If the debuts of Wheelhouse and Sassetta were among Dallas' most highly anticipated restaurant openings this spring, there's a good reason. Make that three good reasons.
First, their high-profile Design District location, in the Dallas Decorative Center, where they share a valet with FT33. Between them is an open-air pavilion anchored by Daniel Arsham's 18-foot-tall sculpture Moving Figure.
Second, an ace culinary team: Michael Sindoni and Brian Zenner, both four-star chefs, provide the creative firepower. Sindoni was the opening chef at CBD Provisions; Zenner led the kitchen at Belly + Trumpet (which has since closed), and then at Oak.
Third, their sound concepts: modern gastropub and modern-slash-regional Italian, respectively. You know, the stuff everybody wants to eat.
So why isn't Headington Cos. - which also owns CBD Provisions, Americano, Mirador, the Joule hotel, Victor Tangos, the Porch and much more - hitting it out of the park with its two newest restaurants?
Sure, it's cool that both have tables spilling out onto that splashy patio, and unusual that they share staff. And Sassetta's comically gigantic orange front door would seem to promise an out-of-the-ordinary experience.
Inside, the dining room feels casually modern Italian: marble tabletops, bentwood chairs, honey-colored woods, pops of color, hanging lamps that look like molecules sliced in half.
On the dinner menu: starters, salads, pastas and pizzas. The high point one evening is a deliciously minty lamb tartare, served with red-wheat sourdough toasts plus a tangy, creamy cucumber-yogurt salad. Another night the most satisfying plates are handmade pappardelle noodles in a lush bolognese; tender, super-flavorful dry-aged meatballs; and a generous hunk of classic lasagna.
The pizzas – with good crusts nicely charred in a gas-fired stone hearth – are fine if not terribly interesting. (Management plans to add a wood-burning pizza oven.) There's a likable chopped salad, and it's easy to find interesting white or red sips on Siobhan Sindoni's thoughtful, if pricey, Italian wine list. (She's the Headington Cos.' wine director and married to chef Sindoni.)
Unfortunately, on a busy Friday night the place is so loud that we have to shout across the table – and we still can't hear each other. The banquette is too low; the bentwood chairs are hard and uncomfortable.
The noise and discomfort might be tolerable if the food were enthralling, but the plates that veer from the fine-but-ordinary tend to overreach. Wonderfully tender charred Spanish octopus gets lost in a swirl of salsa verde and Calabrian pepper purée, plus garbanzos, cannellini beans, zucchini, cauliflower, piquillo peppers – a pile-on that goes nowhere. Pasta alla carbonara – a perfect dish when well-executed – is not improved by adding spinach, walnut and lemon.
Other dishes have other issues: fritto misto is clunky; pasta e fagioli is thin and pallid-tasting.
Across the way flash the jumbo video screens of Wheelhouse, which feels more like a sports bar than a gastropub. There, the drinks pack a wallop, though not necessarily in a good way. I'm thinking of one called the Kickstarter: the color of a dill pickle, undrinkably sweet. Too bad; with mescal, pineapple and poblano, it sounds so good.
Hard to imagine that Sindoni and Zenner gave this menu – usual bar-food suspects interspersed with the latest overplayed trends – their creative best. Skipping the pretzels and oysters and jerky, I go for the pastrami short ribs. Served with a kimchi slaw that crashes unpleasantly into a creamy whole-grain mustard sauce, they're undercooked and tough. Hot wings, which I imagine might be something original – after all, this is a "modern take" on a gastropub – turn out to be absolutely generic Buffalo wings, down to the celery sticks and blue cheese dip. A bowl of poke, undersauced, underseasoned and austere, consists of tuna tartare surrounded by piles of raw vegetables on brown rice.
After I add a good deal of salt to its green goddess dressing, my favorite starter is probably the beautifully presented crudité plate – served incongruously with hummus (it's weird with the green goddess.) So what if the butter-cloaked radishes (trendy!) seem like they escaped from a different restaurant.
Still, if bar food is what you're after, you could certainly do worse than Wheelhouse. There are decent fish and chips, a good blue-cheese burger on a soft brioche bun, tasty moules frites (mussels with fries). A house-made poblano-chile sausage is delicious, though its braised cabbage side would be a nicer complement without the salty addition of chopped sausage. To drink, there's an appealing selection of craft beers on tap and some likable wines by the glass or bottle.
Wheelhouse and Sassetta share a pastry-chef team, and that's the good news. Sarah Green (who helped Oak earn four stars when it opened) and Ruben Toraño (the Joule hotel's longtime pastry chef) create the desserts and breads for both dining rooms at Commissary, a downtown venue that will open to the public as a grab-and-go cafe later this summer, if all goes according to plan. They're turning out some lovable treats, such as a tart cherry pie (personal size) with a fabulous crust at Wheelhouse. At Sassetta, there's a dense, rich, not-too-sweet dark chocolate budino (Italian-style pudding) and a lively huckleberry crostata, topped with whipped crème fraîche.
Also in the near future, Green and Toraño's sweets will be sold (along with take out from Sassetta and Wheelhouse), at another new cafe and grab-and-go spot – Go Go – to open at the Decorative Center.
It's really a shame that the rest of the Sassetta-Wheelhouse equation is so disappointing, especially given the Headington Cos.' resources (oil money!) and the serious talent involved. Sadly, the latest spots in the choicest sites in the hottest part of town are remarkably unremarkable.
Wheelhouse (2 stars)
Price: $$$ (small plates $4 to $32, salads and sandwiches $9 to $18, large plates $19 to $24, desserts $3 to $10)
Service: Efficient and robotic. Delivered more like a statement than a question, "How is everything, excellent?" is a repeated refrain.
Ambience: Sleek indoor-outdoor sports bar
Noise level: Noise hasn't been a problem, though it wasn't too busy the two times I visited.
Location: Wheelhouse, 1617 Hi Line Drive, Dallas; 214-307-5690
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight, Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Most recent health department inspection score: 84 (April 12, 2017)
Alcohol: Full bar, with hit-you-over-the-head cocktails, 17 beers on draft (including good local craft beers) and 20 wines offered by the glass ($11 to $17) and the bottle ($36 to $64)
Sassetta (2 stars)
Price: $$$ (small plates and salads $7 to $17; pasta and pizza $13 to $16; desserts $8 to $10)
Service: Warm, attentive and professional
Ambience: Modern, breezy, casual dining room: Americano meets Sprezza
Noise level: Untenable when the restaurant's busy; impossible to talk
Location: Sassetta, 1617 Hi Line Drive, Dallas; 214-307-5695
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Most recent health department inspection score: 87 (April 12, 2017)
Alcohol: Full bar, with two Italian beers on draft. The thoughtful (if pricey) Italian wine list includes 22 selections available by the glass.
5 stars: Extraordinary (Defines fine dining in the region)
4 stars: Excellent (One of the finest restaurants in Dallas-Fort Worth)
3 stars: Very good (A destination restaurant for this type of dining)
2 stars: Good (Commendable effort, but experience can be uneven)
1 star: Fair (Experience is generally disappointing)
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ -- $14 and under
$$ -- $15 to $30
$$$ -- $31 to $50
$$$$ -- More than $50