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The Best of the New FIVE NEW RESTAURANTS-AND ONLY FIVE-TAKE TOP HONORS

In a year of openings and closings, five funky independents charmed their way into the hearts of Dallas restaurant lovers.
By Mary Brown Malouf |

It was a bad year for lettuce in California. It was a good year for grapes in Bordeaux. It was a bad year for the Cowboys. It was a good year for Ron Kirk. It was a bad year for good restaurants in Dallas.

Last August, we listed a dozen top-quality new restaurants as best in the city. This year, only five made the cut.

When people find out what I do for a living, I can count on one question: “What’s good and new?” The answer this year is, very little. There have been lots of openings. But for the category of “Best,” I only considered restaurants that were not just new, but original-no clones or redos or updates or chains. That eliminates Palomino, the packed Dallas outpost of a glitzy, Italianesque national chain. And Mediterraneo, the latest refinement of David Holben ’s go-national concept. Both of these restaurants are similar, and they got a lot of buzz when they opened. Occasionally, they even serve up a good plate of food.

But neither of them is original. Good restaurant business is all about replication right now, but the question of what qualifies a restaurant as best for the diner has nothing to do with the gross and everything to do with the particulars.

So I’m not looking for the place that has the longest line of limos. I’m not looking for the place sure to be bold-faced the most in the society columns. I’m not looking for the place where the chef is a national star I’d recognize from TV. I’m not even looking for the place where the food is so incredible the diners sit in silent awe of the kitchen genius at work. (Not that there is such a place.) No food could be that good. Dining isn’t only about dinner.

I ’m looking for the place where the service, food, and atmosphere combine to create a singular sensation, a restaurant that knows what it’s trying to do and does it. One thing all five of our best restaurants have in common with each other and with top-notch restaurants everywhere: The best restaurants are labors of love.

This year, although there are only five restaurants, each has a unique, idiosyncratic flavor. For the first time, the best new restaurant in Dallas is Asian. Then there’s an upscale, high-styled seafood restaurant, opened by experienced professionals at the top of the national trend and in the full glare of the national spotlight. At the other end of the spectrum is a funky, low-budget effort owned by three mavericks doing it their way. Fort Worth (whose restaurant renaissance is not even peaking yet) makes the list with a first-time concept that bucks the beer stampede in a surprising Cowtown turnaround.

And then there’s that crazy guy from Israel to consider. Again.

1 Liberty

Beyond the Tex-Mex combination plate, Dallas has only nervously embraced ethnic food. Even Chinese food, the ethnic stand- in for Mexican food in many cities, has never been well-represented here, and there have been few top-notch authentic Asian restau rants in Dallas, Outside of sushi, which has its own strange cachet, we’ve largely regarded Asian cuisine as weird food that jiggles

So this year’s opening of the pan-Asian noodle house Liberty- a winning combination of Jeffrey Yarbrough’s downtown savvy and Annie Wong’s kitchen smarts-is big news, proof that Asian food really has arrived on the people’s plates and palates. Liberty has made Asian cuisine lovable by focusing on the world’s number one comfort food: noodles.

The best restaurants deliver one consistent concept, start to finish. In the perfect restaurant, you would be able to imagine the food just from the look of the place and, conversely, the taste of the food could make you imagine the dining room it is served in. This kind of conceptual continuity makes Liberty a winner.

Before you even gel there, you know it’s going to take some risks.

First off. Liberty is not in a bankable location-anybody know where Alta Street is? And as soon as you get there, you know you’re not supposed to take it too seriously; the Christmas lights threaded through the bamboo bird cages hanging from the ceiling tell you that. (Good food should be a joyous thing, not a serious thing.) The counter bar for singles (complete with magazines so you don’t have to worry about the conversation question), lets you know this is an unorthodox place, one that’s not about to pigeonhole you. (And please don’t pigeonhole it.) The wide-open kitchen that allows you to see everything but the potwashers gives the place a kitchen-table informality and lets you know that Liberty has got no culinary secrets. Well, just one: Annie Wong.

Annie is from Bangkok, but her food at Liberty combines tastes from all over Asia, using noodles as the medium, Here, “continental” food finally makes sense because of the continent in question. The flavors of the Japanese udon meld just tine with Thai coconut and lime leaf flavors, and Vietnamese lemon grass segues easily into Indian curry, partly because most Asian cuisines have a compatible textural and aromatic sensibility. And partly because Annie has taste buds in her imagination that make it work.

Liberty, 563 J Alta, 214-887-8795.

2 Tarantino’s Everybody knows that the first thing you need to open a restaurant is a dynamite location. Everybody knows you can’t open a restaurant without deep pockets. Everybody knows a restaurant’s appearance is as important as its food. But everybody’s going to the Tarantino brothers’ restaurant, and they broke all those rules. And then some.

