A group of thirtysomethings surrounds a long table cluttered with plates, wine bottles, and wrapped gifts. They hoist glasses and clink them together in a series of toasts. It’s easy to spot the birthday girl. Restaurateur Shawn Horne stands by her side, his arm resting on the back of her chair. She adjusts her long, brown ponytail, looks up at Horne, and says something we can’t hear. It must be funny. Horne’s infectious laugh carries across the noisy room.
The charismatic 40-year-old with spiky, white-tipped hair and thick, black glasses has charmed diners with that laugh for more than 20 years. His first job in Texas was as a waiter at Bennigan’s on Park Lane. From there, he went to Gershwin’s, Star Canyon, AquaKnox, Green Room, York Street, Ferré, Abacus, Five Sixty, and Dish. At each spot, his base of loyal customers has grown.
Horne has done more than wait tables. Between his Abacus and Five Sixty stints, in December 2005, he opened Kitchen 1924 in Lakewood. The cozy spot with communal tables made from recycled bowling lanes developed a cult following, and fans were shocked when the restaurant closed abruptly in July 2008, when the undercapitalized venture went broke. Heartbroken over the loss, Horne “got a job” at Five Sixty, but he knew his days of working for someone else were over. “I’m a great boss but a terrible employee,” Horne says. “I love being in the business of taking care of people.” It’s apparent he does that well. In addition to his fans, co-workers, too, follow him wherever he goes.
Earlier this year, Horne announced he was opening Horne & Dekker with his buddy Flynn Dekker, who was a marketing executive for Fogo de Chão, Bennigan’s, Steak and Ale, Pizza Hut, FedEx Office, and EMI Music. “He’s the yin to my yang,” Horne says. “He’s all business and marketing savvy and great with the books. I am the creative, culinary, front-of-the-house guy.”
At this point, their venture suffers from all that creativity and marketing savvy. The printed material for Horne & Dekker is peppered with corny jokes. The menu doesn’t bother with descriptions for items such as Foghorne Leghorne (chicken) or Duck, Duck Irish goose with bacon. (Pâté? No, duck confit.) The formal announcement proclaimed: “We’re deadly serious when it comes to our food. We like to call it gourmet comfort food. It’s sort of like the stuff your mom would cook if she were a ninja.” Rimshot.
I have a sense of humor, but I expect a menu to make me hungry. I’ll smile if you list chicken as Foghorne Leghorne, but I’ll buy if you tantalize my taste buds with a sumptuous description. Is the chicken roasted, baked, fried? You don’t know until you have your waiter’s attention.
Horne & Dekker’s interior design follows the same principles that Horne used at Kitchen 1924 (like much of the menu). The monochromatic walls feel austere, especially when the place is empty, but Horne says he prefers “the color to come from the food, the customers, and the art.” The result is visually confusing. One side of the room is white, with an art gallery vibe. Framed photos of Horne’s travels hang in a line. The opposite side is a tall wooden wall, topped with a row of empty wine bottles, that appears to have been ripped out of a tavern. Long, slender, off-white light fixtures hang over the tables in the center of the room and radiate a contemporary ambience that feels at odds with the orange-and-brown plaid Western shirts from Old Navy that the waitstaff wears. If he was going for Urban Hoedown Chic, Horne hit the mark.
Traces of Pulcinella and Urbino Pizza e Pasta, the two restaurants that preceded Dekker and Horne in the two-year-old space, remain—most notably the expensive wood-burning oven. A roll-top garage door separates the front patio from the main dining room. The side walls of the outdoor area are covered with green AstroTurf and a TV.
Despite the impressive credentials of both Horne and Dekker, the restaurant has gotten off to a rocky start. With the exception of service and decor, almost everything has been tweaked since my first visit. James Sleeth, the original chef—excuse me, kitchen manager (Horne feels the executive chef title denotes “too much baggage”)—has been replaced by Corey Smith, who ruled the kitchen at Dish when Horne was general manager there. Smith was in the kitchen for my last two suppers, and the quality of the food improved under his watch. For the summer, he ditched the complimentary demitasse of hot chicken ginger broth for cold melon agua fresca (the broth will return this winter).
Smith, though, hasn’t managed to right the sad state of the Dr Pepper-braised pork carnitas. On three occasions, I was served stringy, overcooked pork slapped on grilled flour tortillas. As soon as I picked one up, warm rust-colored juice ran down my arm and under my shirt. I wasn’t alone. After witnessing my difficulty, the woman at the table next to me wrapped a napkin around the base of hers, only to have the same liquid squirt onto her white dress.
Thankfully, Smith has removed his predecessor’s version of sea scallops. I’ve never seen such tiny scallops for $20. Not only were they bite-size, they were overcooked. Any flavor they might have had was overwhelmed by tobiko, fresh ginger, and wasabi. Gourmet comfort food it was not.
A few weeks after we experienced a disastrously dry, almost burnt, Foghorne Leghorne, we returned to find a juicier rendition. A small dollop of whipped, skin-on Kennebec mashed potatoes accompanied the bird, but why the kitchen serves it with a side of thick mayonnaise-based dip in place of natural au jus is beyond me. Instead, I recommend the fried chicken. It is roasted, battered, and fried. The result is moist meat covered with a light, almost tempura crust.
I was disillusioned when I saw that the kitchen had fallen victim to the mac-and-cheese-itis that has infected nearly every menu in town. Initially, Horne & Dekker served a side of house-made spaetzel scented with brown butter and sage. To my horror, they switched the dish. Now the little dumplings are baked in a casserole of bubbling Danish blue cheese, Parmesan, and queso fresco. I must be the only gal in town who avoids this “gourmet” item. My guests had no problem devouring the whole dish.
On all four visits, salads were superb. The “house specialty” chop salad is actually chopped. I love a properly chopped salad, and it’s rare to find one in Dallas. One forkful of Horne & Dekker’s version contains tiny particles of every ingredient: romaine lettuce, tomatoes, gold raisin, English cucumber, and Danish blue cheese crumbles tossed in poppy seed vinaigrette.
At the height of the summer season, the kitchen added grilled Texas peaches to a bowl of field greens mixed with a tart strawberry balsamic dressing. It was so hot one evening that nothing on the menu sounded appetizing. Our nice waiter noted our lethargy and suggested adding a 4-ounce piece of blackened tuna to a bed of romaine and spinach drizzled with a light basil cilantro dressing. It was a nice touch and greatly appreciated.
Once he realized we were damsels in distress, he continued his culinary rescue. “Ladies, the guys who own the restaurant worked really hard to offer wine that pairs with food,” he said with great flair. “I recommend a bottle of Lemelson Vineyards Pinot Gris. It is from Oregon’s great Willamette Valley, and 2008 was a superb year.” Within minutes, he reappeared and made a big show of decanting the bottle, an unnecessary ceremony for a young white wine. “Ladies, I also recommend you let this sit out for a few minutes to allow for the whole bouquet to develop.” As soon as he turned away, we rolled our eyes and drained the liquid into four glasses. The bouquet would have to wait.
Overall, the waitstaff at Horne & Dekker is well-educated and overcomes the confusion created by the writing on the menu. Halfway through one meal, I was surprised to learn that it was our waiter’s first night. He’d answered every one of our questions with ease and never had to “go ask the kitchen.”
The shaky start certainly hasn’t kept the crowds away. The restaurant has attracted an eclectic cross section of Dallas culture. I scoffed when Horne fed me the line about the crowd creating the color in his restaurant. But now I have to say, That’s no joke, son. That’s no joke.
Get contact information for Horne & Dekker.