredibly fluid — and wildly unpredictable — landscape.
Filament, Matt McCallister's upcoming Southern-inspired place in Deep Ellum, may be the most highly anticipated of the imminent debuts, at it comes from the chef of one of only three 5-star restaurants in the city, FT33. The project is at least six months behind schedule; initially McCallister had announced plans to open in April, now he's aiming for October — which only serves to make us all even hungrier for it.
Naturally that raises the question not just of what Filament's food will be like (McCallister has described it as "more casual" than the cooking at FT33), but also how things will play out on the plates at FT33 once McCallister births his new baby. It's always a concern when a chef-owner branches out, and much more so when a restaurant is as chef-driven as FT33, where McCallister's brilliantly creative vision has been the draw.
Another highly creative chef, Kyle McClelland, was one of the driving forces behind another high-profile imminent debut — Madrina, the modern Mexican-French place he had planned to open in Oak Lawn with the Misery Loves Company group (Michael Martensen, Sal Jafar II and Jeremy Hargrove). McClelland, who did not respond to requests for an interview, recently left the group, and his ex-partners have brought on Julio Peraza to take his place at Madrina and at Proof + Pantry, the group's One Arts Plaza restaurant. They plan to open Madrina in mid-September.
Says Misery Loves Company spokeswoman Alyssa Harker of McClelland's departure, "It was a mutual decision for him to resign to focus on a personal matter."
The departure leaves a big question mark about Proof + Pantry, known as much or more for McClelland's very personal, playfully inventive modern American cooking as it is for its smashing cocktails.
According to Harker, Peraza -- whose last gig was as executive chef at Komali and Salum -- will be "incorporating new daily specials" at Proof + Pantry, and "incorporating new menu items slowly. It won't be an overnight process." That's easy to understand: No doubt it will be a challenge launching a new restaurant while maintaining quality and creative vitality at Proof + Pantry.
In any case, there are potential perils when restaurant groups or chef-owners expand too quickly, or without appropriate staff in place – especially in a tight labor market like Dallas', with skilled line cooks and servers in short supply. I admire the steadfastness of chef-owners like David Uygur, whom you can see just about every night at Lucia (if you can get in, that it's; it's still constantly packed).And there's probably something to be learned from Tei-An chef-owner Teiichi Sakurai's roll-out of Ten. A tiny ramen house was a relatively modest undertaking for a seasoned veteran like Sakurai, and he was careful to put a strong team in place from the start. Similarly, Tim Byres wasn't reinventing the wheel when he opened a second Smoke in Plano, nor did he take his eyes off his flagship. When I dined at the original Belmont Hotel location recently, it was terrific.
Another significant restaurant that recently lost its chef is Front Room Tavern in Hotel Lumen. Michael Ehlert, who helped the restaurant earn four stars in a review late last year, explained his departure in an email: "There are many different needs to be met at the Hotel Lumen and Front Room Tavern, and earlier this year it became clear to me that practicing my style of cooking wasn't the best service to those needs."
As for the future, "I am in a couple conversations right now and I expect one of them will develop into the right opportunity very soon," says Ehlert. "Until then, you may see me behind the line at a few of my favorite spots, picking up shifts or staging around or helping out at events."
Taylor Kearney, formerly executive chef (and then corporate chef) at Nick and Sam's, is now Front Room's executive chef. Stepping into the kitchen of a restaurant that recently earned four stars must be daunting.
There have been staff changes as well at Cafe Momentum, recently included in The Best in DFW: Moderately Priced Restaurants. Executive chef Chad Houser remains in charge, but his chef de cuisine, Eric Shelton, and executive sous chef Justin Box have left. Sarah Green has been promoted from pastry chef to chef de cuisine; Nicole Gosling serves as executive sous chef.
Finally, following the recent closure of American Food and Beverage in Fort Worth, Jeff Harris – one of the most talented chefs in North Texas – finds himself without a kitchen. He hopes to open his own place, either in Dallas or Fort Worth, he told me in an interview.
Assuming they stay in North Texas and depending on where they land and what they dream up, Harris, Ehlert and McClelland could serve as dynamic wild cards.
In the meantime, discovering how it all plays out in Dallas dining rooms promises to be quite the tantalizing adventure.