The world's most compelling artists are those whose voices ring through loud and true in their work. Whether it's a writer or painter or musician, you can read, see or hear a snippet of their art and know right away who created it.
You can tell the moment you walk into Town Hearth, the splashy new restaurant in the Design District, that you're in chef Nick Badovinus' world. Even before you walk in. Pull open the heavy outer door, and letterman jackets hang on wall hooks next to white butcher coats. At the host stand, a table lamp made from a skull illuminates a pair of boxing gloves. Framed Navajo rugs from Badovinus' dad's collection decorate the entry.
The dining room, with 64 crystal chandeliers, a lemon-yellow submarine-like mine sweeper encased in an aquarium and a silver 1961 MG parked in front of the open kitchen, is clearly designed to dazzle. Unlike most restaurateurs, who hire a firm to execute their vision, Badovinus takes charge of decor himself – and it took him three years to pull together all the materials, objets and other touches that give Town Hearth, which he built from the ground up, its distinctive look and feel.
That's high-grain automobile and aircraft leather sourced from Italy upholstering the roomy booths. Those colorful metal napkin rings? They're made from vintage license plates.
The tone throughout – tongue-in-cheek glammy Americana – is pitch-perfect, escaping garishness by about a millimeter. Town Hearth seems to be at once lampooning excess and reveling in it – which feels brilliantly on the money for a sparkling Dallas steak palace in the age of Trump.
The 6,000-square-foot space is boisterous and fun, intimate in the way that Jay Gatsby's extravagant parties were intimate. It's the ideal setting for what comes to the table: Badovinus' mammoth steaks – grilled over white oak and mesquite charcoal in the blazing hearth that's front-and-center in the open kitchen – and jazzed-up American comfort food.
The menu is written in unmistakable Badovinish, familiar if you've ever dined at Neighborhood Services or Montlake Cut, two of his other places. "Nightly plates" include a "simple fish prep," "rogue cut" and "tots du jour." Wedge of bleu, listed under "primo sides," is "broadly sourced, always changing," its price "A/Q" – you know, "as quoted." The "faithfully restored" Ducati sport bike ("mint/clean title in hand/firm") displayed over one of the booths in the bar is another primo side, on the menu for $75,000.
Aspirational oysters and other raw-bar treats lead off the party, but the most striking starters are listed under small plates, mostly classics done one better. (This experience is like walking into a steakhouse and finding you've been upgraded to first class.) Saucy meatballs smothered in smoked provolone are fashioned from dry-aged rib-eye and short loin. How to improve on oysters Rockefeller? Pluck them off their shells and fry them crisp and hot before setting them on their buttery greens and topping them with aioli.
Then there's "tot poutine," whose menu description reads like a Who's Who of food trends. Creamy Burrata stands in for poutine's insipid cheese curds; excellent pan gravy stands in for horrible brown sauce. And the tater tot concoction is topped with – wait for it – a poached duck egg. Excessive? Yes, and delightfully so.
You'll find my two favorite starters secreted away on the menu under primo sides. The first is a Maine lobster roasted in butter in the wood-burning oven, its sweet, tender meat liberated from the shell, then returned to it. Yes, it could certainly be someone's main course, but it's so luxurious and rich – with a price tag to match ($69) – it's ideal shared with friends. So too is Oscar a la plancha: fat, juicy poached asparagus dressed with prodigious hunks of king crabmeat and a fluffy blanket of light hollandaise. It's a classic dish – nothing original there – but the execution, the top-notch ingredients and the proportions knock it out of the park. Grand slam.
If you're a steak lover, the selection of scrupulously sourced, conscientiously bred, exactingly aged cuts seems meant to exceed your wildest dreams. Of the 11 offered, I've sampled five – and swooned over all but one. One night, three pals and I shared two 24-ounce, 45-day dry-aged steaks: the bone-in strip dubbed "the Brick" and a center-cut porterhouse. Both were among the best steaks I've ever eaten. Carved in the kitchen, they came to the table gloriously medium-rare, beautifully seasoned, expertly charred. The Brick had incredible depth of flavor along with fresh, primal tang. The porterhouse, texturally magnificent through its topography, was an extravagant expedition through silky, tender filet; then firm, juicy, warm-red-center sublime strip. It was insanely good close to the bone. The aging on both was spot-on, offering the right funky depth without crossing a line.
