In his short career as a chef, 31-year-old David Gilbert has been a rambling guy. He left his hometown of Dallas to attend Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina, where he graduated from the culinary arts program in 1997. For nine years, he worked all over the globe, mastering his craft in notable kitchens such as Michelin-rated Restaurant Vermeer in Amsterdam; Ritz-Carltons in Atlanta (Buckhead) and St. Thomas; the Inn at Perry Cabin near Washington, D.C.; Eau Bistro in St. Louis; and the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills.
In 2006, Gilbert was lured back to Dallas by Obi Ibeto, the restaurateur developing the Dallas Roof Gardens, an opulent retreat in downtown. Ibeto’s centerpiece restaurant was Luqa. The soft-spoken, boyish Gilbert won praise for avant-garde touches such as serving lamb jus in a French coffee press with whole coffee beans at the bottom and for techniques such as sous vide—which he did before it became trendy. Then, after nine months, Ibeto couldn’t pay the bills. Gilbert worked without pay for a month, but, in the end, he and the entire staff walked out. Gilbert disappeared.
In 2008, he resurfaced when he was tagged to be the executive chef of Table 18, a fine dining restaurant planned for the Rosewood Court Tower and backed by the deep pockets of veteran Dallas restaurateur Jack Baum and investor Mort Meyerson. Gilbert spent a year and a half developing the concept, but the economy collapsed, and Baum and Meyerson decided not to open. Again Gilbert disappeared.
“I’ve had a little string of bad luck here in Dallas,” Gilbert says with a soft giggle. “I just want to get things happening.”
Thanks to Dallas restaurateur and world traveler Russell Hayward (Nikita, Tom Tom Asian Grill, TABC, and partner in Fuse), right now things are happening for Gilbert at Lazare, a bar and restaurant located in the West Village space vacated by Ferre and Pescabar. Lazare’s concept: “a classic cocktail bar and brasserie reminiscent of Brasserie Lipp in Paris and Sardi’s in New York.” Hayward loves Paris and has spent a lot of time hanging with the locals. The inspiration for the restaurant’s design and name came from Gare Saint-Lazare. “It’s a loose association,” Hayward says. “It’s just supposed to be a fun name.”
Beneath the bizarre name lies a menu with a conscience. Gilbert has gone to great lengths to reinvent classic bistro dishes while still supporting local farmers and small producers. He buys produce from Eden’s Organic Garden Center in Balch Springs and Barking Cat Farm in Hunt County. Cheese comes from area artisan producers such as Veldhuizen Family Farm in Dublin. To my knowledge, Gilbert is the only chef in town who has gone to a farmer and asked her to plant for him.
“I sat down with Marie, owner of Eden’s, with an organic seed catalog and went through what would grow on her soil,” Gilbert says. “She has all kinds of things growing for us right now—four different kinds of cucumbers, off-the-wall radishes, and tomatoes.”
Gilbert also has purchased an expensive CVap machine, for “controlled vapor” cooking. It uses a dual system of moist vapor heat and dry air heat that will enable him to take sous vide to the next level. He cooks all of his meat and most of his vegetables using the sous vide method (the food is vacuum sealed in a bag and cooked for long times at low temperatures). The result is an intensely flavored, softly textured product. The CVap allows Gilbert to tinker with the cooking conditions to achieve different textures. Who knows what he’ll dream up once he masters the machine?
However, all of these noble causes and exotic techniques drive up overhead. One look at the moderately priced menu—entrées are $12 to $19—made me wonder if the radishes weren’t the only off-the-wall things in the kitchen. Both Hayward and Gilbert agree they’re taking a big risk on their steep food costs. “Charging $27 in the past for an entrée has never been a problem for me,” Gilbert says. “This price point is uncharted territory. I had to do a lot of tweaking.”
Take the $15 chicken. It’s not just any free-range, free-love bird. These pampered chicks are raised to Gilbert’s specs by Dominion Farms in Denison. Team Lazare went through months of taste testing to come up with the right birds—no males, because they are too aggressive and the meat is tough. Lazare’s chickens are raised separately at Dominion Farms. “Your jaw would drop if you knew the cost of the chicken,” Gilbert admits.
Well, my jaw dropped when I tasted the chicken. The boneless meat is soaked in brine for 12 hours, marinated with herbs in a vacuum-sealed bag, and oven-cooked to order. The result is a juicy bird that tastes like the chicken my grandmother put on the table an hour after she’d killed it. The meat is slightly gamey. Hints of exotic pepper and coriander fill your olfactory senses as you chew. The half-chicken comes with a silver cylinder of fresh-cut fries seasoned with sea salt. The first order we received was undercooked. On subsequent visits, we ordered them crispy, and they were superb.
Salads at Lazare are also like a trip back in time. Imagine lettuce that actually tastes like lettuce rather than crunchy air. Hydro Bibb lettuce is picked from a plant in the kitchen. “It’s still growing,” said the server, referring to the emerald green lettuce tossed with crispy bacon bits and garlic chips. The tender leaves, with a delicious buttery texture, were dressed ever-so-lightly in aged Spanish sherry vinaigrette, adding flavors of nuts and coffee.
Gilbert’s sous vide offerings were hit and miss. Beef short ribs, cooked for 48 hours and seared to order, were spectacular. They’re served with an outrageously tasty ratatouille. Little whole onions, sliced tomato, and roasted eggplant sing with the flavor of fresh thyme and extra virgin olive oil. On the other hand, the block steak was nothing to sing about. The fat veins of grass-fed meat were hard and gristly. The exterior of the meat was shiny like the plastic it was cooked in. However, fennel at Lazare is a religious experience. The licorice-scented bulb is cooked for 12 hours with a touch of garlic oil, sliced lemon, thyme, and olive oil. The result shocks your senses with sharp punches of every flavor.
Lazare isn’t all fancy food. There are plenty of casual options, because the space and menu are designed to be used all day. Shoppers can rest with a glass of wine and a merguez (lamb and beef) sausage flatbread with artichokes, pecorino, and toasted pine nuts. Moviegoers can grab a Royale with cheese, Hayward’s homage to Pulp Fiction.
Desserts, surprisingly, were a disappointment. Honey-yogurt mousse was tepid and too sweet. Rhubarb cobbler was not sweet enough. On our last visit, Gilbert debuted a winner: a warm chocolate chip cookie topped with a layer of chocolate cake wrapped in Nutella icing, finished with freshly whipped cream and double bean vanilla ice cream.
The wine list is short and user-friendly. Wine is sold by the glass for $7, $9, and $12 or by the bottle for $28, $36, or $48. If you’re feeling sassy (we weren’t), you can eat in the bar and order an Uptown Cougar or Park Cities Princess from the cocktail list.
Speaking of the bar, it has a brasserie-style feel, with a black and white hexagonal tile floor, warm wood paneling, and smoky, distressed mirrors. Thankfully, Team Lazare gutted the old Pescabar space and reconfigured the interior. The main dining room is divided into three spaces. Most of the walls are lined with upholstered banquette seating. At night, hundreds of candles shimmer against the vintage ribbed glass on top of the partitions. But by day, the harsh light makes the dining room look more like a saloon. What appeared to be rich leather the night before turns into cheap-feeling brown faux leather in the morning.
Just as Gilbert is dedicated to helping local farmers, his staff needs to learn how to help its customers. On all three visits, our service was inattentive, forgetful, and inefficient. The restaurant business is going through tough times, and no restaurant, especially a new one, can afford to alienate even one customer. Lazare is working on slim profit margins. If the crowds don’t come this time, Gilbert may disappear forever.
Get contact information for Lazare Bar and Restaurant.