The 10 Best New Restaurants in Dallas

Innovative, imaginative fine dining seemed on the verge of extinction in Dallas. But this year, in the face of recession, national disaster, and consumer caution, the prospects for dining out are stronger than ever. A restaurant

AllGood Cafe

From the sounds of Lyle Lovett to its low-key ambience, AllGood
makes you feel like you’re in Austin. Owner Mike Snider (left) has not
only imported the Capital City’s casual vibe to Deep Ellum, but he’s
also brought along live music, too. On any given weekend, kick back
with a plate of hot King Ranch casserole and a cool longneck while
popular bands such as Lucky Pierres and Warren Hood and the Blue Light
Special put you in a Lone Star state of mind. AllGood Cafe is
comforting and easygoing, especially for weekend breakfasts. As the
cafe’s motto sums it up: “Make love, not money.” How very Austin. 2934
Main St. 214-742-5362. —T.J.

  YORK STREET Alpha Female

Sharon Hage’s York
Street is the perfect example of a delicious movement: the artisanal
restaurant. In contrast to the big-business, high-profile,
corporate-style steakhouses and gourmet palaces that have dominated
Dallas dining, York Street shows Chef Hage’s hands in every aspect of
the business. She selected—“collected” is a more accurate word—the
eclectic china place settings, a mix of new and old, fragile and funky.
She buys the food, as much as possible from small sources, and much of
it is organic. She writes the daily menu on her computer at home. She
dreams up and prepares all the food. And her philosophy fuels the
business. “I believe if it doesn’t evolve, you die,” she says. “Every
day I ask myself, What can we do to make this place more comfortable
for people who come here?”

It’s a distinctly feminine definition of success: not bigger, but better.

To achieve it, she
relies on a network of small purveyors and friends. Tom Spicer provides
her organic produce and herbs; Pike’s seafood in Portland, Maine, sends
her skatewings, cod, and exotic seafood; Winn Meats brings in Jamison
lamb and B3R organic beef for her ever-changing “chalkboard on paper”
menu. She points out, rightly, that shopping is as much a part of being
a chef as cooking.
Hage eschews the cliché triumphs of being a
successful chef. For instance, she avoids “tortilla soup syndrome,”
being pigeonholed by a signature dish. In fact, she says, “It’s a
personal goal never to have a signature dish.” York Street’s tiny size
works to her advantage: tentative regulars are still trying something
different every time, and she wants to keep it that way, constantly
experimenting with new and unusual ingredients and combinations.

Unlike many executive
chefs, Hage’s place is actually in the kitchen, and from the stove she
conducts a hand-to-mouth dialogue with her customers, communicating via
the dinner plate. She notices what gets scraped and what gets scrapped.
She’s thrilled that rabbit and skatewings outsell salmon. She’s excited
about the clean-plate response to calf’s liver. On the other hand, she
recently got an ocean perch from the coast of Maine, and the kitchen
staff ended up eating it because it didn’t sell.

The subculture of
Dallas kitchens is still dominated by guys in tall white toques, but
Hage’s determination has taken her off the good-old-boy grid and up to
the five-star level via a path of her own choosing. This tiny enclave
is now her personal turf. She’s changed everything except the name and
put her personal stamp on every detail, from the biographical interior
touches to the soothing tea service at the end of the perfect meal. In
this tiny East Dallas restaurant, Chef Sharon Hage has created her own
world. 6047 Lewis St. @ Skillman Rd. 214-826-0968. $$-$$$. Full bar.

  LA DUNI The Same, Only Different

“A day without
laughter, love, or dessert is a total loss of a day.” That’s what
Espartaco Borga’s mother used to tell him. Evidently, this is a man who
listened to his mama: the first thing you get when you walk into his
new restaurant, La Duni, is a pie in the face, so to speak.

Sweet
Life: Husband and wife team Dunia and Espartaco Borga—pictured with
their son Brandon—combine authentic Latin American fare and exotic
desserts in a cozy setting at La Duni.

A lavishly laid table
displaying dream desserts separates the entry from the little coffee
bar and from the dining room proper. Huge cakes, nearly 2 feet in
diameter, tower on elaborate, hammered silver cake plates: rollo de
canela y nuez, a double-butter cinnamon brioche roll filled with
caramelized Texas pecans; silky, black chocolate truffle cake, ruffled
with chocolate; vanilla cake filled with mouthwatering, yolk-yellow
lemon curd; and the best-selling quatro leches (four milk) cake, layers
of double vanilla sponge cake laced with Cacique rum and soaked in
quatro leches sauce, topped with caramelized meringue and served with
arequipe leche. Clearly, you cannot count the day lost when you’ve
eaten at La Duni.

