Have you tried to get a reservation at Gemma lately? You'd better think about it six weeks or more in advance if you want to dine during prime time on a Friday or Saturday night.
Dallasites can't seem to get enough of Allison Yoder and Stephen Rogers' gracious Henderson Avenue restaurant, which celebrated its first birthday 10 weeks ago - and for good reason. Yoder infuses the attractive dining room with warmth and hospitality; the affable bartenders mix thoughtful cocktails; chef Rogers' dinner menu is approachable yet of-the-moment; Yoder's wine list is one of the best in town; and pastry chef Stephanie Childress turns out finely crafted desserts designed for grown-up palates.
When I first reviewed the restaurant shortly after it opened, I was less enthusiastic about the cooking than I was about everything else the restaurant had to offer. By year's end, however, the restaurant had evolved so nicely - including working out some apparent execution issues in the kitchen - that I named it the Best in DFW new restaurant of the year for 2014.
It also now deserves four stars.
Rogers has taken a something-for- everyone approach with his dinner menu, offering fish, chicken, pork, duck, rabbit, veal, beef, pasta, raw bar and more and tweaking the main courses here and there with the seasons.
House-made pappardelle, floppy-wide and supple yet tender, now comes sauced in a wonderful pancetta-enriched, Swiss chard-laced rabbit sugo rather than a lamb-shoulder bolognese; it's delicious and comforting, as are the pillowy ricotta cavatelli in a Texas wild boar ragu. Nicely grilled fillets of striped bass topped with charred radish tzatziki commune with fingerling potatoes, charred baby leeks and sliced kohlrabi rather than fennel and baby artichokes. For the arctic char, it's goodbye mustard greens and cranberries, hello celery root purée, red wine jus and a frizzle of fried celery root.
Otherwise, not much on the dinner menu has changed in terms of conception; rather, the cooking has sharpened. A kampachi crudo found the acid zing it once lacked. Veal sweetbreads are crisper, set up smartly by a fine whole-grain mustard sauce. Turkey meatballs that once were tough and bland are now tasty and tender, tossed in a much-more-vibrant tomato sugo.
The late-night menu, which is available from 10:30 to 1 every night the restaurant is open (it is closed on Monday and Tuesday) is another story entirely: It has nearly doubled in size and has helped turned Gemma into one of the very best places to eat after a concert or show.
Most notable is a trio of new small plates. There are terrific confit chicken drumsticks with a chile-ginger glaze; Rogers sets them atop a gentle yet spunky kimchi, nicely spiced, with an almost creamy texture. At $9.75 for an order of three, they make a terrific light main course for one or happy bites for two or three to share. Sardines, surprisingly delicate in flavor, come crisscrossed over a lovely little salad of sliced cucumbers, pickled red onion, arugula and frisée. And a bowl of duck fried rice dressed up with a perfect 63-degree egg and squiggled with a chile-spiked mayo sauce is the kind of late-night comfort dish that could become an object of obsessive necessity when the soloist is taking one too many curtain calls.
You might go for something light, like fabulous East Coast oysters specially priced at $2 apiece after 10:30, or the hot, crisply fried Castelvetrano olives mingled with fresh, toasted pecans. Or you might splurge on the full-blown mixed grill that's been offered as a special lately - an extravagant platter that might include Japanese Wagyu sirloin, Brandt Beef rib-eye, house-made Texas antelope sausage and braised-then-grilled pork belly, all garnished with a beautiful little arugula, shaved radish and pickled onion salad. With the two steaks gorgeously grilled and sliced, it's designed to serve two, but can definitely go farther. (It's pricey at $85.) Pair it with a simple dish of romanesco roasted with a touch of sage and finished with a flurry of grated pecorino. The striped bass dish and other vegetable dishes have been added to the lineup of handmade pastas, turkey meatballs, mussels in coconut-lemon grass, Thai-basil broth, steak au poivre (and more) as well.
Or maybe you grabbed a burger before the show, and now you're craving drinks and dessert. Childress is a wizard of frozen treats; lately I've enjoyed her coconut sorbet and her butter pecan ice cream (her ice creams have beautiful texture). And I always love her gâteau basque; she serves the tender-chewy almond cake with citrus supremes and a quenelle of frozen Meyer lemon soufflé.
Either way (depending on the night, of course), you might well waltz in during the later hours and grab a table without a reservation.
If I was granted one wish about Gemma - which has become one of my favorite restaurants in Dallas - it would be that Rogers would change up his dinner menu, and Childress her dessert menu, more frequently. There's certainly something to be said for comforting steadiness, but so, too for playful fun and the element of surprise.
Happily, there is no shortage of delightful surprises - and fun - on Yoder's exemplary, two-page wine list, presided over with enthusiasm and knowledge by sommelier Antonio Juarez. (The entire waitstaff is outstanding.) Light reds that harmonize well with food, such as a 2012 Pira Dolcetto d'Alba for $36, or a 2012 Moric Blau Fränkisch from Austria for $57, are a particular strength. Were I in a position to splurge, say $267 on a 2011 Bonneau du Martray Corton- Charlemagne, or $256 on a 2009 Rudd Oakville Estate Red, I'd be happy to put myself in Juarez's hands.
In any case, it's wonderful to see such a likable restaurant really coming into its own.
Gemma (4 stars)
Price: $$$-$$$$ (dinner appetizers, raw bar and salads $8.75 to $17.50, main courses $23.25 to $34.50; late-night dishes $7.50 to $25.75, plus $2 oysters; desserts $7.50 to $12.50)
Service: Thoughtful, professional and attentive
Ambience: A gracious and graceful, fairly intimate dining room in soothing tones of steel blue and white, with an open kitchen in back and an inviting bar
Noise level: Pleasantly buzzy, but the noise never inhibited conversation
Location: 2323 N. Henderson Ave., Dallas; 214-370-9426; gemmadallas.com
Hours: Wednesday-Sunday 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar, with a selection of well-mixed craft cocktails. Allison Yoder's excellent two-page wine list, ably presided over by sommelier Antonio Juarez, offers plenty for the European-minded wine adventurer to discover, as well as outstanding California bottlings.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor