There's a lot to like about RM 12:20 Bistro, but first, you'll have to get over a few things.
The tiny, cottagelike restaurant sits on the fringe of a Lake Highlands construction zone, surrounded by a rocky, half-paved lot and idle bulldozers. Atmosphere and tire-damage potential? Could be better.
When the restaurant opened last December, owner and chef Erin Willis put out the word: RM 12:20 is a no-kid zone, with no kids' menu, no highchairs and no tolerance for rowdy behavior. Bring one if you dare.
Just the name, a reference to a Romans Bible verse about feeding your enemies, is enough to make you wary. I didn't even have a reservation, and already I was the enemy?
But there's something intriguing about trying to create an adult haven in the middle of a family neighborhood, and ambitious about bringing a refined approach to dining to a part of Dallas where it's in short supply. Willis — a former caterer who also cooked at Cafe Pacific in Highland Park Village and High Hill Farm resort east of Tyler — is clearly committed, sourcing ingredients from top purveyors such as 44 Farms and hiring pros such as Ravinder Singh, one of Dallas' top mixologists and the man behind the terrific drinks at Macellaio.
On a rainy Saturday night, I steered through the mess and braced for a prickly reception. But what I found, starting with the magnetic clamor of a packed dining room, was one of the most friendly, quirky restaurants in town. Happy regulars, dressed up just a little, eat at the tiny bar and fill tables set with mismatched china and silver, making their way through a menu heavy on the French classics. In three visits, there wasn't a kid in sight. And by kid, I mean anyone under 30.
Maybe that's why we can have nice things, like cocktails served in exquisite vintage glassware. It turns out Singh was lured away to run the bar program at Beverley's, a buzzy new spot in Knox-Henderson. But no matter. Willis brought on Michaela Camm, a veteran of Henry's Majestic and Harlowe MXM, and I would go back just for her excellent, expertly made drinks, such as a Boulevardier with tea-infused Campari or the Calvados and Tonic, the Normandy apple brandy a surprisingly good complement to the spicy house-made fizz and half-moons of dried apple and citrus. All night, the drinks float across the room, each in a different gilded tumbler or cut-glass coupe. It sets a festive mood, and those sips deliver.
On that first visit, we decided to to start with oysters on the half shell. "Ask your server for selections," the menu said, so we did. "Tonight's oysters are sauvignon blancs," she declared. Um, really? Yes, truly, she insisted, but dashed to the kitchen to confirm. "They're Savage Blondes," she reported with a pout. The Blondes, which really, truly are a variety from Prince Edward Island, arrived on a wooden plank, at room temperature instead of chilled, accompanied by mignonette and ... aioli? If you're inclined to give aioli the benefit of the doubt, let me save you the slurp: Garlicky mayonnaise on raw oysters is a terrible idea.
French onion soup, on the other hand, was dead-on and delicious: The hot tureen was covered with lightly browned Gruyère melting over a crouton and into the broth, which had the dark essence of slowly caramelized onions and the perfect amount of salt. It was so right, we learned later, partly because Willis makes all of her stocks in-house, and in this case, enriched the beef stock with house-made demi-glace.
The same careful, homey cooking was evident in the long-bone pork chop, succulent and smothered in a chunky ratatouille, and the soothing coq au vin, with a half-chicken marinated overnight in zinfandel and aromatics and cooked to falling-from-the-bone doneness.
Desserts were a crackling good crème brûlée and a salted caramel pot de crème that was much less so: hard and gritty on top and liquid at the bottom. I'm not even sure how that cooking fail is possible.
Every visit had its highs and lows. Soups are a strong point, particularly the seafood stew with aioli, a traditional bouillabaisse, with a crimson, fennel-scented broth holding fresh mussels, shrimp and snapper. A white bean and sausage soup was simple and satisfying.
Salads tended to be off, particularly the Caesar, a mountain of chopped kale, chopped egg and sweet cashews and almonds in a barely there dressing. I closed my eyes and tried hard to summon what was Caesar about this salad. Couldn't do it. Unfortunately, the salade Lyonnaise bathed the classic of bitter endive, poached egg and lardons in the same mild, creamy dressing.
I suspect the beef tartare was whirred through a food processor. It had the unsettling, smooth consistency of raw hamburger. Otherwise, beef is treated with respect, including an 8-ounce filet that was perfectly medium rare and tender, after gentle sous-vide cooking and a cast-iron sear. Same with the hamburger, which is Frenchified with brie, caramelized onions and arugula, and a side of frites.