Wonderful, too, was the Ambassador, an 18-ounce strip sourced from Southeast Family Farms in Florence, Ala. The Charolais-Angus cross is finished on heritage grain and corn, according to the menu, then "21-day carcass hung and dry-aged." Beef with a pedigree, to be sure, and it came to the table exactly the way my guest ordered it: black and blue.
I've had steaks this good elsewhere in Dallas, but only occasionally (a few times at Neighborhood Services), and I've never seen a collection of them this impressive, anywhere.
Such indulgences come with a steep price; this is a restaurant for the 1 percent, especially as the atmosphere – loud rock 'n' roll soundtrack included – seems to encourage wretched excess. The porterhouse goes for $79, the Brick for $89 and the Ambassador for $69. That's a la carte, natch.
So you'll want sides. I recommend the crisp, skinny russet fries, even if they were oversalted on one visit. Griddled cauliflower, dressed in brown butter and Parmesan with a judicious hit of lemon, delighted, too, as did elote-style roasted corn and a cheddar-rich macaroni casserole. Asparagus, on the other hand, arrived undercooked, too crunchy.
Don't feel like steak? You can still eat royally here. Alaskan halibut, the simple fish prep one night, looked austere on the plate, but it was impeccably cooked, silky throughout, served with tartar sauce and a dainty bit of salad. (Fans of Montlake Cut will feel right at home with the plate.) Gulf snapper a la plancha, a generous portion seared with barbecue spices and served with rémoulade sauce, was terrific.
For something more indulgent, go for the king crab carbonara, a lush, luxurious dish of house-made fettuccine noodles tossed with peas, lots of sweet crabmeat, egg, Parm and pancetta.
For all the remarkable attention to detail, the wine list – which fits on the back of the one-page menu – feels like an afterthought, though there's plenty to enjoy there among the mostly French, American, Italian and Spanish selections. Solicit sommelier Courtney Keeling's thoughtful guidance.
Desserts spin pretty classic; lately I enjoyed a vibrant strawberry parfait. But most fun is the Elvis: puff pastry layered with mascarpone mousse, sliced bananas, chocolate mousse, peanut butter and more, all topped with toasted poufs of meringue. It's as showy and over-the-top and ridiculously delightful as the rest of the experience.
Hospitality is a key part of the equation at Town Hearth. It's a feel-great place, abetted by the dazzling instruments of seduction: chandeliers, the promise of a spin in the MG, buckets of Champagne, extravagant steaks.
Yet there's nothing phony about it. Nick Badovinus' newest venture – his magnum opus – is the real deal.
Town Hearth (4 stars)
Price: $$$$ (soups and salads $10 to $16; appetizers $16 to $32; steaks – many of which are sized to share – $43 to 135; other main courses $19 to $48; desserts $9)
Service: Attentive, thoughtful and professional. (Note: One night, I wished more thought had been given to coursing; a dozen oysters were served with hot apps, which wasn't ideal.)
Ambience: Over-the-top glammy
Noise level: Loud and boisterous. Conversation across the table is usually difficult.
Location: Town Hearth, 1617 Market Center Blvd., Dallas; 214-761-1617
Hours: Monday-Wednesday 5 to 10 p.m., Thursday-Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.
Credit cards: AE, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar, with a long list of house cocktails. A midsize wine list (which fits on the back of the large menu) focuses on French, American, Italian and Spanish bottlings. The list is pricey – bottles start at $45, but there are a few good choices at $75 and under. Markups are average for Dallas, though there are some relative bargains – vintages going for about two times typical retail price. Thirty-two wines are offered by the glass.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ – $14 and under
$$ – $15 to $30
$$$ – $31 to $50
$$$$ – More than $50