The pork loin at Cafe Momentum includes cider beans, mustard seed, and apple, shown in Dallas Texas, Thursday, April 9, 2015. 

The pork loin at Cafe Momentum includes cider beans, mustard seed, and apple, shown in Dallas Texas, Thursday, April 9, 2015. 

Allison Slomowitz/Special Contributor

Behold the paper-thin rounds of octopus tiradito. Pretty as purple-and-white mosaic tiles, they’re dotted with olive oil, scattered with kalamata olives and finished with lemon zest, a few microgreens and a quenelle of toum — a fluffy white Egyptian-style garlic sauce.

Now taste, being sure to drag the tiradito through the aji amarillo sauce circling the composition. The octopus’s flavor is delicate and lovely. Shaving it so thin is kind of brilliant, and marrying the gentle South American spice (the aji amarillo) with Mediterranean flavors (garlic, olives) is original and smart. So is the way the tiradito is constructed: Octopus meat, including the tentacles, is bound into a roll and sliced crosswise, creating the gorgeous pattern. It’s actually more like an octopus terrine than a true tiradito. This is not a dish you’ve seen anywhere else.

Will you be surprised to learn that you’ll find it at Cafe Momentum, the downtown nonprofit staffed by nonviolent juvenile offenders? Somehow I wasn’t expecting to find cooking so inventive and precisely executed here, knowing that the kitchen is staffed by young kids who are just learning their craft (working alongside experienced chefs).

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

As surprising as it may sound, Cafe Momentum operates on a level every bit as professional as any other Dallas restaurant. In many ways, it impresses even more.

A little background. Cafe Momentum, which began four years ago doing pop-up events, opened on Thanks-Giving Square in late January as a brick-and-mortar restaurant staffed by at-risk youths who have spent time in detention at the Dallas County Juvenile Department. Their training began before they were released, and here they’re continuing learning culinary skills, life skills and job skills that will help them “achieve their full potential,” as the organization’s website explains. The motto is “Eat. Drink. Change lives.” It’s open only three nights a week.

Mentorship is an important part of the equation, and that’s where the organization’s leadership comes in, headed by executive director Chad Houser. The longtime co-executive chef of Parigi is now executive chef at Cafe Momentum and a father figure to the kids, whose training involves rotating through every part of the restaurant — not just prepping ingredients and sautéing, but washing dishes and waiting tables.

“Welcome to Cafe Momentum,” said one of them the first time my husband and I stopped in. “I’m Jameian,” he said, flashing a broad, winning smile, and thrusting out his hand to shake. How completely disarming! Thoroughly charmed, we shook hands and introduced ourselves. A little unusual, perhaps, but the service he delivered throughout the evening was attentive and thoughtful, refreshingly free of pretension and the usual annoying service clichés.

I was having trouble deciding between the fish of the day — redfish with parsnip and Brussels sprouts slaw — and smoked fried chicken, so I asked Jameian’s opinion. “Well, the chicken is bigger,” he said, tentatively, “so if you’re really hungry, you might want to get that.”

“OK,” I said. “But which one is more delicious?”

“Oh, the fish!” he said, absolutely excited. You could see him tasting it all over again, as he closed his eyes and described it. Sold.

Houser attracted an impressive team to help run the kitchen: chef de cuisine Eric Shelton, executive sous-chef Justin Box and pastry chef Sarah Green. The trio, who also train, oversee and mentor the kids, come from top restaurants: Kitchen LTO, Bolsa and Oak, respectively. The modern American dishes they and the kids turn out are fresh, appealing and sophisticated.

A whole cauliflower head, blanched in court bouillon, topped with Manchego flakes then roasted to charry goodness and set on velvety cauliflower purée, makes an engaging starter for three or four. The tangy, herbal salsa verde that comes with it (along with a less interesting mustard yogurt sauce) provides just the right vibrant counterpoint.

There are fritters richly fashioned from pork rillettes, hot and crisp, and savory beignets made from shrimp and grits, along with a couple of compelling salads. A toss of pea shoots, bits of house-made ricotta and crisped prosciutto beautifully captures the season, especially when the kitchen gets the lemony dressing just right, as it did the first time I tasted it.

