In the last two years, with the debuts of Stampede 66 and San Salvaje, Stephan Pyles and his team have put themselves on the leading edge of what makes Dallas one of the country's most exciting dining cities today. And now, after several years of ups and downs, Pyles' namesake restaurant is re-establishing itself as a culinary showplace.
As the chef turns his attention to moving his flagship at year's end to a space being built for him at the new Hall Arts multi-use development, he has reinvigorated the kitchen in preparation for moving -- and evolving -- his operation. To wit, he has put a terrific chef, J Chastain, in charge of the Ross Avenue kitchen, with the idea that the 34-year-old executive chef will continue on in that role at the new flagship -- as yet unnamed -- when it opens a few blocks up the avenue in early 2016.
Chastain has had a long history with Pyles: He started with the flagship restaurant in 2005 as opening sous-chef. After stints as executive chef at the Second Floor, then three years as executive sous-chef at the Mansion Restaurant, he's back on Ross Avenue, this time as top toque.
But whatever Chastain, Pyles and company have in mind for the new flagship, it's abundantly evident that there's a serious focus on the here and now. A vibrancy and thoughtfulness characterize the cooking these days at Stephan Pyles that I hadn't seen there in some time.
It starts with the ceviches that are a great way into dinner. Chastain has given them a makeover, and nowhere in Dallas (other than San Salvaje) are they as inventively conceived. Limy rock shrimp tossed with roasted Peruvian purple sweet potato, red onion and cilantro is topped with a luxuriant corn espuma; candied quinoa adds textural interest to red snapper mingled with pickled Asian pears and a touch of Fresno chile.
Seasonality had been left by the wayside when I stopped in over the last couple of years, but now it's back in full force, expressing itself in starters like seared Georges Bank scallops dotted with cocoa nibs and set on a thick chestnut purée; juicy pomegranate kernels, wisps of frisée and pomegranate gel keep the dish bright and wintry fresh. I'd thought I'd had enough of pork belly until I tasted Chastain's, tenderly basking on a superb mole poblano, surrounded by beautifully turned salsify and cubes of pickled rutabaga and topped with a few lacy field greens. Who cares whether spring's on the way, when winter is so delicious?
I particularly loved rabbit sausage resting on "melted" cabbage (like tender sauerkraut, minus the sour) that shared a plate with tender, succulent rabbit loin, triangles of chile-kissed compressed persimmon and dots of tamarind gel. Another night, chunky, tender ravioli shaped like small crowns and filled with velvety purée of winter squash consorted happily with woodsy mushrooms atop sautéed Swiss chard; a few crisp-edged sheets of shaved lomo ibérico (fabulous ham from coddled Spanish acorn-eating pigs) and a pouf of goat cheese foam pulled the dish together felicitously.
Formal and focused, these plates dance around the edges of Modern Texas cuisine with originality and aplomb.
On to the main courses. The beguiling, herbal flavor of a shimmering emerald- green purée of hoja santa was gentle enough to complement a pinkly sweet fillet of arctic char; horseradish cream added wintry richness, while red-tipped heirloom apple batons provided crunch. Disparate flavors, but together they sang.
Suckling pig porchetta? Count me in. It turned out to be a thick arc of suckling pig wrapped around a savory sausage filling sweetened lightly with apple and fennel (like a fat slice of roulade), set atop braised cabbage and a rich jus. With it came a cast-iron pot filled with buckwheat polenta and a poached egg yolk. Garnished with a frond of dill, a few toasted buckwheat grains and a bit of caramelized shallot, it was like the grits you might serve to a spoiled Venetian prince.
During the two evenings my friends and I ordered a la carte, nearly everything was excellent. The plates may have stopped short of dazzling, but this young chef is definitely on to something. Only a couple of dishes disappointed (seared foie gras fussed up with too much sauce and foam, a winter posole that was soulful but one-note).
I couldn't wait to get back in to experience the new seven-course tasting menu, offering mostly completely different dishes, but unfortunately I happened in on an evening when Chastain and Pyles were both out of town. The dishes, all well-conceived, were mostly well-executed, but they didn't have the same vibrancy of flavor, and two came to the table barely warm.
There were a couple of other missteps. Something called "pachi pachi chevre" seemed to be missing from a winter root vegetable salad that started the party with a quiet thud. And why was the dried-out brioche that accompanied excellent foie gras torchon coated with sugar? The kitchen ought to be able to perform better than that when the bosses are away.
While new sommelier Madeleine Thompson's wine pairings worked fine with the dishes, they weren't exactly sparkling with originality. Having the server momentously announce the flavors of the wines as they were served didn't help.
Pastry chef Keith Cedotal is in charge of sweets, as he is at all of Pyles' Dallas establishments. While they're less strikingly original than those he has created at San Salvaje, they're pretty lovely -- from a pistachio cake layered with lemon Bavarian and topped with a quenelle of cranberry sorbet to a warm caramel brioche surrounded by Pernod-poached golden raisins and filled with burnt sugar ice cream. One, however, was stunning: frozen green apple mousse encased in a fragile golden cocoa butter shell in the shape of a miniature apple and set on a slice of spice cake. Dots of pomegranate purée and a few pomegranate seeds added wonderful counterpoint to the flavors.
Altogether, it's wonderful to see the restaurant coming back together so smartly. If you haven't been in a while, now's the time to go. It will be exciting to see and taste what this talented young chef cooks up in the future -- both here and at the new restaurant.
Stephan Pyles (4 stars)
Price: $$$$ (Lunch starters $8 to $16, sandwiches $12 to $14, main courses $14 to $20, desserts $8 to $12. Dinner starters $10 to $22, main courses $28 to $54, desserts $8 to $14. Seven-course tasting menu $95 per person, $145 with wine pairings.)
Service: Attentive and well-versed in the menu, but perhaps not as polished as desirable in a restaurant of this caliber
Ambience: A handsome and gracious dining room with comfortable booths, well-spaced tables and a large, open kitchen
Noise level: Quiet enough for easy conversation
Location: 1807 Ross Ave., Dallas; 214-580-7000; stephanpylesrestaurant.com
Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday 11:15 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner Monday-Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 6 to 11 p.m.
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar. An 11-page, fairly pricey wine list offers interesting selections from around the world, some 20 of them available by the glass.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor