Three years ago, Anthony Dispensa was the star of a reality television show called Say It to My Face. In each episode, Dispensa and his co-host — who together ran Slapfish, a chain of fast-casual seafood spots — would visit a failing restaurant and bring along the angriest Yelpers to confront the owner in person.
It wasn't pretty (with places serving burgers topped with peanut butter and jelly, how could it be?), but then, the two would get to work and retool the menu, spiff up the dining room and pep-talk the staff. Invariably, those same Yelpers would close the episode by smacking their lips and boosting their ratings.
Now Dispensa has embarked on something like a higher stakes version of the show: In July, he quietly became executive chef of the French Room at the Adolphus Hotel, one of the most venerable restaurants in Dallas, after the sudden departures of chef Michael Ehlert and general manager Anthony Cournia. And on this night, after secretively retooling the menu for months, he will debut a completely new lineup of dishes for both the dining room and the bar, including what the hoteliers say is a first for the 106-year-old restaurant: An a la carte menu that will allow diners to order a single dish and call it a night.
"I read Yelp reviews for French Room, I looked at all that stuff," Dispensa says, settling into a window table for his first interview. "I looked at it from the perspective of what we can change."
Until tonight, Dispensa continued to serve Ehlert's fixed-price, modern French menu ($135 for seven courses and $85 for three), and purposely kept a low profile, even steering clear of appearances in the dining room. He concluded that those hours-long dinners were sucking the energy out of the room and it needed the a la carte alternative: a short selection of five first courses ($14 to $22), such as beet risotto and foie gras torchon, and four main courses ($27 to $65), including Long Island duck with butternut squash gel and dry-aged Chicago ribeye with bordelaise sauce.
He kept the cheese cart, for the interactive element, and added oysters from Taylor Shellfish Farms in Washington State and caviar service. A one-ounce portion of either Petrossian Royal Ossetra or Siberian white sturgeon is $158 and $228, respectively, buckwheat blini included.
Early next year, Dispensa plans to add more action to the Room with whole roasted chicken and côte de boeuf carved tableside. His new bar menu has a "bistro approach," with dishes such as poached egg with foie gras cream. The cocktail and wine programs are essentially unchanged.
And no, they are not bringing back the cherub murals: The interiors will remain the same, following the major renovation that debuted under Ehlert and Cournia in 2017.
"It's almost overpowering because it's so beautiful," Dispensa says, still marveling over the grandeur of the dining room. "It's like a cathedral, right? But my vision is for a customer not to feel intimidated when they come in. I want them to feel there's an opportunity for them to sit down and have a few bites and walk out."
And if they want to make a night of it, there is still a separate, five-course tasting menu offering dishes such as cauliflower risotto with caviar, cauliflower gel and brown butter, and Alaskan halibut with beet purée, fennel and horseradish cream. The tab for that is $110, with a standard wine pairing for $60 or a premium pairing for $100.
Dispensa heard about the opening at the French Room when he was working as a chef de partie, or line cook, at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, a Michelin two-star restaurant in London. He went after the job partly because he grew up in Houston, where his father was a geologist working for the oil tycoon George Mitchell, until the family moved to Connecticut when he was 13.
"I felt it was always in the cards to come back to Texas," he says, the place where he first learned to appreciate food and cooking. Bill Landry, owner of Landry's Seafood restaurant in Houston, was a family friend and mentor, before Dispensa enrolled at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.
After that, he worked for chefs Lydia Shire and Jody Adams in Boston, and briefly for Alain Ducasse in New York, where his recipe for cornmeal buttermilk pancakes made the menu at Ducasse's restaurant Benoit. "Ducasse said it was the best pancake he ever had," Dispensa says with a laugh, and yes, he agreed to share the recipe.
He then headed to the California wine country, where he was sous chef to Bradley Ogden at Root 246 before joining the team at Slapfish and making Say It to My Face.
Dispensa became fascinated by Heston Blumenthal after watching YouTube videos of the chef preparing his famous snail porridge and spent two years at Dinner, where he worked his way through every station in the kitchen trying to learn as much as possible. The biggest lesson? "Being completely accurate and completely focused," he says. "Focus is the most import thing to have in a kitchen or you're going to go down. And you can't go down in a kitchen like that."
Now, for the first time, Dispensa is running his own fine-dining establishment. He expects that his version of the French Room will feel a little less rarefied and also a little more energetic. "I want to see that every guest is attended to properly," Dispensa says. "And I will be out in the dining room. I want people to meet me.
"I went to Troisgros," he continues, referring to Maison Troisgros, the Michelin three-star restaurant in Lyons, "and the chef came out and said hello right away. I liked that. That's a great feeling to meet the chef."
And to, well, say whatever you have to say to his face.
Updated on 10/24/2018 to reflect changes in the menu and prices, and to add Dispensa's pancake recipe.