Acclaimed Dallas chef Misti Norris’ new restaurant opens today. Called Stepchild, it has family in its name. It has family embedded into the menu and concept, too.
Stepchild is a tribute to Norris’ late father and his French Cajun heritage. That word, “Cajun,” needs a little bit of explanation here. It doesn’t just mean Louisianan food, and it doesn’t always imply gumbo, etouffée, or alligator. Acadians were French in origin and came to Louisiana from Canada’s Atlantic coast. When the British expelled the Acadians from their corner of Canada, many moved to Louisiana; the word “Cajun” is a corruption of the original term. (Another hint at this long-ago history is Maine’s Acadia National Park.)
Norris’ father had Acadian roots, which he shared with his daughter.
“My dad would tell us about our family history, how we were originally from Canada and came down because of essentially getting kicked out,” Norris says. “We didn’t want to follow British rule.”
That story directly informs Stepchild’s food.
“We’re focusing a little bit more on the French origin of Cajun food, but we’re also not what you would think of as traditional French,” she says. “When I started thinking about this concept, which like all my other ideas is something I’ve had in my mind for years, family is where it came from. Anything that I’ll end up doing, there’s some family tie or something nostalgic about it.”
Acadian inspiration translates into a menu that looks completely delicious in its combination of French technique and American ingredients. Just try to choose between confit frog legs with cognac butter, duck boudin balls, morel mushroom ragout, bone-in pork chops charred over embers, and summer tomato salad with candied hazelnuts.
“I’ve always felt—not out of the loop but outside the crowd, you know? I was a stepchild, my dad was a stepchild, his dad was a stepchild.”Misti Norris
And then there’s the next-level fried chicken. If you’re wondering whether this is the same Misti Norris who has gained national renown for her culinary daring and bold experimentation at Petra and the Beast, the chicken holds your answer.
Fried chicken must be pre-ordered 72 hours in advance, because the bird is koji-brined and then dry-aged. Yes, the dry aging techniques the acclaimed steakhouse Knife uses for steaks are now being applied to fish (by La Onda in Fort Worth) and chicken (at Stepchild).
The bird is $200, but before you squawk, know that it comes with two sides (potatoes and braised greens), rolls, hot sauce, gravy, pickles, and Norris’ own ranch dressing. You should also know that she’s serving it not to set some kind of Most Expensive Chicken record, but because she really loves it.
“We did it for a tasting and it was amazing,” Norris says, referring to a dinner at Petra and the Beast two years ago. The process is labor-intensive; preparing the chicken takes about a week.
Stepchild is taking up residence on the second floor of the AT&T Exchange Hall. The Exchange Hall’s new second-floor concept, which has a separate name of its own (Attalie, which I assume is pronounced like Natalie), is a revolving chef residency where the restaurant and menu will change seasonally. Stepchild is not here forever.
However, it is also not here for a fixed term. There’s no set end date. “It’s kind of open-ended,” Norris says. “We’ll do a few months and we’ll see where we’re at from there. However long Stepchild lasts here, it will eventually be a brick and mortar [permanent restaurant]. It will definitely be a long-term thing, but I couldn’t even say when.”
Think of this as a preview of a coming attraction, then. This summer, we get to sample Stepchild in its residency downtown before it becomes a “real” restaurant somewhere else, some day.
Norris has a lot of restaurant ideas on her mind, and she expected to open this one later rather than sooner. But her father’s 2021 death pushed it forward in line and gave her motivation to dig deeper into Acadian cooking.
Both of her restaurants are intensely personal projects. Petra and the Beast is filled with her own “art therapy” paintings. But the name Stepchild has a deeper meaning, too.
“I’ve always felt—not out of the loop but outside the crowd, you know?” Norris tells me. “I was a stepchild, my dad was a stepchild, his dad was a stepchild. We chose the crow for the restaurant’s logo, as the stepchild of the bird world. It’s supposed to be this ominous symbol, but I don’t feel that way about it. It has a lot to do with my personality. Even the word itself, it’s not a bad thing. It’s a positive thing to be a stepchild. I guess ‘misunderstood’ is the best way to explain it.”
If Stepchild can deliver on its promise with approachable French-Cajun seasonal cooking, this new restaurant may not be so misunderstood.
Stepchild hosted by Attalie, located at The Exchange, 211 S. Akard St.