Dallas can’t claim many celebrities as its own. With few exceptions (Hi, Don Henley!), if they make it big, they leave us. That’s why Troy Aikman can’t get through a meal at the Highland Park Village Mi Cocina without a guy coming up to his table to shake his hand. We’re starved for celebrities. Which also explains why we make so much fuss over our famous chefs. Louboutin-heeled ladies fawn like groupies when in the presence of Kent Rathbun, Dean Fearing, or Stephan Pyles.
Television has elevated at least four of our chefs to national fame. Bravo’s Top Chef has featured three from North Texas: Tre Wilcox (then of Abacus), Tiffany Derry (then of Go Fish Ocean Club), and Casey Thompson (then of Shinsei). Kooky restaurateur and caterer Lisa Garza (then of Suze) mesmerized and polarized fans when she competed on The Next Food Network Star. These days, it’s easier to get in touch with Brad Pitt than Lisa Garza.
None of the aforementioned chefs won the big prize. All four returned to the Dallas area and, eventually, starred in new restaurants backed by investors. After her appearance on Top Chef, Thompson left her post at Shinsei and co-founded Brownstone in Fort Worth. After losing in the finals, Garza operated an upscale catering company for several years and has opened Sissy’s Southern Kitchen & Bar on Henderson Avenue. After Tre Wilcox packed up his knives, he juggled consulting and private gigs before he landed center stage at Marquee Grill in Highland Park Village. And Tiffany Derry, who couldn’t sell a piece of halibut at the now-defunct Go Fish while she competed on Top Chef, is now ruling the kitchen at Private Social.
Derry, Wilcox, and Thompson have one thing in common: they are only above-average chefs. I realize mine is a minority opinion, but nothing I have eaten in their restaurants has blown me out of my chair.
Thompson’s take on eat-local cuisine was a half-hearted attempt to ride a trend while she traveled for all the consulting jobs she landed after her TV appearance. Her ingredients may have been local, but she wasn’t. At press time in early March, Garza’s restaurant had just opened, but she hired Jeffery Hobbs to run her kitchen while she works the front of the house. A smart move by the gabby Garza. Wilcox’s menu at Marquee has impressed many of my colleagues, but I find his culinary point of view dated and his presentations stuck in the late ’90s.
I’m sorry to say, Derry’s vision mirrors Wilcox’s. However, my assessment of Private Social, like that of Marquee Grill, doesn’t mesh with the facts: both restaurants are booming.
At Private Social, you have a choice of sitting in the main dining room (Private) or the bar (Social). Derry’s menu is a throwback to global fusion. The chef, who was raised in Beaumont, Texas, combines Southern cooking and dishes with Korean, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, and Middle Eastern accents. The first time I perused the lunch menu, I felt like I was reading a list of grab-bag ingredients for a cooking competition.
We started with five thin slices of pastrami-cured hiramasa. The pale pink fish’s sweet taste was overwhelmed by brown sugar and coriander. In contrast, the expected strong spices on jerk chicken were faint. Grilled white fish on jasmine rice surrounded by Thai coconut sauce was lovely, but I haven’t craved it since.
The gentleman I took to lunch was so unimpressed that he would not return to try Derry’s dinner menu, so I invited two old friends I hadn’t seen in years. We scooched into an opalescent pearl-colored leather booth and surveyed the chic main dining room. To our right, a table of 12 African-American men were deep into a happy hour celebration. To our left, a twentysomething Asian couple sat so close together that you couldn’t slide a string of dental floss between them. They gazed into each other’s eyes as the waiter topped their Champagne glasses. When we weren’t watching for the guy to get down on one knee, we were mesmerized by a gathering of female real estate agents who spent more time ordering wine than food. By 7 o’clock on a Wednesday night, the bar, main dining room, and private room were packed, and it was so loud you couldn’t hear a fork drop.