Borga’s mother is not
the only feminine spirit inspiring the restaurant. “In Latin America,
you always call the home by the lady of the house,” he says. So La Duni
is named after his wife and pastry chef Dunia Borga. (Zuzu was
Espartaco’s childhood nanny, which explains the name of his first
successful restaurant venture in Dallas.) Duni brought together the
dishes and the cooks that embody the couple’s dream of an authentic,
family-oriented Latin restaurant. Somehow, La Duni provides the
ultimate restaurant experience—the comfort of a mother with the
excitement of a lover.

The menu features
dishes from Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Peru, and Venezuela. The kitchen
uses familiar ingredients with vivid imagination and authentic care.
For instance, tostadas precede the meal, but instead of salsa, there’s
a trio of mojos on the table: roasted red pepper, cilantro and garlic,
and chimichurri (parsley, oregano, garlic, and red pepper flakes). The
cocktail menu is irresistible, and the tall drinks, hand-mixed and
delivered to the table in the waiter’s hand, recall a time when
bartending was an art. A meal begins with planton campero, a
combination appetizer plate with flat slices of green plantain, little
fried balls of queso fresco, cheese-filled empanadas, and arepita. The
torta is served in a popover filled with grilled picanha beef, fresh
watercress, tomatoes, chimichurri, and cheese. The biggest seller is
the pollo al aljibe, a roasted half chicken in a sauce of champagne and
green oranges, served with garlic white rice, black beans, and fried
sweet plantains.

South-of-the-border
food in Dallas has never suffered the legendary fickleness of Dallas
diners. We love all things Mexican without reservation. So it’s no real
stretch for our palates to embrace this next hot (pardon the pun) trend
on a plate. La Duni has capitalized on our taste for beef and tortillas
by concocting a menu of South American specialties, dishes that seem
wildly exotic and comfortingly familiar at the same time. 4620 McKinney
Ave. @ Knox St. 214-520-7300. $-$$. Full bar.

  FERRE RISTORANTE Good Genes

This is probably the best tomato soup in the universe. Certainly it’s the best in Dallas.

The sweetness of the
fruit is emphasized by onions and roasting and based on a deep-flavored
foundation of stock. It’s served in a coffee cup and topped with a
cappuccino-style foam of milk that replaces Campbell’s cream as the
unctuous tie that binds the flavors together.

The skill and attention
given to this seemingly basic dish is representative of Chef Kevin
Ascolese’s kitchen in Patrick Colombo’s restaurant. In fact, Ferre’s
success, after a shaky opening, results from the same good chemistry
that created the Sfuzzi phenomenon 15 years ago when this duo, together
with Chuck Kneeland, restored McKinney Avenue’s reputation as Dallas’
restaurant row. This year, they’re re-pioneering the same street, with
an anchor location in the West Village, the city’s venture into new
urbanism.

Once again, the
chemistry is working and the time is right. Ferre offers high style at
a low price in the right place. With a little help from designer
friends, Colombo and his wife dreamed up the Milanese décor—a big,
crowded, convivial room with oases of intimacy created by lighting,
windows, and well-placed art. Chuck Kneeland runs the front of the
house, and his presence in the project was enough to lure Ascolese out
of Salve’s kitchen and into Ferre’s. “Knowing I was going to work with
Chuck on a day-to-day basis was the single biggest reason I came here,”
Ascolese says.

A great dish is made up
of layered flavors that segue into one another and complement each
other so perfectly that you can hardly identify them all. Our memories
of visits to Ferre are in our mouth: gnocchi so light it melts in your
mouth like cotton candy is tossed with shrimp cooked just to curling.
Tuscan-style steak is sizzled in olive oil, lightening the beef’s heft.

In a top restaurant,
the service is so smooth that you don’t notice anything but the food.
Restaurant success is based on ensemble effort—it takes just the right
combination of tried-and-true expertise to make a restaurant like
Ferre, as comforting and classic as tomato soup. West Village, 3699
McKinney Ave. 214-522-3888. $$-$$$. Full bar.

  LE RENDEZVOUS Déjà Vu

It’s late in the evening, and the only diners left are lingering over coffee.

