More than three decades have passed since Stephan Pyles secured his place in the Dallas dining pantheon with his first restaurant, Routh Street Cafe. Like his most recent namesake flagship, which closed in April after an 11-year run, it earned five stars in a Dallas Morning News review soon after its debut.
Now, with his new Stephan Pyles Flora Street Cafe at Hall Arts, the 62-year-old chef – arguably the most influential in Dallas history, perhaps even in Texas history – clearly aims to thrill with what he calls "elevated Texas cuisine." The restaurant is more opulent than his last flagship, and more gastronomically extravagant.
A tasting menu might begin with an amuse-bouche composed of Alaskan golden king crab, curls of smoked Texas Sugar Queen melon, pickled Sun Gold tomatoes, uni-passion fruit sorbet, shards of puffed rice cracker, sprigs of dill and a dusting of Tajin spice.
Nine courses later, following two desserts and an array of mignardises, Pyles himself may come around offering locally made artisan chocolates from a polished walnut case, the final flourish.
He and managing partner George Majdalani created the shimmering 5,000-square-foot restaurant from the ground up. The dining room, airy and light, has graceful circular booths backed by a jewel-toned tapestry whose glimmery silk panels gorgeously catch the light from floor-to-ceiling windows. A light scupture's silk petticoats flutter gracefully as it drops down from the ceiling and rises back up again.
The service is formal. Tables, swathed in layers of beautiful ecru linens from Italy and adorned with orchids, are spaced elegantly far apart. Ladies' handbags are placed on purse stools beside their chairs.
Whether ordered as a tasting menu or a la carte, the plates, as conceived by Pyles and chef de cuisine Peter Barlow, are as elaborate as they are technically virtuosic.
At their best, they can be exquisite, dramatic and delicious. A scallop crudo – dressed with intensely flavored diced pineapple and tiny, crunchy buckwheat groats that taste faintly of chipotle – floats to the table in a glittering crystal bowl set on a bed of kelp. A server pours liquid from a silver pitcher onto the kelp, and the enchanting aroma of jasmine "sea essence" billows up, smokelike. The crudo's finishing touch, a few strands of spaghetti-like noodles, tastes like coconut – lovely with the delicate flavor of the scallop – and melts on the tongue like ice cream.
That crudo, currently on the a la carte dinner menu, also showed up the night I ordered the $125-per-person tasting menu – seven courses and "chef's surprises." Sommelier Madeleine Thompson's wine pairings – usually spot-on, sometimes even inspired – add another $100 per person.
The tasting menu's high point, which brings to mind Enrique Olvera's signature infladita at Mexico City's celebrated Pujol restaurant, was a poblano "infladito" – a tiny inflated poblano-flavored corn tortilla filled with black bean mousse and topped with paddlefish caviar and a tiny chapulín (fried grasshopper, a traditional snack in Oaxaca). A separate plate held a coin-size dot of intensely flavored mole-like salsa, topped with an even tinier chapulín.
The extravaganza's low point was an unhappy meeting of hard, tough loin of wild boar and an alarmingly tart and sweet marmalade of beet. A pouf of embered eggplant mousse and a bite of meltingly tender barbecue boar jowl that shared their plate didn't rescue it. As I tried to spear a small white root – hard as a rock, apparently raw, wilted greens still attached (a baby turnip?!) – it went flying off my plate onto the floor.
There are definitely thrills to be had if you order a la carte, particularly among the raw and other first-course dishes. If the signature tamale tart from Pyles' previous flagship evolved like a Pokémon, it might look and taste like Flora Street's lobster tamale pie, served in a basketweave crystal dish shaped like a martini glass. Use a spoon to shatter the fragile, clear sheet of ancho-chile- dusted "glass" on top (it's made of isomalt), decorated with flower petals, dots of preserved lemon and black garlic purées, paddlefish caviar and more, and pull up tender, butter-poached lobster meat set over layers of silky corn custard and lushly flavored nixtamal. The finish is lovely: a lasting impression of just-picked, gently sweet tender white corn.
This is dining as theater, and the best seats in the house from which to enjoy the spectacle may be those at the chef's counter looking onto the gleaming exhibition kitchen. There you get an amazing unfettered view of every precise tweezer placement of purslane or thyme blossom, every intent look as a line cook finesses a sear, every adjustment (by giant rotating wheel) of the imposing wood-burning oven.
The plates, as conceived by Pyles and chef de cuisine Peter Barlow, are as elaborate as they are technically virtuosic.
The dish I most enjoyed from the regular menu was a summer posole, whose exquisite shishito broth, with its touch of smoke, was poured tableside onto a beautiful plate of Pacific sea bass escabeche with cubes of summer squash, shaved radishes, a golden zucchini blossom or two, crunchy nixtamalized corn and slivers of lime peel.
Unfortunately, the plates sometimes struck me as more dazzling than delicious; though their technical prowess impressed, their myriad components weren't always tied together convincingly. The trompe l'oeil spear of white asparagus made from apricot panna cotta was one of the coolest and most beautiful things I've seen all year, and the cube of barbecued squab confit topped with squab breast that anchored the plate was terrific, but the real shaved asparagus, charred asparagus tips, various dots of sauce and gently smashed smoked purple Peruvian potatoes had little to say to one another.
