The ballots are in. The votes have been tallied. And the decisions are final. Meet the winners of the inaugural D Magazine Chef’s Choice Awards, as determined by the Dallas restaurant industry. In such a competitive and fruitful market, we recognize the importance of celebrating the best in Dallas dining. That’s why we assembled a restaurant industry advisory panelincluding Phil Cobb (Salve), Karen Cassady (L’Epicurien), Kathy McDaniel (The Grape), Kent Rathbun (Abacus), Jim Severson (Sevy’s Grill), Gene Street (Consolidated Restaurant Operations), and Diane Teitelbaum (wine consultant)to create 10 categories for the 550 ballots we mailed to area restaurants. Only one ballot per restaurant was accepted. Duplicates were not counted, nor were self-nominations. All ballots had to be completed, signed, and postmarked by April 30. But enough with the picky details and fine print. Drum roll, please.Todd Johnson
Best Restaurant: Abacus
Best Restaurant Design: Abacus
Best Chef: Kent Rathbun
Any chef who can successfully blend Mediterranean, Southwestern, Asian, American, and Cajun/Creole influences deserves an accolade or two. With this year’s Chef’s Choice Awards, Kent Rathbun and his popular Abacus restaurant did one better. They nabbed three honors.
Opened in October 1999, Abacus firmly entrenched Rathbun on the national culinary front, after successful stints at The Mansion on Turtle Creek, the Landmark at the Melrose Hotel, and Seventeen Seventeen at the Dallas Museum of Art. Abacus’ deliciously daring menu continues to delight crowds with dishes such as lobster-scallion “shooters” with red chile-coconut sake, the restaurant’s signature dish. The artistic cuisine is perfectly framed by Abacus’ contemporary yet comfortable atmosphere, orchestrated by Engstrom Design Group of the San Francisco area. Warm, cherry wood and colors such as mustard and plum provide a softening balance to the restaurant’s angled geometric planes, abstract artwork, and use of metal and glass sculpture. Abacus also features a chef’s table, where guests can watch Rathbun and his crew at work in the European-style theater kitchen. 4511 McKinney Ave. 214-559-3111.
Best Service: The French Room
The service-training manualwritten by Jim Donohue to improve table service at the Hotel Adolphusbegins with, “You are a waitercongratulations!”
For the next 88 pages, the manual teaches what it takes to go beyond pushing plates and grinding peppercorns to provide superior personalized service. Obviously the staff has studied the text completely. In The French Room, the level of professionalism reinstates service as an art form. Hotel Adolphus, 1321 Commerce St. 214-742-8200.
Best Restaurateur: Monica Greene, owner of Monica’s Aca y Alla and Ciudad
Not many owners can pull off a hip, sexy restaurant like Monica’s Aca y Alla, let alone one up it. But Monica Greene is one of a kind. Her Deep Ellum cafe of eclectic Mexican cuisine, which combines Southwestern, Asian, and Italian flavors, is a Dallas favorite. But with Ciudad, the restaurateur broke new ground. She and chef and business partner Joanne Bondy toured Mexico, discovering recipes that would result in the new restaurant’s Mexico City-style cuisine. Greene’s ventures perfectly complement each other: Monica’s is urban and eclectic; Ciudad is rustic and sophisticated. But both sport a level of panache lacking in most Mexican cafes. Monica’s Aca y Alla, 2914 Main St. 214-748-7140; Ciudad, 3888 Oak Lawn Ave., Ste. 135. 214-219-3141.
Best Wine Program: The Green Room
The philosophy at The Green Room is experiment, experiment, experiment. To that end, owners Brandt Wood and Whit Meyers have created an adventurous wine program that’s equally appealing to both snobs and novices. The restaurant’s wine list is daring, the servers grape savvy, and the “Feed Me, Wine Me” program is probably the best deal in town. For $60, you are treated to a surprise creation by chef Marc Cassel. Each of the four courses is paired with a different wine, and because you (and the servers) never know what Cassel is going to whip up, what you drink comes down to gentle negotiations with some of the most knowledgeable wine geeks in town. 2715 Elm St. 214-748-7666.
Rookie of the Year: Khanh Dao, owner of Steel
Despite its cold name, diners have made the new Oak Lawn restaurant red hot. Not bad for a first-timer like Khanh Dao. She might have earned her chops as managing partner of North Dallas culinary edifice Voltaire, but she’s made Steel all her own and, in the process, created “the place” to be seen among Dallas’ fickle “in” crowd. The Asian restaurant’s look certainly has something to do with that: cherry wood, a secluded sake bar, and touches of steel (naturally) craft a slick and sexy room. But it’s the culinary staff Dao has assembledexecutive chef Tam Huynh, Indochine chef Jimmy Huynh, and master sushi chef Son Leand her attention to the finest details that make Steel such a complete experience. The Centrum, 3102 Oak Lawn Ave., Ste. 100. 214-219-9908.
Best Casual Restaurant: Houston’s
With a name reminiscent of our smoggy sister city on the Gulf, you’d think Dallas diners would avoid this place like I-635 at rush hour. Not so. In fact, Houston’s has been a hit since the first Dallas location opened in 1977 on Belt Line Road. The new Park Cities location continues Houston’s tradition of superior service and stellar food, including such dishes as Hawaiian barbeque rib-eye, prime rib French dip sandwich, and its famous California Club salad (which, like other old favorites, isn’t on the menu anymore but still can be prepared). Long waitsusually an hour during prime timeare unavoidable. Ah, the perils of popularity. 5318 Belt Line Rd. 972-960-1752. Multiple locations.
Best Signature Dish: Lobster tacos from The Mansion on Turtle Creek
Don’t be surprised if the next Fodor’s guide to Dallas features Dean Fearing’s warm lobster taco on the cover. The dish, created in early 1986, is not only tasty, but it’s also the poster child for the casual elegance that characterizes Fearing’s style of Southwest cuisine. 2821 Turtle Creek Blvd. 214-526-2121.
Best Restaurant Bar: Jeroboam
Forget lofts or a pedestrian mall. What downtown Dallas really needs is one great bar, and Jeroboam provides it. Located on the ground floor of the renovated Kirby Buildingthe heart of downtownthe French brasserie’s bar is a slick urban oasis full of historic charm. The zinc counter was rescued from a metal shop in Deep Ellum. Marble, used on the base of the bar, was found at the Wilson Building. Glass is from the old Dallas Power & Light building. Plush sofas and chairs make the lounge area out front a proper stage on which to pose for the designer-clad masses. Jeroboam’s bar doesn’t just enhance life downtown; the bar helps revitalize it. 1509 Main St. 214-748-7226.