As we leave, we see two
old, round-cheeked men sitting at a two-top table by the door—one in
chef’s whites still streaked from the kitchen, the other with wild gray
hair. Speaking fast in French punctuated with their hands, the old
friends talk and laugh over their wine and dinner.

Thirty years ago, you
might often have seen a similar scene in Dallas when restaurants Mr.
Peppe, Marcel’s, and Ewald’s all shared the same block and their French
chefs would gather late at night to unwind in one of the restaurants,
as if Lovers Lane were a Paris boulevard. They are long gone, and for a
sad while, it looked like French food was gone from Dallas, too. But
not while Chef Jean LaFont, probably the best chef Dallas ever claimed,
still wields a whisk. That’s LaFont at the table with Chef Jean Rubede,
two survivors of the Dallas dining scene. The Frenchmen are old
friends—and business neighbors, now that LaFont is cooking at Le
Rendezvous. This straightforward French menu at LaFont’s place is
simple, elegant, and excellent by virtue of tradition, not trendiness.

The dining room is
beautiful in a bourgeois way, with a fireplace, a tiny dance floor, and
a mural of a French château on one wall. It’s meant to make you
comfortable, not take your breath away. Likewise, the menu doesn’t bowl
you over with innovation. Instead, it is short and to the point. A
pastry cup is filled with wild mushrooms in a Madeira sauce, topped
with chunks of sharp Roquefort. The onion soup is the real thing: as
the waiter set down the traditional crock, our noses picked up the
distinctive scent of the traditional veal stock. Vichyssoise Parisienne
was velvety smooth and cold, with chunks of fresh crab sprinkled with
fresh chives. Dover sole is sautéed to a fine, firm texture and served
“belle meunière,” in a light butter and lemon sauce with sautéed wild
mushrooms. Grilled filet mignon “Oscar of the Waldorf” is a
2-inch-thick filet topped with an inch of crab and two tips of
asparagus crossed like a coat of arms. Desserts are so fine and so
French: raspberry soufflé or dark chocolate mousse served in a cracked
chocolate egg.

Jean LaFont cooked at
The Pyramid, Les Saisons, Arthur’s, and other upscale Dallas
restaurants in the ’70s and ’80s. Le Rendezvous puts him back in the
spotlight, doing a reprise of recipes he’s perfected over the years. “I
dedicated my life to food,” he says. “I wanted to do a nice French
restaurant before I retired.” 5934 Royal Lane, Ste. 120. 214-739-6206.
$$-$$$. Full bar.

  THE MERCURY Versatility by Design

Tried-and-true teamwork and talent are pioneering fine dining at the new Mercury in the (possibly) greener pastures
of Willow Bend. Smiling George Majdalani is one of the
front-of-the-house stars in Dallas, and his warming welcome and the
kitchen wizardry of Chef Chris Ward lend coziness to Mercury’s
clean-as-chlorine décor by Zero Three.

Simple solutions to
design challenges are this firm’s forte. This is a fine example. For
instance, Mercury has hitched its star to the Shops at Willow Bend, but
evidently, just to give the restaurant enough parking. (That is,
Majdalani says Mercury doesn’t rely on mall walkers for its business.
In fact, it doesn’t even have an entrance from inside the mall.) The
wall opposite the kitchen is lined with windows that would look out
over the acres of parking lot except for the construction of a simple
wall, just several feet beyond a rock garden, painted vivid chartreuse.
We can think of a dozen restaurants in Dallas that should swipe this
idea. The kitchen simply shows what’s pretty through sheets of clear
glass, while frosted glass screens the ugly aspect of cooking. The
sunny, domed entry leads into the two-story dining room that seems
casual and clean by day but stylish and intimate at night. Or, if you
prefer a cozy dinner in a more traditional setting by the fire, eat in
the library.

Chris Ward has brought
some of his best tricks with him from the old Mercury (now Mercury
Grill) in Preston Forest. For example, the Crackling Chicken is a
bestseller here, too. Crisp, crusted skin that snaps and melts in the
mouth protects incredibly moist meat thoughtfully nestled on whipped
potatoes that catch the juices. It’s been said that Kobe beef is Ward’s
new signature, but the piece we prefer is the salmon sided with
caramelized endive. We continued the caramel theme into the apple pie
dessert. But Ward’s former signature dish—the silky foie gras drizzled
with white truffle oil, flanked by wild mushroom ragout—remains as the
reason (for us) to make the 30-minute drive north.

