Saturday, January 29, 2022 Jan 29, 2022
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Food and Drink

Restaurant Review: The Cedars Social

Ex-NFL linebacker Brian Williams, mixologist Michael Martensen, and chef John Tesar bring a retro cocktail den to the swinging Cedars.
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Crispy pork belly and retro cocktails. photography by Kevin Marple

Our drinks were worth the wait. I sipped a fiery red potion called Diablo Rojo made with Corzo tequila, fresh raspberries, agave nectar, lime, and muddled fresh jalapeños. It was shaken and served in a tiny 5.5-ounce vintage champagne coupe. (Warning: each 3-ounce cocktail contains about 2 ounces of alcohol.) My delicate friend sipped a dainty daiquiri of DonQ Cristal rum, cane sugar, and fresh lime, while another sampled a Bees Knees, a splendid blend of London dry gin, lemon juice, and honey syrup garnished with a lemon twist. As the nifty glasses were passed around the table, we erupted in a chorus of oohs and aahs.

The exclamations continued as crab cake sliders appeared on the table. Even though I suffer from slider fatigue, I enjoyed the fresh jumbo lump crab that shone through a light breading and a mixture of Dijon, homemade mayonnaise, basil, and scallion.

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Two more small plates arrived. I squealed after my first bite of octopus. The contrasting textures were surreal. The tentacles are slow-braised in red wine until they are tender and wrapped with a creamy char of tomato paste and garlic. The dish is finished with tiny bits of chorizo, avocado, and fresh celery leaves. Gnudi, Tesar’s salute to the dish popularized by New York’s Spotted Pig, are plump, pasta-like dumplings of ricotta cheese served in a brown butter sauce scented with thyme, bay leaf, and lemon. The texture of the molten cheese titillated my tongue as the savory herbs went to work on my olfactory nerves. I could have eaten 100 of them.

At this point in the meal, though, my palate was confused. There were a lot of flavors dancing around the table, and my sweet, spicy Diablo Rojo cocktail was not jibing with the food. How to reconnect with the rest of the meal, which would include meatloaf, scallops, and chicken and waffles? If only the bar offered a mildly amusing Italian Sauvignon Blanc.

Buried between the cocktails and food items, I found a small wine list created by consulting sommelier DLynn Proctor. There are close to 20 wines by the glass, including a list of “Usual Suspects” such as Cakebread, Silver Oak, and Opus One. Obviously they don’t want to sell a lot of wine, but it makes sense to offer it with the large-plate items, perhaps as paired tasting pours. It would have been nice if our server had suggested we pair our food with wine and return to cocktails postprandially. I ordered a Bibi Graetz Rosso “Casamatta” Sangiovese to cover the spread.

A glass of 1978 Chateau Margaux could not have saved the ridiculous mass of caul fat- and bacon-wrapped meatloaf that was set before me. When I removed the bacon, the finely ground beef and veal gurgling in ketchup spilled slowly across my plate like a trowel full of wet stucco. It was so soupy that we had to eat it with a spoon.

The chicken and waffles weren’t quite a disaster, but they were overly salted. The thin yeast waffles were a delight, and the chicken, which is marinated in buttermilk for three days, was juicy. But someone in the kitchen is giving his elbow a real workout with a salt shaker.

This has to be frustrating news for John Tesar. He tackled this project by cooking 45 days straight to get the menu in shape. It’s obvious he has put his heart into the project. But by the time I hit The Cedars Social for my final visit, in early April, Tesar was dividing his attention between its kitchen and the work required to open his own restaurant, The Commissary, in One Arts Plaza. He’s dedicated to keeping the quality high at both places, and he claims he has hired the talent to do it, but the food at The Cedars Social was better when Tesar was in the kitchen.

I won’t soon forget the night I was seduced by his lobster pot pie. It was filled with lovely bites of sautéed lobster, asparagus, potatoes, carrots, baby peas, and wild mushrooms soaking in a sassy, updated buerre blanc sauce of lobster stock, white wine, shallots, thyme, and bay leaf. The dish is topped with a hat of flaky puff pastry. Then there was the afternoon I stuffed my face with three pieces of pie—pecan, buttermilk, sweet potato—baked by Tesar’s wife, Tracy, the former pastry chef at The Driskill Hotel in Austin.

There’s a lot to love at The Cedars Social. The food is good—some of it is great. And the setting is a treat. As its historic Cedars neighborhood continues its upswing, the restaurant—er, bar—should do well. But I believe it will take some time for the original concept to mellow into a more user-friendly experience. If the place isn’t a restaurant, as Martensen claims, then perhaps they should ditch the large plates to help diners break out of their starter-salad-entrée-dessert mentality. Sure, they’ll lose some customers who aren’t willing to wait 10 to 15 minutes for a handcrafted cocktail, but by pushing those who remain to try something new, they—forgive me—will raise the bar for bars in Dallas. The space demands that you play it loose and free. Just keep your keys to yourself. You don’t want to embarrass yourself at The Cedars Social, because you’ll want to return.

For more information about The Cedars Social, visit our restaurant guide.