Thankfully my friends had a sense of humor, because the long evening we spent at Private Social was laughable. To start, we ordered burrata wrapped with beef carpaccio. Not only was it cold, but it was also as thick and malleable as Play-Doh—not at all the creamy, oozy Italian cheese we were expecting. I took it home and let it sit out overnight. It never softened. Top Chef Pork Buns were a better choice. On one visit, the pork belly-filled Chinese wheat buns were dry; the next time around, we asked for extra sauce and enjoyed this signature dish immensely.Of the three entrées we ordered, only two were edible, and none were Top Chef quality. Veal shoulder braised in white wine sat on an undercooked layer of garganelli, a pasta similar to penne, soaked with sherry cream sauce. I couldn’t cut through the pasta, so I picked it up with my fingers and tried to bite it. When our server arrived to check on us, I handed over the plate of pasta and asked her to take it back to the kitchen. I didn’t ask for a replacement and instead turned my attention to other dishes on the table.
“What are these little black things on my monkfish?” my friend asked. I scooped up what appeared to be a generous sliver of black truffle from the red wine beurre blanc. I cleansed my palate, set the specimen on my tongue, and closed my eyes. Not one of my 6,000-plus taste buds transmitted a musky, nutty taste to my brain. I took it out and rolled it between my thumb and middle finger. It was dry, with the consistency of beef jerky. I bit it and chewed. Still nothing.
Meanwhile, my friend seemed to enjoy her duck-fat-fried chicken. “It’s not bad,” she said. “It’s just a little greasy. I wish the skin were crisper. However,” she added, pointing to the side of overly braised greens, “that is foul.” Puns aside, we decided to share the plate of fried chicken because it was the tastiest plate of our trio and more than enough to feed the three of us. But we sat in front of our barely touched entrées for nearly 40 minutes before our plates were removed from the table.
Once ordered, our desserts took another 20 minutes to arrive. The “decadent chocolate cake” was a dark chocolate ganache brownie served with Grand Marnier foam, chai ice cream dusted with nutmeg, and jiggly little cubes of jellied chai tea. It might have impressed Padma on Top Chef for originality, but a chocolate ganache cake is hardly inspired. A sampling of house-made gelato and sorbet included salted caramel, strawberry and Champagne, and Fruity Pebbles. All were pleasing if extremely sweet.
I stayed away from Private Social for a few weeks and then returned in early February and ordered several of the same dishes. We hesitated to order the burrata, but our server gave it the hard sell. “The chef has made some changes and now orders the cheese from Italy,” she said. The carpaccio-wrapped ball looked the same, but the cheese inside was a huge improvement: soft, buttery, and room temperature, as it should be. The accompanying mixed greens were invigorated by the addition of rehydrated basil seeds.
We felt a little more confidence coming from the kitchen, so we decided to try the sweetbreads. We were served an undercooked, rubbery, hot pink mass of gland that turned our stomachs. Playing dumb, we showed it to the server. “We’ve never ordered this before,” I said. “Is this the way it is supposed to be?” I attempted to maneuver my knife through the meat and succeeded only in splashing broth across the table. She agreed it was not cooked and swept it away. A few minutes later, she returned with a brilliant version swimming in a memorable ham broth scented with braised radishes. If only we’d received this version the first time.
We’re glad we gave the veal shoulder a second chance, too. This time the garganelli—each one made by hand, boasted our server—was cooked properly, and the light sherry cream sauce arrived hot and punctuated with tart cherries and gently wilted arugula. I felt like Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio. “Now this is how this dish is supposed to taste. Tiffany, if you could just be more consistent and pay attention to every dish that leaves or returns to your kitchen, you would be our Top Chef.”
Sadly, nice as she is, Tiffany Derry is not our top chef. And Private Social, crowded though it may be, is not the best restaurant in Dallas. Over the course of two lunches and two dinners, unlike the wildly inconsistent food, the service was, sadly, identical: hyper attentive to start, followed by stop-start-stagger pace. Never once did I see Derry in the dining room.
Not one dish I ate at Private Social makes me eager to return. Dallas has too many other restaurants at this price point (entrées top out at $44) that deliver more satisfaction. Perhaps Derry should nix a few continents from her menu and just cook from her heart. And work the room like a celebrity chef.