From Highland Park, Sachet takes diners on a thrilling Mediterranean voyage

It was a pretty safe bet that a new restaurant from the couple behind the delightful Gemma on Henderson Avenue would be intriguing. But Sachet, which Stephen Rogers and Allison Yoder opened in September in the Shops of Highland Park, is more than that: It's electrifying. The airy white dining room fairly crackles with energy, the lengthy menu is bursting with ideas, and the food is thrilling.

Its French name notwithstanding, Sachet styles itself as Mediterranean. That might smack of cliché and confusion. After all, there's scarcely a souvlaki counter or spaghetti joint that doesn't also call itself Mediterranean these days. And the Med's waters lap the shores of everywhere from Spain to Syria -- not to mention splashing on places like Croatia and Libya along the way. So what can Mediterranean food actually be?

Rogers' answer: vivid, fresh and imaginative. Consider the meze, a list of almost two dozen tapas-sized bites, all of them vegetarian and all served at room temperature in a handsome assortment of earthenware crocks and plates. The variety is astonishing: Some feel Spanish, others Greek, Turkish or Middle Eastern. But in every case, Rogers coaxes great flavor from humble vegetables in intriguing combinations.

In one meze, perfectly cooked chunks of yellow beets perch on a pool of blazingly scarlet red-beet "hummus" with tahini, the whole thing topped with bright-white dollops of tangy labneh, the strained Middle Eastern yogurt, and sprinkled with fresh oregano. OK, it's just root vegetables, but it's so smart, thanks to the contrasting textures of the chunky and the pureed and the creamy, and the interplay of sweet and tart and intensely beety.

A collection of meze: Shown (clockwise from left) are yellow beets with red beet hummus, oregano and labne; pickled turnips with Syrian red lentil puree and roasted shallot: and french lentils, muhamarra, piquillo peppers and walnuts.

And if you can make hummus out of beets, why not tabbouleh out of carrots? Here, the chopped carrots play the role of bulgur wheat, tossed with currants, parsley, lemon juice and a touch of jalapeño for a lovely juxtaposition of sweet and spicy.

Then there are the French lentils, cooked until just slightly al dente. They sit on a bed of brick-colored muhammara, the dip made from pureed roasted red peppers and walnuts made spicy with Aleppo pepper, and get a lovely crunch from the handful of walnut pieces tossed on top. And who would have guessed the enjoyment lurking in the modest turnip, which comes brightly pickled, its acidity tempered by its accompaniment of red lentil puree? Or in the gently stewed Lebanese okra, slicked with oil and a touch of tomato, and zapped with intense coriander? The list goes on, one clever invention after another, at $14 for a selection of three meze or $21 for five. All by themselves, they'd make a great light supper at the big rectangular bar.

But then you'd miss the varied pleasures of the rest of the menu. The appetizers and pastas steer more toward the western end of the Med, but some have intriguing Levantine or North African notes. Take the fine stuffed squid, three bodies filled with zippy lamb merguez sausage. They swim in a light tomatoey broth with crunchy Marcona almonds and meaty green olives -- the whole thing amped up with a touch of harissa, the Tunisian paste of hot peppers and coriander. A more straightforwardly Italian starter is the pizetta, a soft-and-crispy, Neapolitan-style pizza that's baked in the big Mugniaini wood-fired oven that dominates the open kitchen in the back of the dining room. Topped with fontina cheese and cream, crispy kale and assorted mushrooms, it's no less creative and well thought out.

Rogers turns out some innovative pastas, too, all house-made. He works pureed green garlic and nettle into tortiglioni (a tubular pasta), slicks them with salsa verde and tops them with mushrooms and shavings of parmesan for a green, herbaceous blast. The casarecce, pleasantly chewy twists, come with a meaty lamb ragu that gets a Turkish twist from cinnamon, pomegranate molasses and spoonfuls of labneh. The squid ink spaghetti is a pleasure, too, deep-black pasta generously studded with chunks of sweet lobster meat in a light, fresh sauce of tomato and white wine with a subtle exotic note from star anise.

Along with all these fireworks, you'll find one of the most interesting wine lists in Dallas -- dozens of bottles not just from Italy, Spain and France but also from lesser-known wine producers like Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Morocco and, yes, Slovenia and Corsica. Many are available by the glass, including a dozen or so on tap. Sachet's sommelier, Cameron Cronin, is a friendly and knowledgeable guide to this often-unfamiliar terrain. The list also features a selection of sherries and even vermouths that go beautifully with the meze. And you should definitely start the festivities off with one of the Spanish gin and tonics -- especially the aromatic one with San Francisco's No. 209 Gin and Sachet's house-made, scarcely sweet tonic.

Restaurants that do a great job with snacks and starters often seem to run out of energy and ideas when they get to the main courses. Not Sachet. The inventive pleasures continue with dishes like the grilled branzino, a simpler plate that's all about execution: The two fillets of fish are perfectly cooked, moist and tender with a touch of smokiness from the grill. They're laid atop a fluffy lemon vinaigrette that's like the lightest mayonnaise, with Marcona almonds scattered on top. A dish of duck leg and duck sausage is a little more complex -- a crispy-skinned confit leg with a fat, juicy thumb of rich house-made sausage. All that meatiness is cleverly offset with a light salad of baby spinach, dried apricot, and fregola, the bead-like semolina pasta.

Duck leg and duck sausage with fregola salad, apricots and pine nuts.

Another main, the Iberico secreto, is a hands-down knockout. This "secret" cut of pork from Spain is reminiscent of skirt steak -- nicely chewy and slightly nutty from the acorns the Iberico pigs eat. It's served grilled, with a great smoky sear, and cooked medium-rare to retain the juiciness of this unusual meat. It comes atop a pile of patatas bravas, Spanish-style chunky fried potatoes, and two dazzling sauces -- a reddish-orange pimiento sauce that thrums with the essence of red pepper and a bright-green mojo verde made from cilantro and garlic, a specialty of the Canary Islands. It is, to say the least, a dish you will not find anywhere else in town.

I also loved the whey-braised crispy pork shank, one of a handful of "family-style" dishes meant to serve two or more. The big bone of soft, porky meat lolls in a pool of porcini-scented risotto made with farro, the Italian wheat, instead of rice. The shank is dressed with a splash of sharp salsa verde made from arugula.

After all that, the desserts seem soothingly restrained, even austere: a fluffy little almond cake topped with lemon-thyme ice cream, huckleberry compote and crispy granola; a scarcely sweet scoop of strained yogurt on a pile of brown-butter crumble with some bits of stewed Asian pear on top.

With such a complex menu of so many moving parts -- and the demands of a packed house -- the kitchen still seems to be working out a few kinks: There can be occasional long lulls between courses. But Yoder's front of the house runs like clockwork, with friendly, professional and precise service. You might find yourself wishing more had been done to soften the acoustics in this room of white brick and subway tile, where the sound can be almost deafening. That's because Sachet is filled every night with people who are happy and excited. And so they should be.

Mark Vamos is a journalism professor at Southern Methodist University.

Owners Stephen Rogers and Allison Yoder photographed at Sachet restaurant.

Sachet (4 stars)

Price: $$$-$$$$ (meze $14 for three or $21 for five; salads, appetizers and pastas $5-$16; main dishes $19-$34; family-style dishes for two or more $36-$84; desserts $7-$9)

Service: Graceful, knowledgeable and professional

Ambience: The large dining room has extensive windows and a rectangular bar along one side. The rear has an open kitchen with a big wood-fired oven. There's a dramatic glassed-in wine cellar at the front. The tables have warm, casual touches: Silverware comes nestled in little burlap sleeves with embroidered herbs; most of the plates are handsome earthenware.

Noise level: Quite loud when the room is full, which it usually is

Location: 4270 Oak Lawn Ave., Dallas; 214-613-6425;

Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 5 to 11 p.m.

Reservations: Accepted

Credit cards: All major

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Most recent health department inspection score: Not yet available

Alcohol: Full bar, with some terrific specialty gin-and-tonics and other house cocktails, plus an extensive, imaginative wine list with unusual offerings from Greece, Lebanon, Turkey and elsewhere. Many are available by the glass. There are also a half-dozen sherries and a similar number of vermouths.

Ratings legend

5 stars: Extraordinary

4 stars: Excellent

3 stars: Very good

2 stars: Good

1 star: Fair

No stars: Poor

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