In a profession loaded with bad boys, chef John Tesar stands out. Mercurial, dismissive, he’s a hyperactive hothead with a self-destructive streak so legendary that his old pal Anthony Bourdain has written about it. Tesar is so good at embodying the tantrum-throwing temperamental-chef stereotype that D Magazine made him the subject of the September cover story, titled “The Most Hated Chef in Dallas.”
But there is the man, and then there is what he puts on the plate. From his early days at a French restaurant called Pierre’s in Westhampton to his stint at RM Seafood in Las Vegas, he has impressed discriminating palates, including the folks who hired him in 2006 to be executive chef at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, where he took on the intimidating task of replacing longtime fixture Dean Fearing.
Tesar left The Mansion in 2009, and now his canvas is The Commissary, the casual-chic burger spot in Dallas’ One Arts Plaza. Flipping burgers might seem a step down from the five-star world, but burgers have become a culinary darling, putting Tesar right in the thick of it and also, not incidentally, giving him a breather from the top chef fast track.
It being run by Tesar, The Commissary is no ordinary burger joint. One of five restaurants located in the swanky downtown district, it has a respectable wine program overseen by Scott Barber, a former Mansion sommelier. Burgers dominate the menu, but they’re ultra gourmet, with an imaginative spectrum of ingredients and flavors. The attention to detail is nearly haute cuisine.
The first distinction is Tesar’s unusual cooking method. First he steams the patties in a CVap machine, a favorite toy of high-profile chefs such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Wylie Dufresne. The CVap cooks the meat to a medium-rare 140 degrees, yet keeps it moist and red. When it’s time to serve, the burger is seared on a 450-degree griddle that imparts a perfect salty, blackened crust. His hamburgers look like steaks.
The Commissary’s second distinction is the variety of burgers it serves, a dozen variations. The menu doesn’t go off the rails with gimmicky burgers. The approach is chef driven, refined.
You gotta have a classic bacon cheeseburger. Here, it’s the Magic Burger, a wink to Tesar’s first job at a Southampton Beach joint called Magic’s Pub. He uses aged cheddar and apple wood-smoked bacon, crisp but with a residual chew. The twist is the choice of bun: an English muffin lightly toasted and sufficiently sturdy to hold it all together.
We should feel hometown pride for the Dallas Burger, a fine, spicy version with lush poblano peppers roasted until mellow, house-made barbecue sauce, and pepper Jack cheese. It comes on the default bun, a neutral dome with sesame seeds made by Empire Baking Company. For a spicier burger still, The Big Tex has salsa, pickled jalapeños, an ancho chile rub, and chipotle mayonnaise.
It is decreed that all chef-driven burger places must have one with an egg on it. At The Commissary, it’s called The Farmer, served with a duck egg sunny side up, the yolk on the verge of firm, so it didn’t drip all over. Thin slices of speck brought to mind ham and eggs. Served on a glossy brioche bun with melted Vermont cheddar, The Farmer was almost too decadent.
There are burgers with lamb in a pita pocket, with crab, and, for the hard-core foodies, a Tail End that throws it all in: pork and pig’s tail, topped with pork belly, green tomato chutney, and jalapeño mayo. Surprisingly, there is no turkey burger. Way to avoid the pack. The worst “burger” was the black bean veggie, so poorly conceived that it felt like a big middle finger to vegetarians. Veggie burgers generally fall into two camps: grain or black bean. A good one has body and a flavor profile that eschews the usual cumin. Described as a black bean patty, The Commissary’s was a flaccid blob of black bean purée smeared between two cardboard-stiff flour tortillas. Was their stiffness deliberate, or were they just stale? You couldn’t pick it up and eat it like a burger; the two tortillas squished together, dumping the purée onto the plate in unseemly dollops.
But salads were superb, a reminder that there’s a chef in the kitchen and a bold one at that. Where else can you get a big, old heap of watercress on a plate? You rarely see watercress at all. And nobody else has the nerve to give you scads of it dressed in a sherry vinaigrette, with some goat cheese tossed in for pizzazz. Another salad paired baby greens with thick curls of pecorino cheese and buttery fava beans. During the summer, they did one made of fresh fennel shaved into paper-thin strands that made it look like pasta. Tesar’s salads have style.
With burgers come sides. Skinny Fries were just shy of matchstick, so skinny that all you got was “fried” without much sense you were eating a potato. If you want more spud, Disco Fries were fatter rectangles artlessly topped with a cheese sauce. The portion was so big that three people sharing couldn’t make a dent. Onion rings were big and brawny, in a pale, peppery crust that seemed underdone. Fried avocado was a novelty, too rich to enjoy more than a single wedge. Sweet potato tots, the signature side, had a cute thimble shape that looked tater totty, but the resemblance stopped there. Soft nuggets pocked with random sesame seeds, they were barely crisp. Fine if you like sweet potatoes, but not if you crave the tater-tot shaggy crust and texture.
A few entrées and small plates seemed designed to fulfill a more traditional dining experience. Some of the small plates, like the cornmeal-dusted fried oysters and the tempura-fried sweetbreads, were fun for snacking, but the large plates, available at dinner only, were a bust. One night’s seared scallops were served with four scallops on a plate, barely a garnish; that was it. Lamb chop lollipops were similarly take-it-or-leave-it: three ribs, cooked medium rare, without even the energy expended to clean the bone where you pick it up. That’s some lollipop. A lobster roll nightly special felt thrown together and not true to form. It came in the de rigueur hot dog bun, but the lobster salad filling was weighed down with dross: celery, onion, and brackish spices that overwhelmed the lobster’s delicate flavor.
Some of The Commissary’s nicest assets it inherited from its previous tenant, Dali Wine Bar. That includes an A-plus location with a dynamite patio facing downtown. There’s also good karma left over from the wine program that Dali established. The place remains a popular haunt for food and beverage professionals, and it’s one of the few places that offers wine on tap from Texas-based Duchman Family wines.
When the restaurant opened, Tesar oversaw the kitchen and the front of the house, and service was a disaster, with overwhelmed staffers, frustrated customers, and long waits. They’ve since added more management up front, and service has improved.
Tesar initially offered a nightly chef’s table where he could be Chef Tesar. A restaurant within a restaurant, it was open only Thursday,
Friday, and Saturday nights. That concept had to be rethought, too. Tesar closed it in July, and planned to reopen the end of September. In the interim, he’s been doing a Sunday lobster bake—very Southampton Beach. You get the distinct impression he doesn’t want the pressure. For now, burgers will do.
For more information about The Commissary, visit our restaurant guide.