Saturday night, and the Bishop Arts District is buzzing. Locals in cargo shorts and flip-flops hang out on the patio at Nodding Dog Coffeehouse grousing about the latest McMansion to invade the neighborhood. The see-and-be-seen crowd—decked out in oh-so-carefully distressed denim—have crossed the Trinity River to sip blood orange margaritas at Tillman’s Roadhouse. Meanwhile, well-coiffed ladies and dapper gents smelling of Aqua di Parma and Park Cities old money drop off their Bentleys with the valet at the always-in-good-taste Hattie’s.
It’s an electric sight and a far cry from a community known more for trees, hilly terrain, and sleepy manors, all within the shadow of downtown Dallas. In fact, only five years ago taquerias and home cooking were the dining norm in North Oak Cliff. Now home cooking means venison Frito pie and those same taquerias are fighting to keep pace with their fancier (and pricier) new neighbors.
It’s a culinary revolution spurred by an urban renaissance. For those wanting to live in town, North Oak Cliff is a more affordable option than, say, Uptown. And few understand the revolution better than Kelly Hightower. An Oak Cliff resident, Hightower is Hattie’s former executive chef. Known for its upscale Southern cuisine, the chic eatery is often credited for sparking Bishop Arts’ gastronomic aspirations and transforming the quaint two-block district into a thriving entertainment destination and foodie outpost. Though Hightower didn’t create the entire Hattie’s menu, he took founding chef Lisa Kelly’s creations and built upon their Southern structure. Classic shrimp and grits got a sharp kick from Tabasco-bacon pan gravy. Fried green tomatoes evolved from humble appetizer to glutinous sandwich atop Cheddar foccacia. Tender pork chops competed with a side of savory spoon bread for the spotlight.
And then Hightower was gone, off to open his own restaurant, an occupational hazard for successful chefs. Happily, for Oak Cliff, Hightower stayed put, opening his new place two miles down the road from his former kitchen. Off the beaten path, Kavala is a risky venture. First, it’s in a former Dairy Queen and site of a previously failed restaurant, fried catfish joint Starfish. Looking every bit the fast food hut it once was, the exterior is not particularly beguiling. Second, the location is hard to find. Directions? Sure. Drive past some low-rent auto shops and abandoned storefronts. Ignore the boarded-up apartment buildings. See the drycleaners? You’ve gone too far. Third, Hightower has traded in his Southern sensibilities for the sunny Mediterranean, saying goodbye to pulled pork and hello to pastitsio.
It’s a risky move that has paid off not just for the talented chef but for the community as well. Most nights the tiny restaurant is packed. On the weekends, reservations are a must and for good reason. Hightower’s creations are a savory Mediterranean lot, transforming Kavala from neighborhood spot to destination dining.
Be forewarned: Hightower loves to tweak Kavala’s menu. Your new favorite dish could be missing one visit and then magically reappear the next. It’s a little maddening. An appetizer of pan-fried chicken livers—never a crowd pleaser but a happy discovery for those of us who love them—were lightly fried and tender, void of the organ meat’s typical chalky texture. They were delicious. They were also absent a month later as was the apple-smoked bacon and free-range egg pizza, another favorite. Hightower says that both are “signature dishes” and regular menu items. I didn’t find that to be true. Rather, what Hightower should lose is the lamb spare ribs appetizer. The meat was flabby and flavorless. Dollops of pesto helped but couldn’t save the dish.
Better are Kavala’s Greek offerings. Hightower freshens classic dishes, lightening the seasoning and oil but never sacrificing flavor. We’ve all had hummus that’s either too oily or gummy. Kavala gets it right: its roasted garlic hummus is silky smooth with just enough spice. The same can be said for the restaurant’s spin on spanakopita. Hightower plays it light as an appetizer, dropping the hard-to-say name as well as the eggy filling. On the menu it’s simply called spinach and feta in phyllo pastry and the result is a tangy, sharp mélange surrounded by delicate pastry.
The hardest decision you’ll have to make at Kavala is whether you want a traditional entrée or a pizza for dinner. Chicken souvlaki, pastitsio (Greek lasagna for newbies), and mousaka are all solid hits: nothing revelatory nor do they need to be. The Greek island stew, however, is Hightower showing off his flair with fish, something he did regularly at Hattie’s. Fragrant with saffron and fennel, chunks of sea bass, octopus, and mussels swim in a zesty tomato broth. It’s a hearty stew that works well now but will fit autumn’s cooler climate to a T.
On another visit, our table decided to make a meal of the pizzas. Hightower installed a brick oven at Kavala and the results are oregano-infused crusts that are crispy thin on the bottom yet chewy and thick on the outer edges. The pies are inventive, including a cheese pizza with fontina, pecorino, and smoked mozzarella, and what amounts to a Caprese pizza (sliced tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil). Both were delicious but the table favorite was the decidedly Greek offering with spinach, olives, feta, and peppers. You’d best love olives if you order this pie.
Desserts change nightly, and if the baklava is offered, order it. Unlike the sugary, gooey mess served in many Greek restaurants, Kavala’s is sweet and nutty with a flaky crust. A chocolate torte was a bit less dense than preferred. But the homemade gelatos were cool, creamy solace, particularly the one made with saffron.
Hightower has done a lot with very little when it comes to Kavala’s atmosphere. Though the restaurant’s exterior is plain Jane, the interior is comfy and cozy. A tiny lounge and slate bar at the front add ambience to the small space. A new patio to the side is thoughtful but a box fan whirling in the corner reminds diners that they’re not in Uptown anymore. The lone quibble I hear about Kavala—and one I agree with—is the service. Though always thoughtful and friendly, it can be a bit erratic. Some waiters can make deft recommendations while others forget to tell you the nightly specials. It’s a common problem for young restaurants and especially for those in North Oak Cliff. Most experienced servers prefer the tonier digs and potentially bigger tips north of the Trinity.
But with new eateries arriving with surprising regularity (Café Madrid recently opened a second location and Café Italia has one on its way), North Oak Cliff’s reputation as a sleepy neighborhood is quickly evolving into Dallas’ new dining hotspot. Some developers are calling it the next Uptown. Thanks to Hightower and his brethren, the rest of us just call it delicious.
Get contact information for Kavala.