After a few weeks, the pot de crème had improved, and the oysters were served over ice. This time they were properly crisp, cold and still entertaining. The night's selection? "Wellfords." Um, Wellfleets? A scurry to the kitchen. They are Raspberry Points and Katama Bays, both East Coast varieties. Blush.
I didn't mind those odd moments: There's a personality-plus character to RM 12:20 that's part of the charm, whether it's serving matzoh with the cheese board or delivering desserts while singing an extended riff on "ta-da!"
Yeah, that happened. But by then I had been pretty won over. The rough edges were being smoothed, many of the classic dishes were being done well, and it was good to see a small neighborhood restaurant with ambition. Not to get carried away, but that's a good sign for the evolution of the Dallas dining scene overall.
Just one last question: What happens if you take a kid into the no-kid zone?
I enlisted my favorite 5-year-old, who dressed up for her first visit to a big-girl restaurant, parents in tow. We arrived at 5:15 on Saturday night and, to be honest, more than a little nervous.
Was the reception a little chillier? It was. Were we given the worst table in the restaurant, in front of the restrooms, despite it being nearly empty? We were. Was there some side-eye from the diners at the next table? Yes, and from Willis standing at the pass, too.
But guess what. That petite space and singing waitress were a hit with the 5-year-old. And so were the burger and fries, with ketchup on hand to substitute for the aioli. When petits fours were served --each tiny cookie dotted with a single chocolate chip — it seemed like a pretty good place to take a kid after all.
As long as everyone behaves.
RM 12:20 Bistro
Rating: 1 ½ stars
Price: $$ (Lunch starters $10 to $25, soups and salads $6 to $15, mains $12 to $32, desserts $8 to $10. Dinner starters $6 to $25, mains $12 to $34, desserts $8 to $10. Brunch $6 to $22.)
Service: Friendly, attentive and enthusiastic enough about the menu to sing while serving dessert (well, at least on one occasion).
Ambience: This diminutive, cottagelike bistro sprang up on the fringe of a Lake Highlands construction zone, serving French fare, exceptional cocktails and wine at prices that encourage customers to become regulars. Owner and chef Erin Willis, a former caterer and resort chef, decided her neighborhood needed an adult hang, so she created one — and so far, the locals seem to have gotten the memo. The place is packed, despite the bulldozed parking lot, and there isn't a kid in sight.
Noise: Shouty (78 decibels)
Drinks: A short, serviceable and mainly French wine list, with most bottles in the $35-$50 range and glasses starting at $8. Cocktails, by general manager Michaela Camm, are much more exciting: creative and well-crafted variations on classics, such as a Boulevardier with tea-infused Campari ($12).
Recommended: French onion soup, oysters on the half shell, coq au vin, seafood stew with aioli, Duroc long bone pork chop, crème brûlée, Calvados and Tonic, Black Currant Vieux Carré
GPS: The little dining room actually feels like a family-run spot in the French countryside. A seat along the banquette lets you soak it all in. The enclosed patio is nice, but out here we are back in Texas.
Address: 9850 Walnut Hill Lane, Dallas. 214-238-2919. rm1220bistro.com.
Hours: Lunch Tuesday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner Tuesday-Thursday from 4 to 11 p.m., Friday-Saturday from 4 p.m. to midnight. (Note: Kitchen closes nightly at 10:30 p.m.) Brunch Saturday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Reservations: Accepted. Bar is reserved for walk-ins.
Credit cards: All major
Health department score: B (84, January)
Access: Restaurant and patio are all on one level.
Parking: Free parking in surrounding lots, which are all in various phases of repaving
4 stars: Extraordinary (First-rate on every level; a benchmark dining experience)
3 stars: Excellent (A destination restaurant and leader on the DFW food scene)
2 stars: Very Good (Strong concept and generally strong execution)
1 star: Good (Has merit, but limited ambition or spotty execution)
No stars: Poor (Not recommended)
Below 60: Quiet. Maybe too quiet.
60-69: Easy listening. Normal conversation, with a light background buzz.
70-79: Shouty. Conversation is possible, but only with raised voices.
80-85: Loud. Can you hear me now? Probably not.
86-plus: Tarmac at DFW.
Average dinner per person.
$ -- $19 and under
$$ -- $20 to $50
$$$ -- $50 to $99
$$$$ -- $100 and over