By the time the main courses came (I ordered a la carte in the dining room on three occasions), I sometimes found myself feeling overwhelmed. A loin of South Texas nilgai antelope was gorgeously cooked, and its smoked and braised rib was luscious, and I enjoyed the accompanying huitlacoche empanada, as well as the trompe l'oeil corn cut off the cob that was really corn purée. But with the stripe of sauce, the dots of gel and mousse, dehydrated mole negro dust, a grilled peach and roasted chanterelles strewn about, I'm feeling exhausted. Too many notes, and those chanterelles needed a little more time in the oven.
When it comes to the desserts, I feel much the same: Executive pastry chef Ricardo "Ricchi" Sanchez's creations are impressive, for sure, and technically, he's a master. One of my favorites is also gorgeous: horchata-flavored panna cotta, avocado ice cream, Midori melon coulis and disks of delicious compressed melons, all festooned with pink begonias and pale green mint and tiny basil leaves.
Aesthetically speaking, they're not always as successful. A chocolate sponge cake and its hazelnut cremeux were perfect, but the quenelle of ruby red grapefruit sorbet, while marvelous on its own, clashed tartly with the hazelnut.
Part of the dining-as-theater trope is music, which at Flora Street Cafe means a mix of classical and '80's rock. Why '80's rock? In homage to the restaurant's granddaddy, Routh Street Cafe. A handful of diners who have been around long enough to remember Routh Street may get the reference, but it's sure to be lost on others who will wonder why on earth they're being forced to listen to Van Halen one minute and Vivaldi another. Last time I dined there Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett had been introduced into the mix singing standards: Perhaps relief was needed? Mercifully, none of it is played too loud; it's definitely a dining room where you can converse comfortably.
And you'll be treated well, though here and there you might experience lapses in the service. Bread plates weren't always minded, and "Is everything tasting wonderful?" should probably not be uttered in such a room. Or in any room. But generally the service is outstanding: thoughtful, extremely knowledgeable about the menu, and anticipating needs before they arise.
Thompson's 23-page wine list is outstanding, too, and (remarkably) not overwhelming. It offers something for almost everyone – from the trophy-seeker to the adventurer, even one seeking to pay $50 or less for an interesting red. France and Austria are strengths, and there are selections from Texas and even Mexico as well.
What Pyles is trying to do at Flora Street Cafe is extremely ambitious, and important: taking modern Texas cuisine to the next level. For that I applaud him. He's the only chef in Dallas even attempting it. If it tends to overreach, or doesn't always work, perhaps that's the price of breaking new ground.
Here's what I find interesting: Modern Texas cuisine, a phrase Pyles himself may have coined when he opened Stampede 66 four years ago, draws on Mexican, Southern, Louisiana, German and cowboy cooking traditions. The soul of Flora Street Cafe is the Mexican part of the equation: When Mexican flavors and techniques are in sharp focus, the cooking soars.
A great place to experience that is in the bar: In fact, that's where I most enjoyed dining at Flora Street. Mixologist Lauren Festa (you may remember her from the Mansion Bar or FT33) has created some wonderful cocktails, especially the one called Elotes, a lovely white drink involving tequila and smoked corn with a soft hit of chile heat. She also happens to have a keen talent for pairing the dishes on the bar menu with wines by the glass.
And the dishes on the bar menu – much simpler and less fussy than those served in the dining room (and less expensive, at $10 to $21) – positively rock. I sampled all of them, from pheasant-stuffed fried squash blossoms with blackberry mojo, to a pair of pork jowl barbacoa and eggplant tacos with charred avocado, to a heap of super-thin house-made potato chips dotted here and there with super-vibrant mole rojo de chapulín, and I loved every one. A gorgeous $18 crudo of Pacific bonito dressed with puffed quinoa, tiny pineapple tomatillos and red tamarillo – the only one that was challenging to share (three pieces of fish and one Marcona almond) – was a five-star dish.
Nevertheless, while I have the greatest admiration for the ambition, the technical mastery and meticulous attention to detail on display in the dining room, at an aesthetic level, what I'm getting on the plates comes up short of a five-star experience. Too often I feel I'm facing a series of untethered components rather than something delicious I can't wait to eat again. When cooking is this elaborate, a dish needs a clear idea to succeed – as it does with the lobster tamale pie and the infladito.
I hope the restaurant – where Dallas' most celebrated chef is putting on such a wonderful show – can one day get all the way there.
Stephan Pyles Flora Street Cafe at Hall Arts (4 stars)
Price: $$$$ (first courses $18 to $28, main courses $36 to $65, desserts $12 to $14; bar menu $10 to $21; tasting menu $125 per person, or $225 per person with wine pairings)
Service: Formal, thoughtful and attentive
Ambience: An opulent, elegant dining room with comfortable cocoon-like booths, sumptuous linens, gorgeous tableware and plenty of room between tables. An eight-seat chef's counter affords fabulous views into the gleaming display kitchen.
Noise level: A soundtrack of classical music and '80s rock plays but not too loudly; conversation is easy even when the restaurant is full.
Location: Stephan Pyles Flora Street Cafe at Hall Arts, 2330 Flora St., Dallas; 214-580-7000;
Hours: Monday-Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar. There's something for almost everyone on Madeleine Thompson's outstanding 23-page wine list, which includes 21 selections by the glass.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ -- $14 and under
$$ -- $15 to $30
$$$ -- $31 to $50
$$$$ -- More than $50