Zero Three has been
designing restaurants for M Crowd and Mico Rodriguez’s other projects
for several years. This Mercury may be its best effort yet. Cutting
edge and cozy, cool and comforting, chic and chicken—all these seeming
contradictions apply to Mercury. This is a restaurant that can become
what you want it to be, largely because of the design. The Shops at
Willow Bend, 6121 W. Park Blvd., Plano. 469-366-0107. $$-$$$. Full bar.

  NANA Taking It to the Top

Other
cities eschew restaurants in hotels, but Dallas has always relied on
its hotel dining rooms. The Fairmont and The Mansion have probably
influenced good food in this town more than any other restaurants.
Moreover, our hotel dining rooms have dared to set a standard of
service that few independents can afford. Still, elegance has had a
hard year. Fewer and fewer operators are finding it possible to survive
in the rarefied high end of the restaurant food chain. So when a face
lift was announced for the Anatole’s premier restaurant last year, it
was hard to know what to expect.

Nana’s face lift was
not only truly rejuvenating, it was also a daring reversal of current
restaurant trends. At a time when everyone is scrambling for low-ticket
volume, Nana ratcheted things up. In fact, right up to the top. This
may be the most elegant dining room in Dallas right now. The
egalitarian word “grill” is gone from the name; the menu is lavished
with truffles and foie gras and caviar; the table is set with Italian
napkins of Egyptian cotton, enormous crystal wine goblets, Versace and
Rosenthal china, heavy silver Italian flatware, and silver salt dishes.
Waiters hover to retrieve napkins and remove plates, and the room sings
with violins. The decor is subtly elegant, relying on the dazzling,
unobstructed view of downtown visible from every table and on the
priceless art placed throughout the restaurant: 300-year-old statues of
Buddha, jade horses, and cloisonné vases from the same collection of
Trammell Crow’s that fills the Asian art museum in the Arts District.

Nana is now a
restaurant reaching for the very top, and under the experienced
professionalism of Manager Paul Pinnell and the judicious extravagance
of Chef David McMillan, it achieves the pinnacle. The wine list is a
book that could make good bedtime reading—it’s that extensive and
interesting, and the by-the-glass selection allows you to make a full
meal without a full bottle. Perhaps the best way to appreciate the
range of both kitchen and service here is to order the chef’s tasting
menu: a 12-course feast that includes such culinary challenges as foie
gras with Tokaj caramelized pineapple, seared marlin with wild
mushrooms and truffled potato cake, and Axis venison chop with celery
root purée and lingonberry sauce.

A meal at
Nana now sets a daring standard for luxury in Dallas dining—a rare
experience. Anatole Hotel, 2201 Stemmons Fwy. 214-761-7479. $$$. Full
bar.

  ECCOLO Good Bones

Everything from good writing to good looks to good cooking requires good structure. Good bones, you might say.

Rick Robbins, chef at
Eccolo, spends $400 a week on bones. Without good bones, he says, you
can’t get the right depth of flavor in sauces.

Four years ago, at
Ewald’s, this chef served us one of the worst professionally prepared
meals we’ve eaten in Dallas. But after a year and a half of eating and
cooking in Italy, Chef Robbins is a contender in Dallas dining rooms.
For instance, his risotto with black truffles, one of the defining
dishes of Italian cuisine, is superb.

Robbins feels he was
born to cook, and he started early. He graduated from the Western
Culinary Institute in Portland (his hometown) in 1994, when he was 20.
But his real gastronomic education came in Italy, first at the Grand
Hotel Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, and then at the Italian Culinary
Institute in Costigliole D’Asti. That’s where restaurateur Al Granoff
sent his protégé in preparation for opening Eccolo in the old Toscana
space.

The two had worked
together in an attempt to rejuvenate the Stoneleigh Hotel, and when
Granoff decided to open a really traditional Italian restaurant with an
all-Italian wine list and a roots-regional Italian menu, he turned to
Robbins again. Together they built the restaurant concept from the
inside (the bones) out.

In the kitchen, Robbins
is a purist. His sauces are the key to his food, and he makes them the
lengthy, long-cooked, old-fashioned way, taking no shortcuts and using
no bases or pastes. He imports many of his ingredients, including a
cheese he discovered in Puglia, mozzarella burrata pugliese. He depends
on traditional recipes, such as bistecca fiorentina, the 16-ounce,
bone-in, grilled Angus strip loin with sea salt, unfiltered
extra-virgin olive oil, and a salad of arugula and grana padano. When
black truffles were in season this winter, Robbins devised a whole menu
devoted to truffles, which cost about $600 a pound.

