Just last fall, I was lamenting the paucity of women leading the kitchens of Dallas restaurants. Since then, seemingly out of nowhere, talented female chefs have started cooking up a quiet storm.
One of them, Sarah Snow, became chef de cuisine of the Grape in August at the tender age of 27, following a nine-month stint as executive chef at the Common Table. If it is chef-owner Brian Luscher’s culinary vision she is executing, as her bio suggests, she’s certainly doing so with aplomb. Luscher gives her free reign to create the seasonal dishes that populate the left side of the menu, and that’s where I found some of the most compelling plates over the course of two recent dinners.
Scallop-edged circular slices of roasted delicata squash were tucked under a pretty salad of lacy arugula, shaved Fuji apples, crushed smoked almonds, pickled beets and a bit of grated ricotta salata cheese, all pulled together flavorwise with a judicious drizzle of pomegranate molasses.
A plate of chestnut agnolotti was beautiful as well: five tender pasta packages in a brown butter sauce that communed happily with curls of house-cured ham, caramelized fennel, delicate slices of candied orange, pretzel crumbs and fennel fronds. This young chef has a good sense of balance and of the flavors that work together.
While those two dishes felt modern and somewhat cheffy (in a good way), the Grape is still the Grape, and 43 years after the restaurant first opened its doors on Greenville Avenue, the prevailing style of the cooking there is homey. Again, in a good way.
Lapin a la chasseur — saucy, tender braised rabbit tangled with oyster mushrooms and a smattering of good cavatelli, finished with peeled and roasted cherry tomatoes and a flurry of grated Sap Sago cheese — tastes and looks like something from your French grandmother’s kitchen, honest and delicious.
The navarin d’agneau, soulful braised lamb neck, was similarly appealing, even if two competing ideas on the plate collided a bit. On the one hand, there was the classic combo of lamb, English peas, carrots and turnips that add up to navarin printanier (springtime lamb stew). Tucked under the lamb was an earthy, wintry bed of lentils — tasty, but odd with the spring vegetables.
Before you get your heart set on tasting these dishes (all from the January menu), understand that Snow changes her side of the menu monthly. The navarin of lamb has since morphed into braised lamb neck with spinach-mint strozzapreti, Brussels sprouts petals and apricot-cinnamon jus, while the rabbit dish has been only slightly tweaked.
A couple of the dishes I sampled didn’t work: oak-smoked pork roast that sounded wonderful, but was too tough, and an unappealingly pallid and squishy flammkuchen — German- style flatbread topped with onions, crème fraîche and bacon. Anyway, whoosh! They’re gone. Meanwhile, a wild boar crépinette that’s showing up online on the February menu sounds enticing, with celeriac purée, grape mostarda, crispy farro and mustard greens.
The right side of the menu is reserved for “bistro favorites.” With the notable exceptions of a disappointingly dull bowl of white-wine-steamed mussels and chicken liver mousse that was runny and off-tasting, most of what I tasted from it succeeded; in fact, those dishes seemed much more carefully prepared than when I last reviewed the restaurant, in 2011.
Most of the house-made charcuterie was quite nice, including big rounds of pistachio-studded rabbit mortadella, thick slices of chicken-mushroom terrine and fairly classic pork rillettes. Braised lamb tartines were much as I remembered them: shreds of savory lamb mingled with sweet onion jam, dried tomatoes and grated cheese on toasted croutons — perfect with a glass of wine or an aperitif.
One night our friendly, attentive server mentioned that the grilled beef tournedos, available in two sizes (4 ounces for $24 or 8 ounces for $34) are the top-selling menu item, and it’s not hard to see why: The tender filets, bathed in a good red wine demi-glace, were perfectly cooked as ordered, topped with maître d’ butter and snuggled next to a mound of excellent frites, neither thick nor thin, that tasted just like the ones my French mother-in-law is famous in the family for.
Another night, one of my guests asked for the “chef’s choice” special hanger steak, specifying with alarming precision how he’d like it cooked (rare — very rare, almost like it has only been cooked on one side). Voilà, it landed on the table, its slices buried under a lovely parsley-radish salad. Hurray! It was well-seared, cooked as rare as ordered and served with a vibrant chimichurri.
Naturally, I had to order the two things the Grape is best-known for: mushroom soup and the burger. The soup, with plenty of mushroom flavor, had a thick, chunky, slightly viscous texture: not bad, but it’s hard to understand why such a fuss is made over it. Much easier to fathom the outsized burger’s outsized reputation: With a 10-ounce patty, the thing’s a monster. Mine was beautifully cooked medium-rare, draped in melted cheddar and dressed, in its soft pain-au-lait bun, with bacon, lettuce and tomato and served with thick slices of horseradish bread-and-butter pickle and, happily, those homey frites. It’s available only on Sunday and Monday.
Desserts were less than exciting: a hazelnut chocolate dacquoise cake with limp meringues and Dreamsicle ice cream that didn’t taste much like a Dreamsicle; pear fritters that were crisply fried, yet lacking in flavor, served with an Armagnac crème anglaise. Best was probably Mimi’s Eagle Brand pie, a faintly lemony affair with a tall layer of toasted meringue.
Courtney Luscher’s two-page wine list includes some good Texas bottlings (2012 McPherson Cellars Roussanne for $35), reliable, food-friendly Italians (2012 Vietti Barbera d’Asti for $40) and good bistro French reds (2008 Château Larose-Trintaudon Bordeaux for $52), and I liked the way a Paul Blanck Pinot Blanc for a reasonable $10 per glass was served — at a lovely temperature and poured from a mini-beaker. But a restaurant called the Grape might take a bit more care with the wines, ensuring the list is up-to-date (one night they were out of two bottles I requested) and serving the reds at the proper temperature (ours were too warm).
Still, all in all, it’s wonderful to see that a restaurant beloved by so many is in such fine form. And something tells me that young Sarah Snow can look forward to a rosy future.
The Grape (3 stars)
Price: $$$ (appetizers, soups and salads $4 to $17; main courses $12 to $34; desserts $8)
Service: Friendly, thoughtful and attentive
Ambience: A cozy, wine-themed bistro
Noise level: Generally quiet enough for easy conversation, but quarters are close, and a noisy party can make things difficult. That was the case one night, causing a couple to move after they’d been seated.
Location: 2808 Greenville Ave., Dallas; 214-828-1981; thegraperestaurant.com
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar. A two-page midpriced wine list includes good Texas bottlings and food-friendly favorites from France and Italy.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor