I really, really want to love Junction Craft + Kitchen. The boxy, bright little dining room on a Deep Ellum corner is cozy and charming. The tables are well-spaced, the music isn't too loud, and the walls serve as a gallery for the work of local artists. The service is welcoming, warm and smooth.
Junction's provenance is promising, too. It started life in Trinity Groves as Kitchen LTO, a buzzy, high-concept "permanent pop-up" that switched out chefs and decor every six months. The Trinity Groves spot closed abruptly in 2016, but Kitchen LTO was reborn that fall in this current Elm Street spot with Josh Harmon as its first pop-up chef. Then this summer (stay with me here), Kitchen LTO closed again, to be reborn as Junction, with Harmon now its permanent chef.
And Junction hits a lot of the right notes for a hip, postmodern restaurant of the moment. Many of the dishes include local or seasonal ingredients, as well as things that have been foraged, fermented, cultured, smoked, dried or aged. The Southern-focused menus, which change every 10 weeks or so, take comfy classics like deviled eggs, potato salad, quail and shrimp and grits, and torque them in imaginative ways, often using Asian ingredients like kimchi, fish sauce, gochujang and koji (the fungus behind soy sauce and sake).
Junction is playful, too, with cheekily down-market touches like Funyuns, Chicken in a Biskit crackers and a house-made take on Cheez Whiz. The plates -- several of them, anyway -- are lovely to behold, with showerings of herbs and flower petals, sprinklings of seeds and crumbs, and drizzlings of sauce. The house cocktails include some well-thought-out offerings, like the dark and intriguing black Manhattan and the bright white Negroni. There are fine traditional Southern pies and cakes.
So there's lots to love here -- except for, all too often, what lands on the plate. With all the energy and creativity, this is food that often seems more idea- than taste-driven. The plates are frequently incoherent -- over-eager assemblages of too many things that end up in a blurry muddle. Some dishes, especially the more restrained ones, are quite good. One or two are quite awful.
An earlier menu included a couple of fiddly dishes that represented the triumph of appearance over edibility. A ceviche of shrimp and octopus, for example, came in a little hollowed-out cucumber floating in a pool of coconut leche de tigre, the lime-juice-based marinade. The seafood was buried under an artfully arranged display of leaves and stalks and woody stems, an Instagram-worthy elfin forest that would have looked good in a terrarium -- but how was anyone supposed to eat it?
The twigs and stems are largely gone from the latest menu, as are a couple of dishes marred by overpowering sweetness, such as the aptly named Korean sticky duck leg. But some remain hard to eat, and others hard to understand. In the first category is a romaine salad with garlic tahini dressing, pickled corn, smoked mushrooms, "everything dust" made from the toppings you'd find on an everything bagel, and Deep Ellum blue cheese from the nearby Mozzarella Company. It's so salty and acidic as to be almost inedible. Hard to understand: the "tuna on rye" starter, bland hunks of sous-vided tuna with pickled eggs floating in a puddle of fermented buttermilk and sprinkled with crumbs made from Gardetto's Special Request rye chips.
Toddler painters quickly learn that combining too many contrasting colors gives you brown. And so it is with dishes like the roasted root salad, which drenches sweet hunks of celeriac, parsnip and potato in a heavy slurry of smoked egg yolk, charred fermented onion and red-eye gravy with disks of morcilla sausage and sprigs of thyme. Or with the smelt-roe gnocchi topped with crab-fat curry, pickled roast parsnips and egusi pesto (egusi being West African melon seeds, doncha know). Just one or two of those things, please.
Ignore the concatenation of ingredients on the menu, and some things are fine. The duck-fat fried pecans with warm spices and roasted condensed milk are good renditions of the spiced nuts your Southern grandmother might serve for the holidays. But does the duck fat make a meaningful difference? Or the roasted milk? The Brussels sprouts are crisp and savory-sweet in their dressing of caramel fish sauce with pickled pecans, but would I really notice if the mayo didn't have "burnt lime" in it? The snack of koji cultured butter with Chicken in a Biskit crackers, dill salt and radishes seems like, well, a little crock of butter with crackers and radishes. The Benton's ham and tomago sandwiches are nice little bites of Tennessee country ham with Japanese egg salad on crustless brioche, but the accompanying bowl of Gigi's tomato and kimchi soup for dipping doesn't have much on your basic marinara.
Two of the main dishes are just ... disturbing. The gulf shrimp and grits with koji-brined catfish and lump crab is billed as coming with sauce Pontchartrain, a creamy, buttery Creole classic. Here, it's swampy and murky, more reminiscent of the lake than the sauce. And the dry-aged quail is simply dreadful -- pallid, tough, undercooked -- and, oddly for this place, basically naked and alone save for a few leaves.
A couple of the mains are good. The braised boneless short ribs are nicely cooked, tender and moist on their bed of puréed pumpkin congee, topped with a deep espresso-black bean sauce and slices of pickled celeriac. And the Texas Akaushi smash burger is straightforward and satisfying, dressed with house-made American cheese, garlic mayo and pickles on a brioche bun.
That burger is also on offer at brunch, when things are generally a little less overwrought. But then there's the smoked kimchi Bloody Mary: Can anyone really taste the kimchi, let alone that it's smoked? The Bloody Mary is emblematic of what's so frustrating about Junction Craft + Kitchen. There's plenty of effort and creativity here, but too much of the effort seems wasted. And too much of the creativity seems focused on itself rather than on the diner.
Mark Vamos is a journalism professor at Southern Methodist University.
Junction Craft + Kitchen (2 stars)
Price: $$$ (brunch starters $6-$7, main dishes $8-$14, desserts $6-$11; dinner snacks and starters $2-$15, main dishes $14-$26, desserts $6-$10)
Service: Warm, welcoming and professional
Ambience: The small dining room is casual, bright and intimate, with well-spaced tables and clever touches like electrical junction boxes, filled with pebbles, that serve as holders for tea lights. The walls are a rotating gallery for the work of local artists.
Noise level: Low
Location: 2901 Elm St., Dallas; 214-377-0757; junctiondallas.com
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Most recent health department inspection score: 95 (June 25, as Kitchen LTO)
Alcohol: Full bar, with some creative house cocktails, and a generally well-chosen, wallet-friendly list of a couple of dozen wines, many available by the glass
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor