I felt as hungry as if I hadn't eaten in 3,500 years.
Creating my mummy costume had taken so much of the day, I'd skipped lunch. I don't usually dine out in costume, but it was Halloween -- just the night to slip into Proof + Pantry unrecognized. One thing I hadn't considered when wrapping yards of muslin and cheesecloth strips around my head: Eating might be a challenge. Garlic butter and bread crumbs clung to my cheesecloth-crusted chin as I sent a fork spearing a gulf oyster broiled with the stuff into my slit of a mouth. My guests, a crazed doctor, a scary nurse and a pirate, tried to contain their mirth.
A few weeks earlier, when I'd made my first review visit to Michael Martensen and Sal Jafar II's new restaurant in One Arts Plaza, Martensen recognized me, and announced to my guests at the end of a completely delightful evening that he and his partners didn't want me reviewing their restaurant. Therefore, he said, they wouldn't accept my credit card as payment. If they comped me, they apparently thought, I'd be prevented from writing a review.
They thought wrong; they couldn't comp me. I left cash on the table.
But restaurant reviews for The Dallas Morning News require at least two visits, so I'd have to figure out a way to get back in. Something told me I wouldn't be welcomed.
That's why, for my last review visit as an anonymous critic, I went incognito -- really incognito.
I have a hard time understanding what Proof + Pantry's owners were afraid of. Both times I dined there, friends in tow, we all had a wonderful time and quite liked the food.
Oyster lovers might high-tail it over there on a Thursday night, when East Coast oysters are on special for 25 cents apiece if you buy a $20 glass of Ruinart Champagne or a bottle for $100. What a kick to get a couple of dozen briny Malpeques for six bucks!
A ham tasting was considerably less of a bargain at $50, $25 of which was a supplement for shaved slices of a mahogany-colored, glossy, dense Mangalica ham from Hungary. With an intense, almost sweet nuttiness, it brought to mind Spain's jamón ibérico. Benton's Country Ham from Tennessee and shaved Serrano were represented as well, along with a fabulous smoked ham from Texas, plus olive-oil-drizzled baguette toasts, quartered Black Mission figs, pickled mustard seeds and pickled purple cauliflower.
In fact, while it's possible to get out with your billfold intact if you stick with a few bar snacks or otherwise order carefully, Proof + Pantry, a chef-driven gastropub with outstanding cocktails, can be quite expensive, especially if you choose to make it a dinner destination.
The chef is Kyle McClelland, a New York transplant who's also executive chef at Martensen and Jafar's other restaurant, Driftwood. His plates are stylish, produce-driven and often pretty impressive, in the same vein as those at Driftwood.
His radishes cloaked in perfect sheaths of pale butter, set on rye-crumb "soil" mingled with crispy quinoa and arranged with radish greens, are visually stunning, and they make a nice way into dinner -- perhaps enjoyed with a cocktail.
Martensen was a star barman before becoming a restaurateur (along the way he was behind the Cedars Social and Smyth, with which he's no longer associated). Not surprisingly, the drinks -- parceled into "no proof" (nonalcoholic), "low proof" (think of them as aperitifs) and "high proof" -- are terrific. I loved the high-proof If You Were Here, a demure-looking, beautifully balanced mix of gin, French orange cordial, dry vermouth, dandelion bitters and orange oils, served up and garnished adorably with an orange twist attached to the glass with a tiny clothespin. Staulks of Rye, a tall rocks drink with rye, celery soda, lemon juice and bitters, appealed to my inner whiskey lover.
Now you're ready to get serious about the menu.
McClelland has a way with pasta, as with a chittara-like handmade spaghetti dolled up with charcoal-smoky lobster morsels, shaved Asiago and thin-sliced trumpet mushrooms. Halloween night we sprang $55 for a simple yet wonderful dish of handmade fettuccine tossed in butter and Parmesan and adorned liberally with shaved white truffles. It would be nice, though, if the service matched the glammy ingredients and high prices; truffles could be shaved tableside, adding a lovely whoosh of that marvelous aroma. In any case, we shouldn't have had to ask for the plates we'd used for the garlicky broiled gulf oysters to be replaced.
