Up on Knox could well make you believe in reincarnation. After all, if a deceased Chili's can come back to life as a busy, buzzy brasserie, maybe there's hope that the rest of us will return as something far better than our current selves.
The restaurant, which opened on the corner of Knox and Travis streets last September, certainly has the casual-French vibe down. You step into the handsome high-ceilinged dining room through an old-fashioned wooden revolving door. There's a long bar with a supergraphic of pink roses on the wall behind it. Comfortable banquettes line the back of the room; the wooden tables with their bentwood rattan chairs are well-spaced. Globe lights hang from the ceiling, and there's a large patio that nods to the Parisian sidewalk cafe. The bussers and expediters wear horizontal-striped French sailor shirts, though some don't look too happy about it.
To a substantial degree, though, the brasserie thing is only skin deep. Yes, there are dishes that reflect that tradition. A raw bar features oysters on the half shell, chilled lobster, and one of those vertiginously priced seafood towers. There's an excellent rendition of steak tartare, the beef finely chopped to order instead of ground, amped up with cornichons, shallots, capers and vibrantly sharp Dijon, topped with a raw quail's egg. There's brandade, the classic of whipped salt cod and potatoes. It comes with a lively salad of frisée with grapefruit segments and olives. The purée is pleasantly light and fluffy, but it seems too polite, drained of the salty hint of funk that gives this dish its oomph. And there's that bistro must-have, steak frites. The fries, in a generous pile, are well-seasoned if short on crispiness. The strip steak, topped with red-wine butter, is attractively charred, but it's also muted and merely pleasant.
The two chefs at Up on Knox -- the talented team of Dennis Kelley and Melody Bishop -- made a big splash at Lark on the Park with their California-inflected modern American cuisine. And the nods to French classics notwithstanding, that's clearly still where their culinary hearts lie. It's evident in knockout starters like the roasted lamb ribs. The meaty ribs, which offer just a slight chewy resistance to the teeth, have a lovely, savory dark crust from their rub of brown sugar, paprika, cayenne, sage and rosemary; they'll remind you of barbecue, minus the smoke -- which you won't miss. And here's where things get really smart: The deep bass thrum of the lamb is lightened and sweetened with an accompanying dip of labneh spiked with mint, and brightened with an astringent slaw of green apple and cabbage.
The hamachi crudo is a similarly clever composition. The smooth, glistening slices of mild fish sit on crisp little radish sprouts; they get a salty bump from a light drizzle of soy-ginger sauce and an umami crackle from a sprinkle of wasabi furikake, a traditional Japanese spice mix that includes sesame seeds and bonito flakes. And here come freshness and crunch, in the form of bright-pink slices of peppery watermelon radish. The crab tostada is another light and refreshing starter -- a generous mound of sweet crab mixed with lemon zest, chives and tomato on a crunchy tortilla disk, accompanied by a fan of avocado and pickled red onions and radishes.
Bishop and Kelley were known at Lark on the Park for their seasonal approach, and you can expect something similar here as spring brightens. They particularly like to nestle their proteins on beds of vegetables, some puréed and others sautéed. For now, in the damp depths of late winter in Texas, that means roots and the like. But they're made less doleful thanks to their youth and gentle handling. So, for example, two fillets of branzino (the ubiquitous fish formerly known as loup de mer) come perched on cauliflower purée with baby carrots, turnips, parsnips and rutabaga. The vegetables are mild and sweet, the fish nicely seared, the whole thing cranked up a bit with a topping of zhug, a Yemeni cilantro-and-parsley hot sauce warmed with cumin, coriander and cardamom. A beautiful -- and enormous -- slab of yellowfin tuna, perfectly grilled to rosy rare, arrives on roasted butternut squash and sautéed Swiss chard with a scattering of wild mushrooms, cilantro and scallion in a pool of soy-ginger cream.
Carnivores might skip the nothing-special steak frites and go instead for the beefy, juicy grilled Akaushi skirt steak with its straightforward accompaniment of Brussels sprouts and Swiss chard. And especially hungry carnivores might address themselves to the braised lamb shank -- address themselves because this is a demanding dish in its size and intensity. The massive, fall-apart-tender shank swims in a bowl of dark, meaty braising liquid in which a mixture of olives, both green Cerignola and black oil-cured Moroccan, pushes saltiness almost, but not quite, over the edge. Harissa and chard are in there, too, plus some pleasantly chewy fregola, the Sardinian toasted semolina-pasta balls.
There are one or two dishes in which style seems to overpower substance. The arroz negro, for one, is a stunning meditation on black: Valencia rice turned the color of night by squid ink arrives in a cast-iron pan swaddled in a black napkin. Yes, it's an eyeful, but the seafood on top -- clams, mussels, squid rings -- is bland and steamed-tasting. While some saffron aioli helps a bit, the dish doesn't come together.
Just about everything else here is considerably more successful. This accessible, pleasing food and elegantly relaxed dining room have been drawing a crowd almost since day one. Up on Knox is usually packed with a typically well-heeled Knox-Henderson crowd, and the unforgiving hard surfaces mean things can get overpoweringly loud. The restaurant is particularly, and notably, popular with women diners. It's not unusual at dinner to see four or five tables of four women, from recent grads on a fling to Park Cities ladies of a certain age, all having a boisterously marvelous time.
The service here is amiable and relaxed, though it sometimes veers from the forgetful -- never did get that wedge of lemon we asked for -- to the intrusive, when a server interrupted our conversation every five minutes or so to ask if we liked things. Thing is, we did.
Mark Vamos is a journalism professor at Southern Methodist University.
Up on Knox (3 stars)
Price: $$$-$$$$ (Lunch starters, salads and sandwiches $8 to $23; main courses $14 to $21. Dinner starters $8 to $20; raw bar and caviar $16 to $132; main courses $15 to $46; desserts $8 to $9. Breakfast and brunch dishes $3.50 to $23.)
Service: Friendly and relaxed; sometimes a little forgetful, and sometimes too hovering.
Ambience: A former Chili's has been reborn as a modern French brasserie, with comfortable banquettes, hanging globe lights and well-spaced wooden tables. You enter through a handsome old-fashioned wooden revolving door; there's a long bar and a large, pleasant patio that hints at a Parisian sidewalk cafe.
Noise level: The hard surfaces are unforgiving, and Up on Knox attracts a happy -- and often boisterously loud -- crowd.
Location: 3230 Knox St., Dallas; 469-250-4007; uponknox.com
Hours: Breakfast Monday-Friday 8 to 10:30 a.m. Lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Brunch Saturday-Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner Tuesday-Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5 to 11 p.m., Sunday-Monday 5 to 9 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Most recent health department inspection score: 91 (Jan. 30)
Alcohol: Full bar, with a handful of house cocktails, and a brief, mostly American wine list with a few French offerings. Some 30 wines are available by the glass.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor