[Update: Stephan Pyles has announced that the new chef for his 16-seat tasting-menu restaurant Fauna, tucked inside of Flora, is Diego Fernandez, who will come to Dallas from his position as chef de partie at the ultra-high-end, modernist Chicago restaurant Alinea. According to an interview in the Dallas Morning News, Fernandez hails from Mexico City and studied at the acclaimed Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park before working in the Michelin-starred restaurants Alinea and also Quince in San Francisco, a Mecca of local seasonality.]
Stephan Pyles is on the verge of announcing a new chef for the tasting room that will be part of a newly unveiled Flora Street Café. Called Fauna, the decision comes two years after the refined Arts District gem earned Restaurant of the Year on my annual list. (Yes, that’s Flora and Fauna.) At the same time, Flora Street Café is debuting menus for lunch and dinner and adding brunch to the main dining room that will be overseen by Cody Sharpe and another yet-to-be-hired co-executive chef. I recently sat down with Pyles to talk about the changes and to reflect on his decade-spanning take on the Dallas dining scene.
“So, this is what we’re eliminating,” he says with a smile and a gesture that takes in the white cloth-lined table, orchid-decked.
The reason? From whence came the impulse or directive to change the direction of his restaurant at the heart of the Arts District? “That’s easy; I got it from financials.” Like most celebrity-chef restaurants, Flora Street Café opened with a spike. At Pyles’ other restaurants—Routh Street Café, Baby Routh, Stephan Pyles, Stampede 66, Samar, and San Salvaje—this was followed by a dip and then a sustained income stream. “Here, it dipped, then dipped the next year,” he says.
“I greeted that with some sadness,” he says, admitting to the pang that comes from the timing. “I can’t imagine opening another restaurant. So, this was kind of going to be my last one.”
But Pyles has always been willing to creatively reinvent himself, a nimble tightrope walker in a volatile and capricious industry. With Chef Tim Byres—of Chicken Scratch and the recently departed Smoke—newly hired as managing director, Pyles threw himself into reimagining his flagship. Would he need to forego fine-dining in favor of something more casual? He had the humility to see that he wouldn’t get anywhere trying to run it like a Michelin-star restaurant six nights a week. But maybe he could do both—and even elevate the level.
The new twist: the restaurant within a restaurant. “It’s an idea that came from Fuego,” Pyles says, referring to a tasting-menu experience he created almost by accident at his eponymous, now-closed restaurant Stephan Pyles—four seats in front of the open fire at the ceviche bar that became the setting for a coursed-out experimental lab of primarily molecular gastronomy, inspired by the food and style that had captivated him at the time at Ferran Adria’s El Bulli. Cooking for two seatings of four seats, two nights a week. “I had so much fun,” he says.
Fauna will offer something like that. The next iteration, with a soon-to-be-announced chef (about whom Pyles divulges only as currently working in the kitchen at a three Michelin-star restaurant). With rich-hued draperies, the former side room will present its own enclave.
“I even thought about doing its own entrance,” Pyles says, though the drama and intrigue of snaking one’s way through a dining room won out.
Behind a closed door, with the cosseted luxury of a team led by a captain who doubles as sommelier, the room will hold low-hanging chandeliers and waxed crepe myrtle branches for a forested feel. A wall will be removed so that the former pastry kitchen functions as an open kitchen, Fauna’s nightly creative culinary drama unfolding intimately and visibly as it does in Pyles’ favorite restaurant, Saison (in San Francisco). This is reflected in our own city’s only other restaurant of the new Flora Street Café’s nature, the Purepecha Room behind Revolver Taco, where Regino Rojas spools out tasting menus in which refined technique meets regional Mexican ingredients. Plateware will come from the same haute tableware company that outfits El Celler de Can Roca, the gastronomical haven in Spain that has twice won best restaurant in the world.
Pyles talks candidly about his aspirations for Fauna, his intent that it should remind diners of the inimitable, intangible, ineffable feeling that strikes you wherever you are in the world, that you are experiencing fine dining. It’s from Saison that he got the idea to set the tasting menu, which he imagines will change weekly, at $250, with three wine pairing tier options for those who might want a more rarified pour.
The agilely shape-shifting restaurateur is well-placed to evaluate the dining landscape. When he came onto the scene in the early 1980s with Routh Street Café and Baby Routh, “we were kind of on a journey together,” he says of the Dallas diner. “The difference is the audience—30 years later.”
His clientele, he says, was always well-traveled. His innovations—introducing Southwestern chiles, say, in a demiglace—made what he terms the “French culinary battalion” nervous. They greeted with skepticism what he and his compatriot Dean Fearing were executing. “It takes a lot more today to shock someone,” he says. To him, the struggle remains: “It’s about remaining relevant.”
The main menu will allow him to bring back dishes from previous restaurants—I mentioned how pleased I was to see the causa, that glorious stack of lime-infused whipped potatoes return from San Salvaje—where they might join dishes of Byres’ with their live-fire emphasis from Smoke, perhaps a pork jowl salad (but tweaked and refined) and pancakes and smoked, grilled oysters.
Byres, in fact, sees it as his job to imagine various entry-points for Flora Street. The pre- and post-theater niche is already a forte. But he’s plotting an oyster and champagne cart on an expanded patio. On a night with multiple performances, the new restaurant could feel like a fluid extension of the arts-centric evening.
“We’re sitting in this super-built-out restaurant in the middle of the Arts District,” Byres says, sitting across the table from me, the restaurant’s shimmering wall of silk behind him. “I look at it as having a Ferrari, and everyone’s too scared to drive it. But this thing is made to cut corners and rev its engine. I wanna drive this thing with everybody.” Which will include Michelin-star ambitions. But also a patio and a menu with the starch let out of it.
Byres would love to see the new restaurant take advantage of Pyles’ travels as sources of inspiration. His mission for both sets of chefs he will over see is to “create a lab and lock the door and let you do what you do.” Meanwhile, Pyles knows his instincts. “I just know in two-to-three years,” he’ll be rethinking it again. Once the construction on the adjacent blocks is finished, once we “flip the light switch,” as he says, on a completed Arts District, “We’ll be able to reimagine this again.”