It's Thursday evening in Dallas, and the city's food lovers are sipping aperitifs and nibbling appetizers. A sense of excitement, of sparkle, of anticipation tickles our palates. So many new things to discover.
At Julian Barsotti's handsome Roman tavern on Maple Avenue, we're marveling over salads wrought from greens so beautiful they look hand-painted. We're diving into handmade farfalle with wild-caught white shrimp from Georgia, green garlic, chervil and sweet English peas, and convening over Roman-style pizza al taglio and glasses of Frascati or Aglianico wine. In the Dallas Arts District, Stephan Pyles' Flora Street Cafe is one of the buzziest addresses in town. The dining room at the Mansion Restaurant is completely booked: Everyone wants to taste what its promising new chef is showing off.
Really? Is all this honestly happening?
Not quite. But if things go as planned, that's where the Dallas dining scene is likely to be in a matter of months. The city's most prominent chefs and restaurateurs have so many exciting new ventures in the works or recently launched – with recent staff changes, too, in several of our highest-profile restaurants – that a year from now you may not even recognize the culinary landscape.
The brave new scene started to unfold toward the end of last year, as Tim Byres, the chef behind Smoke and Chicken Scratch, debuted the Theodore in NorthPark Center. There, aided by executive chef Scott Romano and pastry chef Marlene Duke, Byres is reinventing American classics – and baking up a storm.
Next came the highly anticipated modern Southern restaurant from Matt McCallister, chef-owner of FT33, one of only three five-star restaurants in Dallas: He and executive chef Cody Sharp introduced Filament in Deep Ellum in early December. On the very same day, Graham Dodds – the forward-looking chef who had pioneered Dallas' farm-to-table movement at Bolsa back in 2008 – opened his own modern Texas place, Wayward Sons. Dodds was fresh off a gig running the kitchen at Hibiscus, which he helped earn four stars and a spot on our list of The Best in DFW: Top Ten Restaurants last year.
But that wasn't all: Less than two weeks later, Nick Badovinus, chef-owner of the Neighborhood Services trio of restaurants and Off-Site Kitchen, debuted Montlake Cut – spotlighting the fabulous seafood of his native Pacific Northwest.
Just last month, one of those three five-star places – Uchi – opened a casual modern Asian spot upstairs, Top Knot. The restaurant had not been open long enough to be reviewed as this magazine went to press, but Angela Hernandez's jazzy small plates there (at least early on) seem to be ones to watch. To wit: dishes like hamachi crudo in a clear green cucumber-yuzu sauce with red grapes and sesame, or Heritage Berkshire pork ribs with cilantro. Keith Cedotal, one of the city's most thoughtful and inventive pastry chefs, is in charge of desserts both there and at Uchi.
Not that things were dull before.
The last six or seven years have seen a blossoming of creative energy on the Dallas dining front -- resulting in some exciting restaurants with real staying power. Debuts over the last decade such as Smoke (2009), Lucia (2010), FT33 and Stampede 66 (2012), Casa Rubia and CBD Provisions (2013) and Small Brewpub (2014) have made the rest of the country sit up and take notice. Modern Texas cuisine gathered steam during those years; some compelling kitchens helped propel it forward -- American Food and Beverage (Fort Worth, since closed), Harvest (McKinney) and (right here in Dallas) Hibiscus, Smoke, Fearing's, Stephan Pyles and Stampede 66. Modern Mexican took off, too, with restaurants like Mi Día From Scratch, Mesa Veracruz Coastal Cuisine, Komali, Madrina and many more. These were important years.
What's going on now feels like the end of Phase 1 of the Dallas dining scene coming into its own, and the beginning of Phase 2. It's a defining moment.
"Dallas is finally becoming that place gastronomically that I always hoped it would be," says Pyles, one of the city's most revered and long-running chefs. A founding father of Southwestern cuisine – which evolved into modern Texas cuisine – Pyles has continued to push things forward creatively since he first splashed onto the scene in the early 1980s. At the moment, he foresees opening Flora Street Cafe (whose name recalls his first restaurant, Routh Street Cafe) in mid-May. "So much has happened in the last two to three years to crack open the scene and the market, and now we'll really see what the fertile seeds have planted. I think it's going to be really remarkable."
Pyles surprised the city's food lovers last year when he announced he'd be closing his namesake restaurant in the Dallas Arts District and opening a smaller, more formal new flagship a few blocks away. J Chastain, the talented young executive chef at Stephan Pyles, will be heading the kitchen at the new place as well.