Tarantino’s would seem fly-by-night anywhere, but this is Dallas, where glitz trumps gourmet every time, where location, location, location is the 11th Commandment. Tarantino’s, a funky, dark space with concrete floors and uncomfortable chairs, is a particularly unlikely success story. It works just because the three Tarantinos (Peter, Patrick, and Matt) were short on cash but long on imagination. They designed Tarantino’s to be on the edge of Dallas dining.

Chef Patrick Tarantino’s ideas about food are as different as he and his brothers’ ideas about design. And they’re all having a great time. Fried lasagna noodles stick out like satellite antennae from a bowl of hot artichoke cheese mushroom dip, a dish so recherché it’s hip again. The “bread spreads” encourage you to play with your food by presenting a platter of six dipping sauces with sliced, hot bread and pistachioed pasta chips.

The idea is to mix and match, contrast and compare, talk and laugh. This is cuisine from the generation that can’t tell snack time from meal time and thinks food is supposed to be entertainment.

They’re right, of course. So the dinner menu includes an open-face frittata with tomatoes and imported mozzarella. You could just have a salad, warm chicken over greens with a sweet mango dressing-more contrast (a favorite trick of Patrick’s, who likes surprise with supper). Or, for a more traditional, full-plate entree, the osso buco, with meat sliding from the bone, the sauce a full-simmered symphony of tangy tomatoes, onions, and olives. All these dishes can show up on one dinner table. Dinner is when you feel hungry.

I stopped in late one afternoon and ate the killer antipasto platter at the bar with a glass of icy white wine-a bite of snowy, salty feta, a forkful of artichoke and hearts of palm salad, a chunk of fat country paté, fruity pitted olives, salami, big red grapes. This is a usable restaurant, and there aren’t any rules. Go ahead, have dessert first.

The Tarantinos’ “tapateria” is in Exposition Park, down at the Fair Park end of Main Street. On a Monday night in the summertime, it’s three-quarters full, even at 6:30 p.m., when most of the habitués of this part of town are having breakfast. The place is hammered on weekend nights; the more crowded it is, the better it looks.

This is a neighborhood that’s way cooler than Deep Ellum, way off the track beaten by the big-buck types who typically keep a restaurant in business. But, surprisingly, even in the off-season, not everybody at Tarantino’s is young, They just act that way.

Tarantino’s, 3611 Party Ave., 214-821-2224.

3 AquaKnox So Stephan’s a star and his TV show’s a big deal and he’s working on another cookbook and “concepting” for Carlson, owner of T.G.?. Friday’s. Where does that leave his last independent restaurant?

High and dry. Stephan Pyles and partners sold Star Canyon and AquaKnox to a big chain, but AquaKnox seems safe from the taint I of the chain mentality and mediocrity. It has had highs and lows since opening (slightly prematurely, before the chef equipment, and staff had time to get really acquainted), but this is a place conceived by passionate professionals and it stands tall in the Dallas dining landscape.

Right now. chef Mark Schmidt heads up the kitchen and some of the food at AquaKnox is breathtaking I y good. Schmidt is living up to the global label. a category that still seems to provide better reading than eating in most establishments. He’s surest with Southwest touches, a taste inherited from his years at Star Canyon. But you expect Asian influences from a dining room as carefully edited as an ikebana arrangement, and they’re getting there.

On my most recent visit, the snapper was crusted with masa reddened by perfumey Thai curry and nestled in a split banana leaf husk like a Guatamelan tamale. Potstickers with rock shrimp were perfect, little petals of dough in a ginger-infused lobster essence.

The prawns in a coconut curry sauce were beautifully oceanic, meaty, sweet, and fragrant. Caesar salad came with grilled anchovies and polenta croutons the size of cereal boxes.

Desserts used to be one of Stephan’s strong suits, but AquaKnox features extravagantly concepted creations instead of simple sweets. The warm chocolate pudding cake looked like a translation of LAX airport into pastry. But a peanut butter ice cream sandwich doesn’t really fit the AquaKnox high concept very well, and if you think with your longue for a minute here, do you truly want ricot-tacannoli with mocha and orange if you’ve just eaten coconut curry?

Fine dining is a rare fish. Pyles will probably never regain the rarefied pinnacle he achieved at Routh Street Cafe, but then again, do we really want him to? AquaKnox’s faux-formal dining room is predictably packed, but it’s about as haute as anyone wants to go anymore.

The atmosphere of the Lounge is looser-and the sugar cane-skewered tuna that sets you back $23 as an entree in the dining room can be had as snack food in the Lounge for less. Now you can sit at the bar and order from the menu, like you can at Star Canyon. In fact, we saw one group of four move from what looked like a luxe location in a plush banquette at the back to one of the rounds near the door so they could be in the middle of the action and view the Lounge, the dining room, and the powder room parade from a prime vantage point.

AquaKnox. 3214 Knox St., 214-219-2782.

4 Grape Escape

The easiest thing to read is the hardest tc write. And sometimes the simplest concept takes the most choreography.

