Some of the most innovative restaurants in the country started out as scrappy pop-ups. Joshua Skenes' Saison in San Francisco and César Ramirez's Brooklyn Fare in New York come to mind, and so does Ludo Lefebvre's Trois Mec in Los Angeles.
Now, the same evolution may be happening along a dusty stretch of North Haskell in East Dallas, where Misti Norris has transformed a former filling station into a bare-bones pop-up restaurant called Petra and the Beast.
After five successful months, Norris is at a crossroads: Her short-term lease is about up, and she is negotiating to either buy the building or sign on for another five years. In either case, Petra should become a fixture on the Dallas dining scene, and some changes are ahead.
"I've never been in East Dallas and I wanted to see how it goes," says Norris, stepping away from preparations for last Saturday's tasting-menu, still wearing her apron. "Now I want to stay here. I love the space and the sense of community. And there's room to build."
Norris, who first gained a following at Small Brewpub and as sous-chef at FT33, has attracted national attention for her take on locally farmed, fermented and foraged cooking. The restaurant's name is derived from the word petrichor, the scent of earth after a rainstorm and "one of my favorite things," Norris says. "Beast just came naturally, since we do whole-animal cooking."
At first, Petra was open just two days a week and seated 12 people, max. On Saturdays, Norris served a multicourse tasting menu. On Sundays, she turned Petra into casual spot, with five dishes ordered at a counter like fast food — if the franchisees served crispy pig tails or spiced goat farfalle.
The counter operation soon grew to four days a week, with a chalkboard menu offering a couple of dozen items, mostly for $5 to $15, including house-made charcuterie. The tasting menu, still served on Saturdays, can now accommodate all of 20 guests. "And that's tops," Norris says. "The style and quality wouldn't be the same if we had more."
Once the building issues are settled, Norris plans to have Michael McPheeters, the Dallas muralist, cover the dull brick-colored facade with bright artwork. "Beasts and animals, and on the side a huge flower," she says. "Something fun and representative of what we do." A patio will sprout beneath the awning that once shaded the gas pumps, fire pits will be dug into an empty side of the lot, raised beds will be planted, and a fence will go up along the street to border what Norris hopes will become an urban oasis: "I would love for this to be a hangout place when the weather is nice."
What won't change, for now, are the menus. Norris will continue to turn out seven-course, $125 tasting menus that could hold their own in a fully finished dining room, but are served in a provisional setting decorated mainly with dried herbs, foraged cherry blossoms and mason jars filled with stones and bleached white bits that turn out to be the bones of the pig used for the charcuterie. Instead of floral arrangements, the five mismatched tables are done up with weedier dried flowers scattered with bigger bones from that pig. "We're going for a very whole-utilization restaurant," she says.
Norris' one regular employee, Tony Ibarra, serves as sous-chef and pastry chef, and this afternoon he's busy with a version of tres leches cake made with figs and whey (the byproduct of butter-making). The night's menu will be built around Cartermere chicken, a locally raised bird with golden fat that Norris calls "beautiful — the best chicken I've ever had." The dishes include breast meat cured on sake lees, a leg confited with herbs, and rice noodles made from Louisiana jasmine rice.
"Long-term, I want to open another place where it will be only fine dining," says Norris, as she heads back into the kitchen. "A refined location where I can do the dinners as a separate creative outlet. So it would be casual food here, and fine dining in another place."
How far down the road might that be? Norris just shakes her head. Part of the decision is whether to take on an investor, a major leap for a chef who has built a restaurant entirely on her own, and who vowed, upon leaving her last restaurant job, to remain unfettered and free to create exactly what she wants.
It's a decision that most talented, scrappy chefs eventually have to make. But for now, Norris will say only, "We'll see."