It’s a strange feeling to go to a Misti Norris restaurant and admire the dining room’s gleaming new finishes, be seated by a host, and order off a cocktail menu. Norris is beloved across Dallas for her bounteous charcuterie boards, innovative pastas, pickles, preserves, and Cajun-influenced cooking. But she’s won all that acclaim while working in tiny kitchens with settings that were far from fancy. First came Small Brewpub, which was, well, a small brewpub. Its patrons ate at shared picnic tables. Then she moved to Petra and the Beast, a BYOB spot in an former gas station in Old East Dallas. In Petra’s earliest days, Norris took orders in addition to cooking.
Stepchild, which arrived a month ago in downtown’s Exchange Food Hall, is a new kind of Misti Norris place. Set on the hall’s second floor, Stepchild is a shiny, opulent space with views out over AT&T’s friendly new front yard, with its sculptures, fountains, artificial turf, and constant hum of activity. Inside the restaurant, there are multiple open kitchens and a separate bar, vestiges of this space’s original life as a sort of high-end dinner food court serving steaks and sushi.
The Hall’s upstairs is now a rotating-chef concept where Dallas’ culinary leaders can test out their menu ideas. (Although the rotating-chef space in general is named Attalie, its first chef, Norris, is calling her version Stepchild, creating the odd formal name “Attalie Featuring Stepchild.” For simplicity’s sake, I’ll just say Stepchild going forward.) Norris confirms that Stepchild is currently booked to stay through the end of 2022; after that, she’ll be looking to take it to a permanent brick-and-mortar home elsewhere in Dallas.
The word “simplicity” fits Stepchild’s concept. At Petra, the pasta names might send you to an Italian dictionary and the pickles and preserves stretch the imagination. Stepchild is a more straightforward vision. It’s French-Cajun, a tribute to her father’s Acadian heritage. As a result, the menu feels like something you’d find in New Orleans, maybe on Magazine Street in the Garden District.
The best dishes at Stepchild involve phrases like “duck heart bacon,” slices of which add pops of meaty flavor to Norris’ fried duck leg boudin balls. The balls themselves turn mostly soft inside, where confit duck leg and rice blend together; they’re more interesting for the crispy crust, mustard seed gravy, and two garnishes: those bits of heart, and slices of pickled celery.
Here’s another of those phrases: “shellfish salt.” It’s a way for Norris to add flavor to her star main course, stewed tomato rice topped with slices of grilled and pickled okra. When we talked after Stepchild’s preview nights, she said she thought everyone would be going for steaks and other attention-getting mains, but that the okra was the most popular dish in early days. It’s well-earned. The rice especially has a comforting depth of flavor; my tablemates and I all agreed we could eat it for breakfast. All that’s missing is a bit of crunch—like, maybe, a slice of fried okra.
Truthfully, the big meaty mains are both standouts too. The steak choice is tri-tip, an unfashionable offering that is big on flavor, but relatively lean and easy to overcook. There is no need to worry about that at Stepchild. And, to add to the already flavorful beef, Norris’ cooks whip up rich, eggy garnishes: herbed butter using the yolks, and a smooth cream incorporating the whites.
Visually, nothing is as striking as the pork chop. Not because it’s double-cut and therefore as thick as a Stephen King novel, but because Norris covers it in an herby green sauce so smooth and so dense that it looks like cake frosting. Luckily, the blend of herbs and gentle spice is as interesting to eat as it is to stare at.
Not everything caught my attention in the same way as that sauce, those okra, or the steak. There’s a side dish of potatoes cooked confit in pork fat, topped with whipped goat cheese and smoked trout roe. It’s as indulgent as it sounds, but all of the textures are soft, and the pork fat and smoke flavors, when combined, just make me think about bacon.
There’s a vegetarian main of seared trumpet mushrooms and braised morel ragout, which divided opinion at my table between those who enjoyed its sweetness—which comes from both red wine and red wine vinegar—and those who found the sauce too much. (I liked it.) And (heresy alert) I don’t often love double-cut pork chops, because the thickness makes it hard to hit my dream chop ideal of a tender, slightly pink middle and chargrilled edges.
But Stepchild is only a month old. It is also only a testing ground for a future permanent restaurant. It has time to evolve, and we have plenty of reasons to return. Sit by the window, drink an impeccable cocktail—like the cucumber-citrus-gin refresher Juliet Romeo or a classical Vieux Carré—and dig into our favorite dish on the menu so far: the summer tomato salad. It’s a mix of gorgeous heirloom tomatoes, candied hazelnuts, whipped comté cheese, and thinly sliced daikon, drizzled with an herbaceous dressing and topped with fresh dill. Summertime does not get better than a great tomato salad, and this is one of the greats.
If Stepchild is a new venture to Norris, that’s nothing compared to the new view from the restaurant’s windows: a vibrant, bustling downtown Dallas cityscape at night. When I moved here 10 years ago, I was told that nobody ever went downtown for fun, and that nobody stayed there after 5 p.m. Now, we can sit in polished restaurants from acclaimed chefs while watching guys in Spider-Man body suits go for their evening jogs past art installations and selfie-taking tourists.
Stepchild is a fun place to get dinner, but the most exciting thing about it is the change it represents.
Attalie Featuring Stepchild, 211 S. Akard St. (second floor)