Friday, February 23, 2024 Feb 23, 2024
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Review: Cliff Cafe

Promising yet inconsistent, Cliff Cafe doesn’t have to try hard to be cool.
By Todd Johnson |
photography by Kevin Hunter Marple

Unlike its flashier kin in Uptown and Victory Park, the Belmont Hotel is effortlessly cool. Legitimately cool. Cool in the way only a 1940s motor court turned crackhouse turned boutique hotel can be.

The long-neglected structure, designed by noted architect Charles Dilbeck, is perched precariously along a limestone cliff that hugs Fort Worth Avenue—the dividing line between North Oak Cliff and West Dallas—and offers panoramic views of downtown. Gutted and re-imagined by local developer Monte Anderson—a man bullish on reviving Dallas’ southern sector—the hotel is mid-century swank meets Spanish flair. The interior is all West Elm and IKEA dotted with Moroccan hanging lanterns. Nothing ostentatious. Neither is the BarBelmont, a watering hole that rivals the hotel for popularity but whose patio shares the same stunning view. At sunset, it’s one of the most glorious spots in Dallas. Best of all? No velvet ropes. It doesn’t need any. The Belmont is that cool.

So you can’t blame locals for pinning high hopes on the derelict restaurant that’s sat next to the Belmont, awaiting its same glorious makeover. If the food at the restaurant could be half as good as the Belmont’s overall vibe, we’d have another success story for a transitional area bound for distinction.

Alas, the new Cliff Cafe is a mixed blessing for now. Much like the Belmont, the hip factor is off the charts in an unassuming way. Maize-colored walls and aqua banquettes with nary a piece of chrome in sight belies the exterior’s diner-like feel. Counter service here is at a jewel-toned bar. The flatware is curvy and sleek. Even the coffeepot is so minimalist cool you’d want to slip it into your bag and take it home. (Not that I condone that behavior.)

Service can be slow and uneven: the hallmark of a new colt with wobbly legs. But the people watching is first-rate—a mix of Ben Sherman-wearing hotel guests, hip Kessler Park families, and gay boys galore—and almost makes up for the long waits between courses.

Yes, Cliff Cafe makes a great first impression once you’re in the door. It doesn’t try too hard. That’s the charm. Unfortunately, consulting chef Doug Brown of Amuse restaurant and Beyond the Box catering flexes his culinary muscles a little too much. His take on diner classics is laudable and the menu reads quite tasty. But something happens in former executive chef Stephen DeSandro’s hands that makes the fare a tad spotty.

Take breakfast for instance, the first meal I tried at Cliff Cafe. This one was a winner. Homemade buttermilk biscuits. Crispy chicken-fried steak. French toast stuffed with bananas and cream. And oh what gravy. A savory caramel color with a rich bacon flavor and the bite of black pepper, this was cream gravy of the gods. It was also missing on a return visit. “Oh that must be our dinner gravy,” our waitress deduced as she handed me a bowl of perfectly fine but ordinary cream gravy.

So to track down the elusive gravy, dinner was in order. This was where Cliff Cafe really stumbled. A friend had recommended the black bean hummus and, indeed, it was a delicious, heartier version of the Middle Eastern classic. It was also a scoop barely big enough for one let alone a table of hungry diners. Warm feta and artichoke dip could have fed the entire restaurant. After one bite of the pasty, overly pureed spread with an odd metallic taste, nobody came back for seconds, and it sat barely touched.

Entrees fared better. Spicy mango-glazed pork shanks were delightfully fall-off-the-bone tender. The Italian meatloaf with its zesty marinara sauce was a kicky spin on Mom’s classic. That is, until we discovered that the meat wasn’t cooked all the way through. (To credit the waiter, he did offer to take it off our check.) But Cajun crawfish cakes were overly salty. Lemon-honey roasted chicken breast was mediocre. And, much like its breakfast cousin, the chicken-fried steak was again outstanding, while the gravy was still humdrum, the promise of special “dinner gravy” an unfulfilled tease.

Happily, dessert leaves a great lasting impression and perfectly sums up the appeal of Cliff Cafe: flaky apple pie with vanilla ice cream, bourbon pecan pie, and a chocolate cherry brownie sundae that left the table swooning. There was nothing revelatory about these desserts. They’re classics. They don’t try too hard: the epitome of style and good taste. Much like its desserts, Cliff Cafe has the decor, locale, and hip quotient without overplaying its hand. The inconsistent food? It was annoying for me, but the day we went to print, DeSandro was replaced by two new chefs. Besides, when’s the last time you had a sundae that made your knees buckle? Now that’s cool.

Update: The Cliff Cafe is now Smoke.

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