Was it the canapé, served on a translucent leaf of compressed romaine holding butter-poached Alaskan crab, avocado mousse and dabs of green tomato jam? Or perhaps the modernist version of Frito pie, an austere little cube of shortbread made with Fritos-infused milk and brisket juices, set upon a puddle of cheddar cheese sauce and topped with threads of crisp brisket?
But after a seven-course audition for the job of executive chef at Stephan Pyles' new tasting-menu restaurant, we have a winner: Diego Fernandez, a chef de partie at the Michelin three-star Alinea in Chicago, will head the exclusive 16-seat restaurant, which will be called Fauna. It will be tucked within Pyles' elegant Flora Street Cafe in the Dallas Arts District and will open for one seating a night, five nights a week, starting in mid-May.
"He just bowled us over," said Pyles, who had three chefs from high-profile restaurants around the country cook a seven-course tryout last week. Like the rest of us, Pyles snapped cell-phone shots throughout the meal, which he shared with captions like "the glorious scallops mousse."
"I can't even explain how light and airy it was," he said. "It was remarkable, it was perfect, I think it will go on the menu."
Fernandez has ambitious plans of his own. "I'm really looking to set Dallas on a stage where perhaps it has never been before," he said on the phone from Chicago. " I want Flora Street Cafe to be nationally recognized. That requires memorable food, but also personality and some theater. It will be a multifaceted dining experience."
It turns out that the tryout wasn't the first time Fernandez has cooked for Pyles: Back in 2015, Fernandez had a restaurant of his own in San Antonio called Starfish, which was named one of the 10 restaurants of the year by Texas Monthly. Both chefs remember Pyles dining at the seafood spot -- which featured dishes such as cobia pibil, with tamarind gastrique, favas and blue corn sope -- though neither can recall what was ordered. "Roast chicken, with some kind of modern touch?" Pyles ventures.
Fernandez seems to have the ideal resume for the job, starting almost from childhood. He was born in Mexico City and his father, Rene, cooked at resorts throughout Mexico before moving the family to San Antonio when Diego was 12 and opening Azuca, a pan-Latin restaurant that he still runs there.
"I have vivid memories of watching my father as a kid," Fernandez says. "I remember him butchering a huge marlin freshly caught off the coast -- it was the first time I'd seen my father with a knife in his hand doing what a chef does, taking a product and manipulating it in a way that's unforgettable. I don't know at what point exactly I started to want to cook myself, but that memory is very important."
He went on to study at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, where he graduated in 2010, and polished his skills at two Michelin three-star restaurants: Grant Achatz's modernist Alinea in Chicago, where dessert may arrive in an edible helium balloon, and Michael Tusk's modern Italian restaurant Quince in San Francisco, particularly known for its ethereal pastas. Fernandez describes his own cooking style as something between Quince's emphasis on great local ingredients and Alinea's wizardry on the plate.
"I like working with a product that is at its best and in season," he says, "then slightly manipulating in way you haven't eaten it before."
Once he arrives in Dallas, Fernandez plans to focus on building relationships with local farmers, while Pyles focuses on finishing up the new restaurant and hiring a pastry chef. Pyles is looking for a "creative" newcomer who will be responsible for desserts at both Flora Street and Fauna.
Fauna will be located in Flora Street's former private dining room, and the pastry kitchen is being turned into a dedicated Fauna kitchen, which will be open to the intimate dining room.
The décor will have a foresty vibe that contrasts with the brightness of the main restaurant, Pyles says, with a Michael Thompson installation artwork on the ceiling made of waxed crepe myrtle branches. There will be antlers of course, and a darker taupe color, dynamic artwork and a game dish of some kind on every menu. The 10- or 12-course tasting will cost $250 including pairings, and $150 without.
How will Fernandez use this backdrop in his theatrical approach to dining? "Honestly I don't want to give an answer to that question yet," he says. "It's going to be a surprise to everyone."