PLANO -- The last six months have seen a boom in upscale debuts in Dallas' northern suburbs. Case in point: Julia Pearl Southern Cuisine, which opened in late January.
I can't say I was terribly excited when the project was announced last year. Sure, the fact that Top Chef star Tre Wilcox serves as culinary director gives it cachet; I'm certainly a Wilcox fan. But at a time when inventive modern Southern cooking has been making convincing statements all around town, Julia Pearl's standard-filled menu didn't seem to bring much new to the table. The location – in a boxy, 6,000-square-foot building off North Central Expressway – didn't help. And projects where celebrity chefs create menus but don't run the kitchens often have the soul sucked out of them.
I'm glad I looked past all that and stopped in: The place has a warm, family-friendly vibe, and the cooking can be quite good. That's thanks to executive chef Jermaine Brown, who has been working with Wilcox for many years – at the erstwhileVillage Marquee Texas Grill and Bar in Highland Park Village, and before that at Loft 610 and Abacus.
When you're seated, tender mini corn muffins land on the table with honey butter: a sign of promising things to follow. The cocktails, such as a Bourbon Palmer and a classic Sazerac, are mixed with care – not too sweet.
The starters are particularly good. Perfectly cooked deviled eggs with creamy filling came topped with crunchy fried chicken skin. Brown makes a fine gumbo, nicely spiced with shrimp, crab, fried okra and andouille sausage. A fat, well-seasoned crab cake that landed before me sat on such a lovely lemon-mustard sauce dotted with parsley oil that my friend across the table couldn't refrain from dragging his fried green tomatoes through it. Black-eyed pea hummus was a tasty twist on the classic, served with toasted baguette slices.
One of the best main courses was fried catfish sporting a beautiful golden-brown cornmeal crust. Served with buttery mashed potatoes and nicely cooked green beans on lemon-caper butter sauce, it's well-priced at $15. In fact, the pricing at Julia Pearl is refreshingly affordable. Smothered chicken thighs on creamy rice with peas -- likable, if not memorable, comfort food -- goes for $17. I liked the hush puppies and sweet corn succotash -- tucked under a carefully roasted redfish fillet ($20) spooned round with shrimp butter.
As the menu is so focused on Southern classics, I was hoping the fried chicken would knock it out of the park. It didn't, though it was pretty good.
It's made with crispy, mahogany-colored skin and crunchy-outside, tender-inside texture. It could have been more flavorful, though; its seasoning was a bit timid. The collard greens wanted more oomph that evening, too. But again, the price is friendly: $21 for a whole cut-up bird -- plenty for two or even maybe three to share; $11 for a half-bird.
Another night, oversalting ruined a nicely grilled bone-in pork chop set on cheddar-and-bacon enriched grits so salty and rich I couldn't eat them; the collard greens they came with had more good pork flavor, though. Salt overwhelmed the shrimp and grits as well, which was too bad as the jumbo Texas shrimp were so plump and nicely cooked.
The best main course that night was a surprise: a patchwork plate of side dishes – the only entree available to the vegetarian friend at our table. Classic gratinéed mac and cheese, sautéed broccoli, pan-fried cabbage and an even better rendition of the sweet corn succotash I'd liked before: All was good.
If the desserts lacked baked-from-the-heart soulfulness, sweets like red velvet cake, banana bread pudding and a chocolate bundt cake were acceptable. Best was probably a fat slice of tube-pan lemon pound cake with a drizzle of lemon curd sauce, raspberries and a scoop of commercial vanilla-bean ice cream.
Julia Pearl's service is uneven.
The first time I dined there, a busy Friday night, the restaurant had no record of my Open Table reservation but was happy to seat us – at a table so wobbly we were afraid to put drinks on it. As we tried in vain to get someone's attention, a couple on their way out stopped by to say they had been given the same table and refused it for the same reason. So management knew about it but seated others (us) there without fixing it? Our server that night turned out to be excellent: professional and attentive. Another evening, a well-meaning and likable server interrupted our conversation every time she approached the table. She didn't have the foggiest idea how to serve wine. And I'm pretty sure the king salmon on the menu is not "local," as she told the gentleman at the next table.
I understand that there's a serious shortage of experienced waitstaff in and around Dallas, but restaurants need to step up to the plate and give these kids some badly needed training.
When the food is spot-on, as it often was at Julia Pearl, it's possible to forget the dreary location. The main dining room -- with its stone fireplace on one side, wall of shelves with homey objets on another, beige tablecloths and long banquette -- is much nicer than the boxy adjunctdining room (the one to the left when you enter), but it would help to put curtains on the floor-to-ceiling windows with views onto the parking lot and freeway.
It certainly doesn't break any new ground, and it may not be a destination restaurant for Dallas' urban dwellers. But there's something warm, likable and democratic about Julia Pearl. A moderately priced place you go on date night or with kids that offers honest cooking that often hits its mark? There's definitely room for that in Plano.
Look through some of the dishes from Julia Pearl in Plano:
Julia Pearl Southern Cuisine
Price: $$-$$$ (dinner starters $6 to $12, main courses $11 to $21; brunch starters $5 to $7, main courses $8 to $13; desserts $5 to $7)
Service: Extremely inconsistent, ranging from thoughtful and professional to sweet but untrained
Ambience: Though the main dining room, with beige tablecloths, warm woods, a long banquette and stone fireplace, is reasonably inviting, the sprawling space with floor-to-ceiling windows doesn't let you forget you're dining next to North Central.
Noise level: Music isn't played too loud; conversation was not a problem.
Location: 2301 N. Central Expressway (north of West Park Boulevard), Plano; 972-422-1519; juliapearlsoutherncuisine.com
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5 to 11 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar, with a good selection of local craft beers on draft. A brief, vintage-free 31-selection wine list with 16 of the choices offered by the glass ($8 to $14) feels like an afterthought. Bottles are $32 to $89.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ -- $14 and under
$$ -- $15 to $30
$$$ -- $31 to $50
$$$$ -- More than $50