"Because it is smaller, we can do a more complex composition of plates," says Pyles, who adds that those plates will be a bit more refined. "I'm really focused on the Mexican influence that's inherent in Texas cooking. We'll do nixtamal and different kinds of corn and masas and really dress them up." The restaurant will feature a custom-made open-fire grill, constructed with a smoker. "I just want to do what I do," says Pyles. "A very personal focus on Texas food."
But our brave new scene is not only about marquee chefs opening snazzy new Dallas restaurants. After many years of uninspired languishing, the Dallas Farmers Market has just been reborn with a vibrant new food hall, the Market, that is deliciously transforming downtown.
As the metro area expands, attracting businesses from around the country including Toyota, Liberty Mutual and JPMorgan Chase, especially to its northern reaches, the culinary energy is spreading as well. If you had told folks a year ago that Kyle McClelland, the gifted young chef who made a noisy splash at Proof + Pantry in the Dallas Arts District in 2014, would be heading a kitchen in Frisco in 2016, they'd have said you've been hitting the cooking marsala a little too hard. But there he is, obsessing over grilled Sicilian sardines and handmade pastas at Vicini American-Italian Kitchen and Bar – elbow-to-elbow with one of the most talented and ambitious pastry chefs around, Annika De Paula Loureiro.
Chef changes at the highest level are certainly reshaping things. In late December, shortly after five-star Uchi was named The Best in DFW New Restaurant of the Year, its formidable chef de cuisine Nilton "Junior" Borges left the restaurant. Within a few weeks, McCallister asked him to head the kitchen at FT33. It's the first time someone other than McCallister himself is doing so, an unusual five-star hopscotch. It will be fascinating to see how that plays out on the plates.
Meanwhile, one of Dallas' most venerated establishments, the Mansion Restaurant, is without an executive chef: Its brilliant leader, Bruno Davaillon, left the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in late November. The French-born chef tremendously helped elevate the city's dining scene – inspiring a generation of its young chefs, many of whom have passed through his kitchen – since he arrived at the hotel in 2009. He plans to open a modern brasserie downtown in the former Belo Building around the end of the year.
More immediately, there's a significant new sensation that should debut even before Pyles opens in the spring.
With the arrival of Sprezza, which he plans to open early next month, Dallas will have its first Roman-inspired restaurant. "I've always wanted to do something with one region as inspiration," Barsotti told me last year. "Rome has always in my mind felt like the most natural one to interpret or translate."
At the heart of the place – across from the Old Parkland campus, in a new free-standing building that brings to mind a craftsman-style house – is an oven that will turn out Roman-style pizza al taglio. Forno Campo de' Fiori, a pizzeria in one of Rome's most famous markets, sparked the idea. What's different here, he says, is the pizza's crust, which is like bread. "It's yeasty, it's tender, it has some crispness to it – I just think it's awesome," he says.
But handmade and extruded pastas will be important, too. Some will be Roman classics, like paccheri alla carbonara and tonnarelli cacio e pepe. Others will be more modern and inventive, like chitarrini with Dungeness crab, jalapeño and fennel crema, or tortelli of goat's milk ricotta with lamb ragu and artichokes. There will also be specials, like poached and fried spot prawns, or pounded veal chops stuffed with sage, speck and fonduta cheese – a play on classic Roman saltimbocca.
Come fall, a project Badovinus has long had in the works is expected to come to fruition: an ambitious new restaurant in the Design District, Town Hearth. It takes its name from the wood-burning oven and mammoth wood-burning grill he has planned for the 6,000-square-foot space. "There's a huge stack of Douglas fir just sitting there ready," he says. "Nothing puts the pressure on for getting open like paying rent."
Meanwhile, back at the Mansion, executive sous-chef Jared Harms and chef de cuisine Nick Walker have been running the kitchen since Davaillon's departure, and the hotel's management is actively seeking his replacement. "We are commited to appointing the right individual," says Katie Norwood, the hotel's spokeswoman, "a visionary talent befitting the Mansion Restaurant's long-standing reputation of world-class culinary excellence. We look forward to sharing an announcement in the coming months."
We'll be here, holding our collective breath. And when we're not, we'll be eagerly diving into all the exciting new plates.
UPDATE: APRIL 6, 2016 Three chefs mentioned in this story have left their restaurants: Kyle McClelland and Annika De Paula Loureiro have left Vicini American-Italian Kitchen; Cody Sharp is no longer at Filament.