For the main event, that fried chicken is awfully good - succulent, flavorful meat under a crackling, well-seasoned crust. It comes with an excellent biscuit, a pitcher of good gravy, buttery mashed potatoes and braised cabbage. And yes, Jameian was right: The crisp-skinned redfish was delicious, plated prettily with a swoosh of parsnip purée, some roasted Brussels sprouts and parsnips and a lively Brussels sprouts slaw with shaved radishes in a blood orange vinaigrette. Like many of the plates, it was smartly conceived and put vegetables deliciously and creatively in the spotlight.

Among the meat dishes, pork loin cooked gorgeously pink, tender and juicy was the star one evening, set off with a silky apple purée, spinach and braised beans finished with cider, and garnished with crinkly rounds of dehydrated Granny Smith apple and pickled mustard seeds. Another night, with the pork cooked a bit more, it made less of an impression.

The kitchen did go off track now and then, as with braciole: The Italian rolled-beef dish should be long-cooked until tender; this was undercooked and tough.

But the missteps were much rarer than the successes, such as house-made smoked carrot pappardelle that cradled bits of delicious chicken-mole sausage, in a light lemon sauce.Or beautifully spiced curried lentils crowned with luscious slabs of roasted kabocha squash, set off with pickled red grapes, diced preserved lemons and an herb salad - one of the most compelling vegetarian main courses I've tasted in some time.

The desserts were thoughtful, too; it will be interesting to see the direction they take when the menu steps into spring. For now they include a luscious kabocha squash "Thanks-Giving square" - actually a triangular, custardy slice - with cranberry coulis and toasted pecans, and fried apple pie served with squiggles of caramel sauce and a scoop of house-made ice cream gently flavored with smoked cheddar cheese. Sounds weird, perhaps, but it works.

Even if I hadn't so enjoyed the cooking and the wonderfully personable service, and hadn't so thoroughly fallen in love with Cafe Momentum's bighearted mission, I'd eagerly return for its wine program. Wines are sold by the bottle only - not by the glass - and the price tags on wine director Michael Miller's well-rounded, one-page list are generally only slightly more than retail. Twenty bucks buys you a bottle of nonvintage Cremant Brut Rosé from Albert Bichot, a 2012 Marie-Pierre Manciat Mâcon or a 2013 Côtes du Rhône La Solitude or one of 11 other selections. There are bottles at $40, $60 and $80 as well.

The kids aren't allowed to serve the wine; that's handled by the management. And you'll be asked to pay up front near the door, not at the table. Gratuities aren't accepted; the kids are paid $10 per hour. But donations are accepted - a nice way to spend the 20 percent or more you might have left for a tip. And if you're like me, those friendly wine prices will definitely leave you feeling generous.

In fact, it's rare to find a restaurant experience that makes diners feel so good. Jameian appeared at the table to serve us the second time I came in. But I didn't get a handshake this time.

I lucked into a big hug. 

Cafe Momentum (3 stars)

Price: $$$ (appetizers and salads $6 to $14; main courses $15 to $25; desserts $7 to $9) 

Service: Warm, personable and attentive, refreshingly free of pretension 

Ambience: An attractive, open and airy dining room with a communal table in front of an open kitchen

Noise level: Cheerfully buzzy, but quiet enough to converse easily 

Location: 1510 Pacific Ave., Dallas;  214-303-1234; cafemomentum.org. Valet and self-parking are available in the garage attached to the building. 

Hours: Thursday-Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. 

Reservations: Accepted. Because the restaurant is open only three nights per week, tables get booked quickly, so it's best to reserve well in advance. 

Credit cards: AE, MC, V 

Wheelchair accessible: Yes 

Alcohol: Wine only, and only by the bottle. The thoughtful Old World and New World selections, at $20, $40, $60 and $80, are priced only slightly higher than retail.

Ratings legend 

5 stars: Extraordinary 

4 stars: Excellent 

3 stars: Very good 

2 stars: Good 

1 star: Fair 

No stars: Poor

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