What's that giant sucking sound coming from the Dallas dining scene?
It's the sound of creative energy being evacuated, like the air from a sous-vide bag, from our chef-driven restaurants.
The landscape seemed so dynamic just six months ago when, after a slew of splashy openings, high-profile debuts from a number of chefs promised game-changing excitement. Now the Dallas dining scene has a distinctive aftertaste of . . . meh.
If it were simply a matter of the restaurant business slowing down in languid late summer, that would be one thing. But I fear it's more serious than that.
Other than splashy new establishments from Stephan Pyles and Julian Barsotti and a couple of modern Southern spots, Dallas debuts in the last six months have been largely limited to bars with food, fast-casual spots and (yawn) re-concepts.
Dallas' talented chefs and restaurateurs have had their sights set on the suburbs, but not creatively so: Up and down the tollway, particularly, they're duplicating their existing eateries like mad. That may cheer hungry residents of Plano and Frisco, but it also means our most creative chefs are not focused on the kind of inventive cooking we'd need to push our dining scene forward.
Michael Hogue/Staff Artist
Staying on top of their game
Dallas restaurants -- as anyone who dines out frequently will tell you -- have a tendency to drop off in quality after the reviews have come in and diners looking for the next hotspot have moved on. Industry insiders have a name for those heat-seeking diners: the "Fickle 500."
"Dallas is trendy," says Tiffany Derry, the Top Chef all-star whose cooking shone at the short-lived Private Social back in 2012. "Dallas is very much about what's new, and people flock from the newest place to the newest place to the newest place." It's hard, she says, to get people to come back once they move on.
No doubt it is exhausting for cooks and servers to stay on top of their game following the stress of those early months after a debut. "It's tough," explains Anastacia Quiñones, who recently took over 6-year-old Oddfellows in Bishop Arts as executive chef. "You get burned out. You hit it so hard for three months, and you work your ass off." After that, she says, "There aren't as many eyes on you so you tend to slack off a little bit."
Do the Fickle 500 move on to Hotspot B because the the staff at Hotspot A isn't minding the store, or does the staff at Hotspot A stop minding the store partly because its audience has disappeared? Perhaps the two phenomena feed each other.
In any case, the cooking in many top Dallas restaurants this summer has been remarkably unremarkable. Though there have been a few notable exceptions (I've enjoyed splendid plates at Tei-An, Small Brewpub and CBD Provisions, for instance, as I did at Sprezza and Stephan Pyles Flora Street Cafe at Hall Arts), most of what I'm eating in upscale restaurants these days has been uninspired. Often it has been downright sloppy.
A problem affecting both creativity and execution, I think, is that an astonishing number of Dallas' most talented and accomplished chefs have absented themselves from our restaurants. They include longtime Mansion chef Bruno Davaillon; Best in DFW Chefs honorees Brian Zenner and Jeff Harris; and J Chastain, executive chef of the erstwhile Stephan Pyles. Nilton "Junior" Borges left Uchi, after helping the restaurant earn five stars and Restaurant of the Year honors (he's now in charge of food and beverages at the Joule hotel). Shortly after helping Filament earn four stars in a review, Cody Sharp left Filament -- the same month (April) that Kyle McClelland left Vicini American-Italian Kitchen and Bar in Frisco. McClelland had left Proof + Pantry to open Vicini, but departed before it even had a chance to be reviewed.
Meanwhile, Anthony Bombaci -- the longtime and highly creative executive chef at Nana -- took over Proof + Pantry's kitchen, having left his post at a Plano hotel. How exciting, right? Thinking great things could be happening at Proof + Pantry, I hustled over to eat there pronto. But before I could get enough review visits in, Bombaci was gone.
Two other hugely accomplished veterans, Avner Samuel and Kent Rathbun, are also sidelined; Top Chef star Tre Wilcox – another star – is running an events and consulting company.
