"What does it look like to you?" my dining companion asked. "A lozenge? A spaceship? An Eberhard eraser?" In the year since Bullion opened downtown, the restaurant has become a defining feature of the Dallas dining scene, if not the city, and maybe a Rorschach test, too. Every Dallasite seems to see something different. I considered the gold-and-glass trapezoid clinging to the belly of the former Belo building, the restaurant's serenely cosseted patrons glimpsed through the windows, and thought: zeppelin passenger deck.
Most things about Bullion point toward the stratosphere: the audacious structure that the Gensler architects designed to hover above us. The shiny spiral staircase that elevates us to that opulent dining room. The chef, Bruno Davaillon, the only Michelin-starred chef in Dallas and one of the most influential, after his five-star turn as executive chef at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek. The decor, by Martin Brudnizki, is meant to evoke a French brasserie, but with none of the casual clichés. This is a room of dark paneled wood and brassy glamour, and it is in fact transporting. We're just not going to Paris.
When Davaillon left the Mansion in 2015 to open Bullion, the Loire native also left behind haute cuisine in favor of cooking the dishes he grew up eating in France. That put Davaillon — and Dallas — at the forefront of a national trend, as classical French cuisine and polished dining rooms make a comeback across the country. Daniel Rose's Le Coucou in New York made the first splash in 2016. Other prominent chefs soon followed with their own takes on poulet and profiteroles: In San Francisco, Dominique Crenn opened Bar Crenn and Corey Lee did Monsieur Benjamin; Jamie Malone has Grand Cafe in Minneapolis and Gavin Kaysen opened Bellecour just outside the city.
Like the others, Davaillon's menu isn't about dutiful reproductions of back-in-the-day dishes (if the day was, like, 100 years ago). These chefs are transforming dish after dish with a fresh, modern sensibility and redefining French cuisine in the process. In Davaillon's case, the best dishes also keep the heartiness and soul of the originals.
His fall menu, begun in full this week, emphasizes game, and a fine place to start is the beautiful pâté en croûte. Last week, it was a lean, toothsome mosaic of venison, pork, pistachio, juniper berries and brandied cherries surrounded by a flaky sienna crust and pickled beets, fennel and frisée. Steak tartare, barely dressed with lemony egg yolk and anchovy, let the terrific grass-fed Texas beef shine. The dab of smoked cream on the side was unnecessary, but a nice touch with potato chips fried to crisp transparency.
Canard à l'orange, a dish that seems more like a dare, is one of the few main courses that Davaillon doesn't rotate off the menu. It's not hard to see why: Two thick slices of duck breast are cooked perfectly, with juicy flesh and crisp skin rubbed with black peppercorns, orange zest, coriander and fennel. The sauce is concentrated with the flavor of duck, balancing bitter and sweet, and offset by the burst of flavor from orange supremes and grilled fennel.
Chevreuil, or venison, is also a deft balance of sweet, sour and savory. Blocks of mild venison saddle, farm-raised in New Zealand, are roasted slowly until they are ultra tender and served with an inky cassis sauce made with black currants, black pepper and a touch of vinegar. A tumble of chestnuts, red-wine poached pear and Swiss chard make it a full celebration of fall.
Steak frites were off the dinner menu on my last visit, but it would be a mistake to miss Davaillon's pommes frites, which are available as a side dish. Each of the square-cut fries is about the size of a finger, with a ridiculously fluffy interior and rough, golden crust — the result of steaming them first, then frying, then freezing and then frying them one more time. They are worth the effort.
Davaillon has said he is a nightmare for pastry chefs, since that's how he began his career. But he seems to have found the ideal match in Ricardo "Ricchi" Sanchez, a Texas native who was previously pastry chef at Stephan Pyles Flora Street Cafe.
Like Davaillon's savory dishes, Sanchez's desserts are somehow lighter, crisper and thinner than the classics they emulate. His minimalist mille-feuille turns the heavy, creamy pastry into a conversation-stopping revelation, with merely two layers of vanilla cream, three disks of crunchy pastry and a touch of dulce de leche. Even chocolate fondant, which arrives plastered in whipped cream and looking like the mound from Close Encounters, has that characteristic lightness and pleasantly bitter edge.
So much about Bullion is so good that it is jarring to find dishes that miss the mark. Poireaux, or leeks, make a stunning visual on the plate, a precise rectangle dotted with toasted hazelnuts and goat cheese, but the vinegar seems to have gone missing in the truffle vinaigrette. L'oeuf poché — a poached egg marooned on a thick sea of wild mushrooms and duck confit — felt like it strolled in from a different restaurant. Ravioli with escargots, which seems to be a signature dish, tasted mainly of the pasta dough and butter; they could have been stuffed with anything.
