Think of Restaurant Ava as York Street on Lake Ray Hubbard. Like Sharon Hage’s beloved restaurant, Ava’s mission is fine New American cooking made from fresh and, where possible, locally sourced ingredients served in a casual atmosphere. Comb the résumés of the principals—Randall Copeland, Nathan Tate, and Christopher “Teddy” Bryant—and you will find upscale restaurants such as the Green Room, Bolsa, and Fearing’s listed along with names of culinary luminaries such as Michael Mina, Mario Batali, and Wolfgang Puck. The threesome has an impressive history. So what is this illustrious group of talented chefs doing in a small restaurant in Rockwall, Texas? They are doing what they want to do: cooking and serving great food, having some fun, and saving the planet all at the same time.
The menu options range from burgers to a five-course chef’s tasting menu. In between, there are steaks, seafood, and vegetarian options. Social consciousness abounds. They source their foods from such area outfits as Barking Cat Farm and Windy Meadows (and use Bolsa chef Graham Dodds’ honey). Whatever you choose, Ava’s take will be creative. What could be a simple squash soup is elevated to greatness. Rich butternut sweetness swims through layers of texture created by sinking brunoise cubes of squash into the mix and layering sage leaves on the surface. Clever complexity at a small price.
Restaurant Ava pays homage to the late, great Green Room. The kitchen “covers” its famous mussels by steaming the beautiful bivalves in a broth of ginger, jalapeños, shiitake mushrooms, garlic, and Champagne. Texas quail gets the royal treatment. The birds are wood roasted and served with sweet corn risotto.
The wine list is inspired and contains selections that step outside the usual Cabernet-Chardonnay mass-market labels. Here they urge you to stretch your palate and perhaps try a Rueda from Spain or a Viognier from Texas.
Don’t skip dessert. Every one we’ve tried at Ava is memorable. The chocolate sticky toffee pudding is a sweet, chewy, chocolaty piece of indulgence, and the blueberry cheesecake with Callebaut white chocolate and fresh blueberries is infused with rich fruit and cream cheese.
The atmosphere at Ava is casual yet sophisticated—which is what Rockwall itself is striving for. At the front, a counter overlooks the kitchen and provides a great place to sit for single diners or those who like to watch the chefs prepare their food.
The stellar service makes a dining experience at Ava worth the drive. Not only do they consistently show an expert grasp of the ingredients and preparation of the dishes, but they have a sincere passion for their jobs. And that gentle soul of a restaurant is something that big money can’t buy these days. 108 S. Goliad St., Rockwall. —Andrew Chalk
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Unlike some restaurants that are willed into existence by the drive of one man, Maximo bloomed at the crossroads of luck and good timing. Restaurateur Mark Maguire happened to have a handsome new place ready to open in North Dallas just as chef Amador Mora felt ready to leave his former post at Trece. It started as a marriage of convenience, but the partnership has created an offspring that’s easy to love.
Mora worked at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek for 23 years. His tutelage under chef Dean Fearing represents one of the two greatest influences that shaped his cooking. The other was the food he grew up with in Mexico.
The result at Maximo is like a slightly Mexicanized version of the old Mansion menu, at two-thirds the price. Seared snapper with shrimp Veracruz sauce is served over baby green beans with a velvety butternut squash timbale. Chicken is wrapped in a corn husk and topped with roasted garlic essence. And straight out of the Mansion comes steamed salmon, topped with citrus pesto and served with sweet corn mash and jicama slaw. Sweet corn mash—how Fearing can you get?
These days, the Mansion is doing a different kind of food. So is Fearing, who’s now ensconced at the Ritz-Carlton. There’s only one place you can get the kind of food that was, for decades, the best Dallas had to offer: Maximo. —Teresa Gubbins
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Coast Global Seafood
Coast Global has big ideas and a chef to go with them. Joshua Perkins’ worldly résumé includes a stint working under seafood king Eric Ripert. Perkins incorporates techniques and ingredients from around the globe, whether it’s an English-style beer-battered fish and chips or snapper in a curry-lemongrass broth with jasmine rice and papaya salsa.
Dallas endures a seafood ghetto of regional specialties like crawfish and peel-and-eat shrimp. Coast Global’s willingness to rise above that is an act of mercy (its peers, including Oceanaire, Go Fish Ocean Club, and Dallas Fish Market, also deserve credit). Diners here even get the option of ordering a “light” portion at a slightly lower price. But what’s especially liberating about Perkins is the way he exercises his creativity without necessarily making it all about the fish; that fish is at the heart of the menu is merely a happy coincidence.
Coast Global is the latest project from Culinaire, which also owns Nicola’s in Plano and the soon-to-open Nicola’s in Dallas. It feels like a mega-venture, an impression furthered by the plush Shops at Legacy setting and the high-end decor. Designer Paul Draper has installed luxe lighting, murals, and constellations of fish. But the kitchen vibe remains surprisingly small. Beneath the corporate façade beats an indie heart. —T.G.
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Bliss Raw Cafe and Elixir Bar
Does any cuisine generate a stronger true-believer zeal than that of raw food? It’s enough to make the non-meat-eating vegetarian look like a dilettante.
Rawism not only bypasses meat and dairy. It eschews heat, preparing food at moderate temperatures (nothing above 118 degrees) to preserve the natural enzymes. Arriving at this kind of diet is no easy journey in a state as beef happy as Texas. Perhaps that’s why its practitioners are so committed. This tiny, slightly funky restaurant located on an unlikely stretch of Greenville, a few blocks from the Park Lane DART rail station, is home to a community of diners and employees who all seem to be in a, well, blissful state.
Maybe it’s the pizza made from sprouted bread, topped with tomato paste, mixed greens, red onion, and sprouts. Or the “rawsagna” made with thin slices of zucchini, tomato sauce, and “cashew cheese.” Or surely it’s the “Key lime pie” made with an ultra-creamy avocado puree.
Is this for everyone? Hardly. But the ideals being followed at Bliss inject a valuable new set of ideas into the dialogue in a city that for many years was known, culinarily speaking, for one thing: steak. —T.G.
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