Watch the server pour a tasting flight of foui wines at Grape Escape: She takes two glasses in each hand and Mils them up, left to right Glass Four to Glass One (Three and Four in the right hand, One and Two in the left). So when she turns to the customer, the wines are automati-call) in tasting order, in the order of the numbered circles on the patron’s paper place mat.

When you see a waiterserving a table with several different flights on one tray, you realize what a lot of thought went into the planning of this apparently low-key wine bistro, how much work went into making sure you had fun. It’s hard to imagine keeping it all straight, but I’ve watched the staff at work right before a big show at the Bass Performance Hall across the street when they’re having trouble keeping enough glasses clean. They never miss a beat.

Grape Escape is the bright idea of chef Michel Baudouin, owner of Le Chardonnay. It’s the wine response to the brewpub’s attempt to make beer high-tone. Wine-selling requires the reverse approach: trying to prevent the wine snobbery that’s seemingly inevitable with wine knowledge. Grape Escape doesn’t dumb it down, exactly, but, as manager James Finn puts it, “We’re all learning here.”

The gimmick is education. Grape Escape’s wine list is presented in flights, so you can compare similar grapes from different places. The flight of cabernet {called The Great Cabernet Escape”) includes 1’r-oz.-pours from France. Chile, Napa, and Australia. The char-donnay version lines up New Zealand, Sonoma, Napa, and French interpretations of the grape. Golf pencils are provided so you can make tasting notes. There’s a glossary of wine vocabulary with some hints (for example, “Flavor: Wine does not usually taste like grapes”). And there’s a Rolling Stones’-style diagram of a tongue showing you where to expect to taste each flavor.

The menu is mostly tasting plates, but you can make a meal from a series of them. A row of little grilled merguez sausages with olives, a plate of perfect pate and cheese, a salad of mixed greens and grapes dressed with balsamic vinaigrette. Even the gloppy-sounding potato skin topped with caramelized onion confit, mozzarella. and walnuts, presented on a tomato and basil salad, was excellent-not the huge, horrible mess it sounds, but a neat little plate of food for $4.45. (What kind of a price is that?)

Grape Escape is ripe for replication-Brinker never had such a good idea. The brewpub trend is trying to put pretension into beer-drinking, elevating suds to gourmet status. Grape Escape is trying (one more time) to take the tension out of wine pretension. Think about it: Good food, paired with good wine, in a comfortable. friendly place-this is practically the definition of a good restaurant.

Grape Escape. 506 Commerce, Fort Worth, 817-336-9463.

5 Bistro A

OK, Avner. This is one more chance for both

of us. Bistro A is charming and the food’s

great, but your kudos here are strictly probationary. How many times are we going to be able to savor that tortilla soup before we come back to find your front door locked? Again? 1 want a commitment this time.

“I was about to get a job as a driver!” he tells I his new customers. “Then my wife invests in this restaurant! It’s gotta work!” he tells those of us who are leary of enthusiasm where so much praise has failed. (It’s not that Avner Samuel hasn’t had positive reinforcement, after all.) Avner’s got a temper that has cost him, but he’s got taste and talent, too. It’s not just that he can cook; he had a big hand in the look of his new bistro, and it’s attractive. He’s got definite-and good-ideas about what works in a restaurant. He’s determined that this time his restaurant will work, and it’s hard not to be seduced by the food at Bistro A.

Eric Kellar is the chef de cuisine, but most of the times we’ve visited Bistro A, Avner has been working the kitchen (when he’s not working the floor, greeting fans and followers who will forgive him anything if he’ll just feed them).

Feed them he does, with a medley of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors remixed in style. Lamb comes with mint-spiked food starving for attention. A moist sea bass was good but was slung onto a pile of risotto cooked to a paste more appropriate for papi-er-maché than for consumption.

Mark needs to let his pleasant staff handle more. We’re all for chef-run restaurants, But Mark, you can’t do it all.



Modo Mio

In a thick Italian accent chef/owner Rino Brigliadori barks to his waiters, “Don’t ever say ’no’ to any request! If I have it in my kitchen, I will do it!”

Here is a “labor of love restaurant” that has overcome the obstacle of being lost in an ugly strip mall. “Write something good about me so I can have more customers,” he gruffly orders me when I ask how his business has been over the past year.

OK, I will. But only because he is still serving some of the best Italian food in town. His small, quality menu turns out plump gnocchi perfectly coated with a light tomato sauce, and the simple seafood specials are always perfectly prepared.



■ Angeluna

Hark! As if there isn’t enough angel art inside the restaurant, across die street 30-foot limestone cherubs with long brass trumpets herald another downtown Fort Worth success story: the Bass Performance Hall. Angeluna postured itself wisely, anticipating the appetites of cultural crowds.

Angeluna’s real estate gamble has paid off. The patio swarms with an artsy Chanel-and-Chardonnay crowd dining on designer pizza and spinach and mushroom salads corralled in a potato ring. Who cares if it’s more about style than substance? Remember, the parent restaurant is in Aspen.



■ What Else?

Whatever have they done to What Else? The once user-friendly, well-priced menu

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