Michael Ehlert, the talented young chef who helped Front Room Tavern earn four stars, is on paternity leave from his job at the Adolphus hotel, while Sarah Snow – who just gave birth to her first child (with her husband, J Chastain) – is on maternity leave from the Grape.
Add to that a serious shortage in qualified line cooks and servers, and you have a recipe for mediocrity.
So, why are so many chefs benched or otherwise missing in action?
"They're chefs, and they're trying to get to the next level," says Derry – who adds that she has been earning a much better living consulting, doing television and spokesperson work than she did as a chef. "They've worked for someone, and they now want their big thing." In other words, their own restaurant.
How we got here
Beginning in 2008, there was a sustained burst of creative energy as Dallas began to blossom into one of the country's most vibrant dining cities. Bolsa debuted that year, bringing the farm to Dallas' table, with chef Graham Dodds in charge of the kitchen. Teiichi Sakurai opened Tei-An, one of the most ambitious and interesting Japanese restaurants in the U.S. Nick Badovinus debuted his original Neighborhood Services, quickly becoming a Dallas favorite. And Julian Barsotti opened Nonna, turning out inspired, seasonally-driven Italian dishes. The city gobbled it all up.
The next year, Smoke debuted -- kickstarting Modern Texas cuisine --and Davaillon brought his French-accented brilliance to the Mansion Restaurant. Subsequent years brought Lucia, FT33 and Casa Rubia, all of which helped Dallas attract national attention. Dynamic restaurants like Samar, Oak, Spoon Bar + Kitchen, Belly + Trumpet, Lark on the Park, Mot Hai Ba, Blind Butcher, San Salvaje, Knife and Stock and Barrel added even more excitement.
Modern Texas cuisine took off during those years -- with Stampede 66, CBD Provisions and others; Dallas became a leader in the modern Mexican idiom, too, with Alma, Mesa Veracruz Coastal Cuisine, Komali and many more.
And then . . . not much. A creative lull set in during the summer of 2014. We ate burgers and tacos and (if we were feeling flush) steaks or sushi. We drank a lot of craft beer and OD'd on craft cocktails. And waited for the Next Big Thing.
Brave new scene?
Five months ago, I thought the Big Thing was finally upon us. Filament, Wayward Sons, Top Knot, Montlake Cut and Vicini American-Italian Kitchen and Bar -- all exciting projects -- had recently opened, on the heels of Small Brewpub, Remedy and Rapscallion. Barsotti's Sprezza and Pyles' Flora Street were on the way, and ambitious new restaurants from Davaillon and Badovinus were expected in late 2016.
I wrote optimistically about the city's nascent "brave new scene." The way I saw it, this would be phase 2 of the Dallas dining scene's rise to fabulousness.
Alas, the center did not hold. Chefs jumped ship, portside and starboard, or busied themselves replicating "concepts" or trying to build empires. Gastronomic ennui settled over the city like a dirty dish towel.
Dallas Observer food editor Beth Rankin recently suggested that the Dallas restaurant scene is oversaturated. "I think Dallas is building a bubble," she quoted Knife chef-owner John Tesar as saying, "and I don't want to be the guy with 10 restaurants when the bubble bursts." Shannon Wynne, whose restaurant group owns the Meddlesome Moth, Lark on the Park and many others, chimed in with the notion that the city is "way over-restauranted."
But not all chefs and restaurateurs agree. "There are enough customers out there to keep the restaurants full every night," says Badovinus, chef-owner of three Neighborhood Services restaurants and Montlake Cut, his 9-month-old seafood place in Preston Center.
Dodds, who opened Wayward Sons late in 2015, concurs. "I don't think the openings are the problem," he says. "If you're continually moving the dining scene forward and you have the quality and substance to back it up, people are going to keep coming."
Unfortunately, we don't seem to have the quality and substance to back it up – at least not in many establishments at the moment. For serious food-lovers, that ineffable frisson that you get when a chef takes risks, gets inventive, sends out thrilling – or daring, or delicious – plates is becoming rarer and rarer. And as for the Fickle 500, they're all dressed up with no place to go.