Even the
bargain-basement version of the luxury food reflected the worth of
Robbins’ belief in bone-deep basics. For $27, we were served nothing
more than rice, butter, stock, cheese, and truffles—a deep plate of
rich, creamy risotto infused with the deep earthy musk of black
truffles. The dish was perfect to the tooth, creamy in the mouth, basic
Italian, and flawless. 4900 McKinney Ave. @ Monticello Ave.
214-521-3560. $$$. Full bar.

   ORGANICITY Idiot Savant

Occasionally, a place
works in spite of itself, because it breaks all the rules of sensible
business and runs enthusiastically on passion and luck alone. That’s
Organicity, one of the unlikeliest and most delightful success stories
of the year.

Gino and Olina Nikolini
are shoe and clothing designers from Thassaloniki, a city in Macedonia,
Greece. He spent three years making shoes for his shop in SoHo but left
for Dallas in 1992.

They had great success
with their fashion business—their shoes are carried in Harvey Nichols
in London, Barney’s, and Nordstrom. But they got homesick for good
Greek food, especially food from Macedonia, so they opened the small
retail store just down from the corner of Cole and McKinney to showcase
shoes and food. Well, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense, but
somehow it works. And it seems perfectly natural, when you’re sitting
at Organicity enjoying the excellent moussaka, to see a pair of 5-inch,
pink-studded wedges used as a centerpiece.

This is probably the only place in America where you can buy a camo skirt trimmed with red tulle and some killer tzatziki.

The Greek menu includes
the usual—hummus, Greek salad, moussaka, pastitsio, and dolmas—but
there are also some more unusual dishes, like radikia, bitter greens
boiled and flavored with olive oil and lemon. Gino brought the seeds
from Macedonia and grows the plants on a friend’s property near
Southfork. He also imports giant beans from Greece, boils and bakes
them, and serves them with fresh tomato sauce and olive oil. “I’m far
away from my country, and I know what is good,” insists Gino, who is
happy to point out the health benefits of his cooking. His yogurt salad
is “good for your skin and your belly.” The radikia is beneficial for
your liver and pancreas.

It’s admittedly rare to
find health food, once synonymous with ugly shoes, and fashion under
the same roof, but Gino says the two go together. “Because we are
designers, we cook with passion!” Like everything else about this
eccentric restaurant, it may be the exception that proves the rule.
3028 Hall St. 214-953-0330. $-$$. Beer and wine.

  HOLY SMOKES It’s the Bomb!

In Texas, barbeque
means brisket. But that’s not true everywhere. Holy Smokes offers a
nonparochial barbeque experience. The owners, two guys from Highland
Park, traveled all over, tasting regional barbeque. Then they came home
and created a true cultural smorgasbord, a high-minded buffet of
low-down barbeque.

Chris Andrews and
Wright Monning have known each other since the fifth grade. Their
hobby/business of smoking meats turned into a catering business and
then became the dream of a restaurant. So they packed up Wright’s truck
and took off.

“We wanted to make sure
that we tasted each style of barbeque,” says Andrews. “We went to all
of the famous places, but we were mainly looking for the different
techniques and how barbeque was viewed by the culture.

“At Dreamland in
Tuscaloosa, Ala., we spent the day with the owner, Fat Daddy, who
taught us his technique: a dry rub, a bit of smoke, and a finish on the
charbroiler,” he adds. “But our major influence came from the Hill
Country, where the barbeque is different because of the German
settlers.” The main difference is the cold smoking, and Holy Smokes
cold smokes their Hill Country-style brisket for 16 to 18 hours.

But something else sets
Holy Smokes apart: they sell a lot of non-Texas barbeque. The pulled
pork sandwich made Memphis-style and served with coleslaw is a big
seller. The popular Santa Fe green chile stew and even a (sigh) Caesar
salad with grilled chicken prove how eclectic Holy Smokes’ menu really
is.
On the other hand, they don’t neglect the culture of their
native city, either, unabashedly serving Frito pie, perhaps the
ultimate Dallas junk food: chopped brisket, shredded cheese, onions,
barbeque sauce, and jalapeños over a pile of Fritos. We only wish they
would serve it the classic way—in the bag. 8611 Hillcrest Rd. @
Northwest Hwy. 214-691-7427. $. Beer and wine.

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