We devote a lot of time and pages to dishing out our opinions on the Dallas restaurant scene. But once a year we like to give local chefs and restaurateurs a chance to tell us what they think. We mail hundreds of ballots to the top restaurants in town, requesting their picks in 13 categories, from best chef to signature dish and everything in between. Only one ballot per restaurant was accepted; duplicates and self-nominations were tossed aside. And, as we soon discovered, the more things change, the more things stay the same. You’ll see a lot of familiar names on this list. Herewith, the winners of the fourth annual Chefs’ Choice Awards. Drumroll, please.
BEST RESTAURANT (TIE)
Sharon Hage, York Street >>
In a realm dominated by men, chef Sharon Hage has quietly built a reputation as one of the finest chefs in Dallas, if not the country. And those men know talent when they see it: they are the very ones who named her Best Chef, and her restaurant, York Street, shares Best Restaurant honors with Lola. Hage honed her skills in some of the city’s top kitchens—Zodiac Room, Salve, Hôtel St. Germain—but she has no interest in basking in the limelight. Her heart lies in York Street, where every night she prepares innovative yet simple dishes using fresh, local ingredients, to the delight of the 40 patrons who are lucky enough to get a seat. York Street is not about flash or sass; the focus here is unabashedly on the plate. From the complimentary sherry, almonds, and herb-bathed olives, to the poached duck egg with truffles or pepper filet with Vidalia onions, to the pure-comfort blueberry buckle, Hage concentrates on your taste buds. 6047 Lewis St. 214-826-0968.
BEST RESTAURANT (TIE)
<< Lola the Restaurant
In 2000, Point West Volvo owner Van Roberts followed a dream and took on the seemingly nightmarish role of restaurateur. And this was not just any restaurant. He was reopening the Victorian house-turned-restaurant that was formerly Barclays, the critically acclaimed spot run by beloved Englishman Nick Barclay. Roberts has not only done justice to his predecessor, but he’s exceeded all expectations—with the fixed-price two-, three-, and four-course menu designed by chef Scott Gottlich (pictured); the award-winning wine program that Roberts himself oversees; and, now, the Tasting Room, where chef David Uygur prepares 10 or 15 small tasting-size portions of rotating epicurean delights. Roberts has taken a hobby and turned it into a masterpiece. Dreams do come true. 2917 Fairmount St. 214-855-0700. www.lola4dinner.com.
BEST PASTRY CHEF
Rick Griggs, Abacus >>
Abacus has never underestimated the power of the pastry. The breadbasket is often a diner’s first taste impression; the dessert frequently the last. Pastry chef Rick Griggs upholds tradition. The El Centro culinary school grad landed a gig as pastry cook, then pastry chef, at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, followed by a spell at Susan Spicer’s Uptown Bakery in New Orleans. Griggs found his way back to Dallas and into the kitchen at Abacus, where he turns out pastries designed to please your eyes as well as your palate. Fabulous focaccia (think caramelized shallot with goat, mozzarella, and Parmesan cheeses) and blue cheese biscuits are just two varieties in the breadbasket. Devil’s food cake with caramel dulce de leche sauce (pictured) and gooey apple almond cake with toffee sauce and vanilla sabayon are sweet endings. 4511 McKinney Ave. 214-559-3111. www.abacus-restaurant.com.
Teiichi Sakurai, Teppo and Tei Tei Robata Bar >>
Teiichi Sakurai was slicing sushi before sushi was chic—in Dallas, at least. There were a few other Japanese joints in town when Sakurai opened Teppo in 1995, but they were missing that intangible ingredient: cool. As evidenced three years later by sibling Tei Tei Robata Bar, Sakurai’s restaurants are just as much about style and substance as sushi and sake—though he never sacrificed quality for design. Dallas palates were ready for exotic tastes (quail eggs, anyone?) and weren’t afraid to pay for it. Even now, his still-hot establishments are packed with discriminating diners eager to dish out big bucks for fresh fish and Kobe beef. No one ever said the best things in life come cheap. Teppo, 2014 Greenville Ave. 214-826-8989; Tei Tei Robata Bar, 2906 N. Henderson Ave. 214-828-2400.
<< Redheaded Slut, The Slip Inn
We appreciate—and listen—when chefs spot culinary talent. But we have more respect for a chef who knows a good dive when he sees one. The Slip Inn, next to a seedy Save-way convenience store on McMillan, is a deliciously dark and dank place, complete with u-shape booths, a jukebox that takes credit cards, and tacky Coors beer posters behind the bar. But what keeps the chefs coming back is the Redheaded Slut, a fruity concoction of—don’t wrinkle your nose—Jagermeister, peach schnapps, and a splash of cranberry, served by the requisite tattooed bartender. The Slut’s available in shots for the hard-core drinkers or on the rocks with more juice for us lightweights. Either way, she’s a winner. 1806 McMillan Ave. 214-370-5988.
BEST RESTAURANT BAR
Dragonfly, Hotel ZaZa
Hotel ZaZa’s flame is still burning bright, especially in the bar at Dragonfly. And who can blame the throngs of pretty patrons who come here to see and be seen? Everything about the place is sexy and exotic, from rich gold and red jewel tones to sumptuous textures such as velvet and silk to high-backed booths perfect for sipping and snuggling. Of course, we wouldn’t expect anything less from this Mediterranean and Asian-inspired Uptown fantasyland, where locals and travelers mix and mingle the night away. A word of caution: watch your Manolo Blahnik step in the Urban Oasis. Better to gaze at the moonlit pool than to swim in it. 2332 Leonard St. 214-550-9500. www.hotelzazadallas.com.