The menu is a little hard to figure out. One night we're told all the plates are meant for sharing; the other night we're told some are for sharing, others are for one. In any case, most were easily shared.
There were pretty florets of roasted cauliflower in pale yellow, green and purple that mingled with nuggets of fried sweetbreads on a silky cauliflower purée. Golden raisins, whose flavor worked nicely with dabs of fenugreek aioli, were strewn about.
A whole chicken, beautifully roasted, came to the table carved, with a good jus spooned around. I didn't feel the out-of- season green and white asparagus garnish worked with the baby kale leaves, some fried and some raw, but the crisp-skinned bird was delicious.
On Halloween night, we ordered the $77 rib-eye steak on the regular menu, but when we asked our waiter if we had ordered enough, he suggested that a $125 bone-in 45-day-dry-aged rib-eye running as a special would be preferable, as it was larger -- 28 ounces. It came to the table sliced into gorgeous medium-rare slabs and arranged over marble potatoes confited in duck fat (a great idea, though they could have been cooked a little more), roasted carrots and some superfluous barely cooked green beans; fried kale leaves were the crowning garnish. The beef's flavor was excellent though not extraordinary, but a good deal had been left on the bone. We carved that up ourselves and it was crazy-good.
Not all dishes were equally successful. The unlikely combination of raw slices of fatty mackerel, wedges of late-season plum and crushed, spiced pumpkin seeds worked surprisingly well as a crudo, but the sweet lime gel under each slice of fish was one note too many, a discordant one. A $26 "binchotan grill" -- binchotan is Japanese charcoal -- involved three chargrilled spot prawns, their pinky-size bodies a bit shriveled and overcooked, their heads severed (Should we eat them?) and a few soft pieces of glazed freshwater eel. A pool of sticky sauce that tasted like reduced vinegar and coffee was unpleasantly bitter.
Our waiter was aggressive with the wine upselling on Halloween. When our crazed doctor asked for a wine suggestion, the waiter suggested a California red with a $100-plus price tag. He couldn't muster enthusiam for anything closer to our price range -- $50 or $60. We wound up with a delightful 2011 Nicolas Perrin Crozes-Hermitage for $85. The second glass poured from that bottle didn't quite go around; I had just a sip in my glass, and we were still waiting for our main courses, so we had to order another bottle. The waiter's suggestion? The $100-plus California red.
In fact, our food took eons to appear. We were still there when a foursome that we had chatted with when we arrived at 7:15, as they were just finishing up, returned for dessert. In the meantime, they said, they had enjoyed an entire symphony at the nearby Meyerson Symphony Center.
We didn't mind, as we were having a great time, and the waiter was darling enough to take our picture. There were two desserts on offer that night, a deconstructed chocolate pavlova (log of ganache, poufs of toasted Swiss meringue, passion fruit gel, chocolate crumbs), and a trio including a forgettable banana muffin, a lovely herb-scented brownie and a lemon bar with caramel sauce, the best of all.
McClelland is definitely a chef to watch, and flaws aside, Proof + Pantry is a sexy, fun addition to One Arts Plaza. I hope 3,500 years don't pass before I'm allowed to return.
Proof + Pantry (3 stars)
Price: $$$-$$$$ (dinner appetizers $10 to $25, main courses to share $44 to $125, desserts $8 to $9)
Service: Attentive and warm one night; another night heavy on the upsell
Ambience: High-energy gastropub with a lively bar, comfortable banquettes and a buzzy vibe
Noise level: Quiet enough for easy conversation one night when the music was fairly low; fairly noisy on a Wednesday when music was cranked higher
Location: One Arts Plaza, 1722 Routh St., Dallas; 214-880-9940; proofandpantry.com
Hours: Tuesday-Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Saturday-Sunday
4 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar, with a terrific list of craft cocktails. A pricey, one-page global wine list includes only three bottles of red priced less than $60; most reds are over $100 per bottle.
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