The number of restaurants where I've been disappointed in the last few months has me scratching my head, and it includes many I've previously loved. Of the restaurants I put on my top 10 list last year, two have closed (Stephan Pyles and AF + B) and two have lost talented chefs (Dodds was in charge of Hibiscus when it made the list). That's a lot of high-end drop-off right there.
The problems aren't just in the kitchen; service is stretched, too. When an expression of thanks for a water refill in a five-star establishment is met with "no problem," that's a problem.
The pleasure principle
It can't be easy to maintain a high level of creativity in a town where the dining public is not only fickle, but demanding in a way chefs sometimes find constrictive. Longevity may be the holy grail, but chef-owners have to figure out how to appeal to diners' comfort zone while keeping things interesting and fresh enough to stay creatively engaged and keep their restaurants relevant and appealing.
"We want to keep our personal growth going by trying new things, yet there is this need for 'safe food' and people want to understand the menu," says Dodds. "I get a lot of 'I don't understand the words.'" To put it another way, "Everyone wants mac and cheese."
I can't help but feel if you give people something exciting, or even just delicious, they won't even think about mac and cheese. Or you could just give them mac and cheese and get on with the business of creating something interesting or exciting -- or even just deeply pleasurable.
I've heard more than one restaurateur complain that it's been a slow summer, but Badovinus is packing them in at Montlake Cut. The menu there may not change tremendously, but the selection of seasonal Pacific seafood does, and the staff is able to talk about it with what feels like genuine excitement.
For Badovinus, the key to success is nurturing the relationship between the restaurant and the diner. "Part of keeping a relationship interesting is keeping it evolving," he says, "being open to some new ideas and being open to trying different things."
So, how does our burgeoning-yet-stalled scene get back on track – especially when it's such a challenging time for chefs to go out on their own?
I'd like to suggest that our chefs – whether in existing restaurants or as they launch new projects – focus on hospitality, and on giving us experiences that are thoughtful, delicious and pleasurable. That's what gets people coming back for more. Get that part of the equation back on track, and there may be more creative space for inventiveness.
"I'm in the customer service business," says Badovinus, who wants his patrons to "have a great time, to come into our restaurants and have fun. I want them to not worry about whether we're going to drop the ball. Restaurants become really good in year two and three."
In the meantime, intrepid diners can take advantage of the lull on the chef-driven scene to explore the incredibly diverse global dining scene that our region has become. Indian restaurants are opening all over Plano, Frisco and Irving, usually family-run, and sometimes focusing on the cooking of a particular region (like South India) or a particular dish (such as biryani). Japanese restaurants are proliferating, too, and we're seeing some new Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean and Southeast Asian restaurants as well.
A number of ambitious, promising projects in the works from significant chefs could certainly kickstart phase 2 (finally) of Dallas' dining evolution.
In November, Badovinus plans to open Town Hearth, his long-awaited 6,000 square-foot wood-fire-centric restaurant in the Design District. The Adolphus Hotel plans to reopen the French Room in February; its management has not announced who the executive chef will be (could it be Ehlert, who is already in the hotel's employ?). Headington Companies, which owns the Joule hotel, is developing three new restaurants in the Dallas Design District. In January, Derry plans to open Roots Southern Table in Trinity Groves. And ex-Mansion chef Davaillon plans to open his highly anticipated modern brasserie downtown in early spring.
As the debuts roll out, diners can be part of the solution, too. The fickle among us can work on our attention spans. Maybe we return a few times more, rather than abandoning that four-month-old ex-hot-spot. If the food quality or service is slipping, talk to the management; let the staff know you care. If they're on the ball, they'll make you want to come back and give them another shot.
Let's not forget about our old faves, the places we keep returning to year after year because they make us feel good. If you love them, continue to support them.
And if what you really, really want is macaroni and cheese? Learn to make it at home; I promise it's not that hard. If it frees up our chefs to express themselves on their plates, they may well wind up delighting us.