BEST NEW RESTAURANT
Dynamic duo Tristan Simon and chef Nick Badovinus have done it again. But this time they’ve redefined the neighborhood pizza joint. With pizza crust made by pastry chef David Brawley as a base, Badovinus creates chic pies made with top-notch and often locally made ingredients, such as Paula Lambert’s mozzarella, prosciutto, arugula, and pepperoni paired with hand-torn basil retrieved from the herb garden on the roof. Add to that a list of smashing salads (Caesar, heavy on the anchovies), sangria (refreshing white wine peach), and sandwiches (gut-busting meatball grinder), and it’s a can’t-miss combination of casual and cool. 2820 N. Henderson Ave. 214-370-3916.
BEST SIGNATURE DISH
Brisket Tacos, Mia’s Tex-Mex Restaurant >>
For 23 years, Mia’s has been filling our bellies with chiles
rellenos, chile-con-carne-bathed cheese enchiladas, and comforting
tortilla soup, amassing a quasi-celebrity following—including many a
Dallas Cowboy—along the way. Tex meets Mex on a plate of brisket tacos:
melt-in-your-mouth tender brisket, sautéed onions and peppers, and
cheese folded snugly in a grilled flour tortilla (or corn, if you
prefer). We like it dressed with shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes,
and a big wedge of avocado, but sans accoutrements is just fine, too.
We’re glad some things never change.
4322 Lemmon Ave. 214-526-1020.
<< Sonja “Cupcake” McElroy, Double Wide
This nine-year veteran has poured cocktails all over town: McKinney, Greenville, Deep Ellum. But Cupcake (though we suggest you call her Sonja) is currently mixing drinks for folks at the Xpo haunt that gives white trash a good name. Amid velvet paintings, stuffed boars, and a poor little rooster hanging upside-down above the bar, the petite, short-haired, tattooed sweetie with the husky voice swaps stories about dogs, neighbors, and the local bar scene—something she knows a bit about. You can also find her at the new State & Allen Lounge, where she’s been reunited with owner Joe Hickey, an old friend of hers from the Cavern. Ask her to make a bloody Mary. You won’t be disappointed. 3510 Commerce St. 214-887-6510.
We think of three things when we think of Nana: fine food, fine art, and fine service. (Well, maybe four, because the view isn’t too shabby, either.) Local chefs concur, as Nana won this category—along with Best Ambience—in 2002 and last year was the Best Service runner-up. Credit 10-year general manager Paul Pinnell, who leads a team (many behind the scenes) of personnel who provide the type of personal attention that turns customers into regulars. Sure, the food and view are phenomenal, but, as Pinnell points out, a restaurant is only as good as the quality of service it provides. Nana has the power to make any occasion special. Wyndham Anatole, 2201 Stemmons Fwy. 214-761-7470. www.wyndham.com.
BEST VALUE RESTAURANT
For 30 years, this wine bistro has been the go-to destination for a romantic yet affordable night on the town. Thankfully, in all that time, not much has changed. Tiny tables are still covered with red-and-white-checked tablecloths; the changing handwritten menu is still a short but solid list of simple soups, salads, mains, and desserts; the international wine selection is still top-notch. Despite the frenzy of flashier, higher-priced establishments, the Grape hasn’t bent to the trends, offering a lovely, intimate meal that won’t set you back a car payment. Dine on a weeknight before 7 or on a weekend after 9:30 and enjoy a salad or a cup of divine mushroom soup, a selected entrée (such as whole-grain mustard-rubbed salmon), and house-made sorbet or crème brûlée for just $18.95. Enjoy some wine with your meal for as little as $18 a bottle. Your wallet never had it so good. 2808 Greenville Ave. 214-828-1981.
BREAKOUT TALENT OF THE YEAR
<< Aaron Staudenmaier, Jasper’s
His peers may have named him Breakout Talent, but Aaron Staudenmaier
is no stranger to the Dallas culinary scene. He spent three and half
years in the high-profile kitchen at the Mansion on Turtle Creek before
landing the lead cook position at the Inn at Little Washington in
Virginia. Staudenmaier returned to Dallas in 1999 to be the executive
sous chef at Kent Rathbun’s award-winning Abacus, then took the reins
at Jasper’s, where he creates dishes that use the “standards of
American Cuisine”: almond-crusted rainbow trout, Texas peach barbecued
pork tenderloin, ancho barbecued baby back ribs (a favorite of
Staudenmaier), hickory-grilled Black Angus filet. It’s billed as
“gourmet backyard cuisine”—a concept literally born in Rathbun’s
backyard—but our grills never turned out anything so good. 7161 Bishop
French Room >>
Whatever the question, a “yes” is practically assured in the romantic rococo dining room of the Adolphus’ crown jewel. Picture this: arched 18-foot ceilings painted with murals of the heavens, cherubs smiling down upon you; enormous Murano chandeliers with hand-blown Venetian glass bathing you with light; marble floors gleaming under your feet; impeccably dressed, formally attired service staff catering—unobtrusively, of course—to your every whim. Bien sûr, all this provides the perfect backdrop to award-winning chef William Koval’s French cuisine. We can’t help but say, “I do.” The Adolphus, 1321 Commerce St. 214-742-8200. www.hoteladolphus.com.
Photos: Hage: Dan Sellers; Lola: Doug Davis; Abacus: Kevin Hunter Marple; Sakurai: Dan Sellers; Slut: Doug Davis; Tacos: Kevin Hunter Marple; Cupcake: Doug Davis; Jasper’s: Dan Sellers; French Room: Courtesy of the Adolphus