It all began with the horchata, which was creamier, smoother, and richer than most. It was milky and silky like liquid satin with a hint of cinnamon. Someone had given the Mexican rice beverage a good deal of thought.
We were sitting on the patio of the recently opened Lada near Hillcrest and Arapaho in Far North Dallas under heat lamps and strings of patio lights after ordering at the counter. Inside the dining room, the recessed coral and blue domes in the ceiling looked like a pulsating planet or a moon. It all set the scene: modern and chic, with the casualness of hand-painted, stenciled wood and a concrete floor.
The food, when it arrived, was plated beautifully. It’s no surprise, really. The chef behind it is Michael Ehlert. The last time I tasted his food it was consommée broth at The French Room in the Adolphus, with tiny, delicate foie gras ravioli served in a gold-rimmed bowl, followed by souffléd pommes Dauphine potatoes, soft as velour, or duck à l’orange or tête de veau—a sort of smaller version of Versailles. I wanted the flavors to go on forever. He did his schooling at the reputed Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York and was executive chef at Mirador after the French Room.
The French technique is “what I’m super passionate about,” Ehlert told me later over the phone, which he applied here to food he loves that is generally found in more casual settings: the enchiladas, tacos, moles, and sauces he enjoyed making and eating at home. This idea was in play before COVID-19, as a way to see how much bigger the circle could get outside a narrow focus. Forget $18 duck enchiladas. It wouldn’t be Empellón of New York or the Contramars of Mexico City. He envisioned a neighborhood restaurant where the menu is quite literally stitched onto a long cloth banner that hangs on a wall behind the ordering counter, where social distancing Xs mark the floor.
“I do think you can bring that neighborhood fine-casual model in ways that can delight,” he told me. I agree.
Dishes are tangy and luxurious, with balance and interplay of textures. There is restraint in what could be blankets of cheese on these enchiladas. Ehlert has swapped butter-finished sauces for flights of spices, and as far as I’m concerned, the switch is working.
The meal that followed took us through Mex much more than Tex.
So, what was lovely was cider-glazed steak enchiladas laid over a deep rust-colored sauce fashioned from dried chiles and chocolate, a mole with cotija cheese and petite greens and pickled fresno chiles over the top. Or, in contrast, the pale, tangy tomatillo sauce of the shiitake mushroom and Swiss chard enchiladas with Oaxaca cheese, whose bright-magenta pickled onions lent tang and pomegranate seeds brought pop. The enchilada range includes mahi or orange- and black pepper- braised carnitas in which butternut squash plays a starring role. A cheesy set involves cheddar and homemade ricotta.
Deep purple is the color of the corn tortillas made from three kinds of purple and blue corn. They’re extraordinary. (Ehlert did attempt nixtamalizing his own, until he realized it would be too time consuming.) There is also a roasted cauliflower taco, a little naked, with raisins and almond-cilantro pesto.
Snacks include elotes, grill-charred corn on a stick, showered in citrus zest—a confetti of lemon, lime, orange: whatever they have on hand—and a special blend of seasonings, like a Japanese furikake, that gives it spunk. The corn gets boiled in milk that becomes house ricotta. Flavored daintily with corn, that becomes the elotes schmear, complete with tang from lime. The sprinkle encapsulates the no-waste character.
Inside, people order chips with salsa or mango guacamole. A white queso was recently added to the menu. (They had to have queso.) Plus aguas frescas, Modelos, or local beers. For sweet endings, look to cookies: Mexican wedding cookies or a shortbread that could have been crisper.
On a less chilly day, it’s all perfect for a picnic in Kiowa Park, recently inaugurated across the way.
Ehlert used to reign over cheese and dessert carts with oozing triple crèmes and boxes filled with miniature financiers, pâte de fruits, and marzipan confections that servers in floor-length whites dispensed with tweezers. Now, you refill your own agua frescas. It’s the new we-can-all-do-casual world—fine-casual, as it were. And just think: this used to be a Starbucks.
First Bite is a new review series on SideDish. In light of the unpredictable and worrisome nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, typical D reviews have been on an indefinite hiatus. The way we dine in, interact with, and experience restaurants has changed. Thus, the way we review has to adapt, too. We’d usually visit multiple times before reporting in-depth analyses on cuisine execution. Instead, we’re delivering instant impressions of new and notable restaurants. While our nit-picking tendencies will be dialed down, our commitment to truth has not wavered.