More startling are lapses in service. On a Friday lunch with two companions, we were inexplicably shown to the worst table in the house — between a service station and the kitchen — when the room was nearly empty. Water was dumped into our glasses without asking if we had a preference. Bread was delivered with no explanation of what was in the basket. Dishes were cleared before all of us had finished.
On another night, when I asked for help with the wine list, the sommelier clutched the list and described the perfect bottle to match our orders: a 2014 Domaine Forey Burgundy. It sounded great and I waited to hear the price. After a short stare-down, I asked to see the list: It was $165 — not a terrible markup, but beyond my budget.
Missteps like those, particularly when ambitions are at this level, are hard to understand, particularly when Davaillon has put so much effort into making his highflying restaurant accessible. The majority of the wines are under $100. He has just started a happy hour where every snack is less than $10. And most of his staff are professional and eager to make diners feel comfortable and explain every dish and drink.
Davaillon has taken risks here, with a menu that has been out of vogue for so long it will be unfamiliar to many diners. With an all-French wine list. With a restaurant that mixes a little intimidation into the gloss.
When the stars align, Bullion is one of the best experiences in Dallas, and beyond. The sensual pleasure of Davaillon's cooking and Sanchez's desserts is perfectly framed by the dazzling design, the Bernardaud china, the zebra stripes of the polished ebony tabletops, the smart wine list. Not to mention the excitement of seeing a culinary movement evolve, as the city's most accomplished chef puts on a display in a gilded room above the center of the city. Most of the time, Bullion indeed ascends to the heights.
Rating: Three and a half stars
Price: $$$ (Dinner starters $7 to $24, mains $28 to $46, plats du jour $31 to $115, desserts $8 to $16. Lunch starters $7 to $16, mains $16 to $26, desserts $8 to $12, two-course prix fixe menu $29. )
Service: Inconsistent. Most servers, brimming with details on every dish and drink, will lead you through surprises on the menu and a sparkling evening. Others will lead you to a terrible table in a near-empty dining room and leave you guessing about your order.
Ambience: The first restaurant from chef Bruno Davaillon is a stunner, suspended in a golden vessel beneath a downtown skyscraper and decorated with brassy elegance. Davaillon's menu of updated French classics is ever-changing, and his sophisticated sensibility flows through the experience, from the historic cocktails to the exquisite desserts by Riccardo "Ricchi" Sanchez.
Noise: Easy listening (69 decibels)
Drinks: Beverage director Andrew Schawel's all-French wine list offers a broad range of styles, regions and prices. Champagnes include a splurgy half-bottle of Krug (at $98, barely above retail). Selections range from edgy natural wines (Matassa 2017 Cuvée Marguerite, $92) to classics (Philippe Alliet 2013 Vielle Vignes Chinon, $68).
Recommended: Rillettes de saumon, pâté en croûte, steak tartare, canard à l'orange, chevreuil, agneau, pommes frites, mille-feuille, pistachio soufflé, 50/50 Martini, Bullion Gin and Tonic
GPS: Two large booths surrounded by red pin-tucked fabric feel designed for a celebration; the banquette along the back wall overlooks the whole room and the twinkling city. Refuse any table in the center of the room between the service station and kitchen access. And if there's no alternative? The full menu is served in the elegant bar.
Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner Monday-Thursday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. and Saturday from 5 to 10:30 p.m.
Reservations: Accepted. Seats in the bar and lounge are reserved for walk-ins.
Credit cards: All major
Health department score: A (98 points; June 12)
Access: Outdoor ramp to an elevator that opens to second-level restaurant and bar
Parking: Valet parking for no charge at lunch and $5 at dinner, with validation
4 stars: Extraordinary (First-rate on every level; a benchmark dining experience)
3 stars: Excellent (A destination restaurant and leader on the DFW food scene)
2 stars: Very Good (Strong concept and generally strong execution)
1 star: Good (Has merit, but limited ambition or spotty execution)
No stars: Poor (Not recommended)
Below 60: Quiet. Maybe too quiet.
60-69: Easy listening. Normal conversation, with a light background buzz.
70-79: Shouty. Conversation is possible, but only with raised voices.
80-85: Loud. Can you hear me now? Probably not.
86-plus: Tarmac at DFW.
Average dinner per person:
$ — $19 and under
$$ — $20 to $50
$$$ — $50 to $99
$$$$ — $100 and over