A meal in a great restaurant is like a great date. The experience feels effortless. But after five outings at Acme F&B, I couldn’t help but see the restaurant as an overeager suitor. He’s a swell guy and has many qualities to recommend him: solid pedigree and an adventurous spirit. So why does he have to try so hard?
For one thing, Acme F&B is way overdressed. The restaurant is filled with vintage-inspired decor, repurposed materials, and found objects. Think damask wallpaper, exposed filament light bulbs, vintage tchotchkes such as a riding helmet, rusted toolbox, peacock feathers, and reel-to-reel film projector. Our waiter called it “steampunk farmhouse.” I call it heritage with a capital “H.” The bits and pieces were interesting on their own, but together they felt contrived. It’s set design, not restaurant design. I felt like I was in a scene from a hipster romantic comedy titled When Harry Met Sally at the Co-op.
Then there is the service. Impressions of my first meal at Acme F&B can be summed up in two words: clink, clink. It was the sound of two ice cubes dropping into my empty water glass from tongs wielded by a softly smiling waiter. Another asked if we wanted complimentary still or sparkling filtered water. Yet another appeared to drop another ice cube—clink—into a highball glass and pour a complimentary aperitif. “It’s Lillet. And French,” he purred. My tablemate arched an eyebrow as if to say, “Well, isn’t that precious.”
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Oh, I appreciated the effort. But it was all a bit much. The buzz of waitstaff around our table as we tried to read the menu was distracting. Once I could focus on the fare, though, Acme F&B began to win me over. Here was simple, uncomplicated food that I’d be happy to eat every night. Credit goes to co-owners/chefs Jeana Johnson and Colleen O’Hare. You may be familiar with their other restaurant, Good 2 Go Taco. They opened their East Dallas cafe in 2011 and transformed ubiquitous tacos into gourmet treats. They also developed and continue to execute the menu at next-door neighbor Goodfriend Beer Garden and Burger House. To open the fine-dining Acme F&B, they teamed up with Barcadia and Beauty Bar owners Brianna Larson and Brooke Humphries. All four are committed to a whole animal allocation program—horn to hoof, snout to tail—in which no part of the cow, pig, or lamb goes to waste. For instance, rather than buy cuts of beef, Johnson and O’Hare go for the whole cow, purchasing them from local farms and using the various meats and organs in appetizers and entrées in their three restaurants. At Acme F&B, this process means that the menu doesn’t just change daily; it can change over the course of an evening as certain cuts run out. Beef hearts can change to beef liver, filet to rib-eye. It’s challenging yet exciting for both the kitchen and diners.
So far, the restaurant has fallen a little shy of meeting that challenge. It is one thing to put the food on the page and quite another to put it on the plate. Acme F&B doesn’t deliver consistently. For every delicious success there was also a failure.
[inline_image id=”2″ align=”r” crop=””]Let’s start with the appetizers. Here chefs Johnson and O’Hare get daring, bringing organ meats into the mix. A daily farmer’s schnitzel—on one visit, beef heart—was topped with capers, rocket greens, a fried egg, and beef bordelaise. The runny yolk and rich sauce lent the crispy heart a decadence, with the salty capers adding the right punch. That same beef heart was present with sweetbreads in an offal croquette. Alas, the béchamel center was far too creamy, overwhelming the meat. The charcuterie platter changes daily as well. I was happy to see beef and pork head cheese—that love-it-or-hate-it terrine made from the flesh of the animal’s head—alongside light-as-air chicken liver mousse, pork rillette, and a small salad of beef tongue, frisee, and fennel. The whole platter worked. These chefs know their way around organ meats, and adventurous diners will be delighted with most results.
Salads are usually limited to three seasonal choices. An asparagus mimosa—grilled asparagus topped with roasted beets and roughly chopped hard-boiled eggs—was wonderful. But as good as that salad was, the warm bread salad was dreadful. With its mix of romaine, olives, bell pepper, and chunks of bread, Acme F&B’s play on a panzanella salad was doused in a dressing so acidic that I had to keep clearing my throat. A bread salad sounds comforting. This was an assault.
The inconsistency extends to the entrées. Acme F&B always offers two to three “farmer’s cuts,” usually beef, pork, and lamb. There are also two fish options, “river” and “ocean.” Accompaniments are a lovely lot. On one visit, a luscious cut of sablefish was served over a succotash of lima beans, peas, tomatoes, green onion, and corn. The dish felt homey yet refined, a celebration of pure late summer flavors. A side of East Texas lady cream peas, mushrooms, and ham hocks was earthy and satisfying. I would have eagerly eaten an entire bowl of it instead of the dry pork chop that the side accompanied. Cooking temperatures were the chief problem with Acme F&B. Braised rabbit came off overcooked and stringy, though it was served with a delicious three-onion risotto. A boneless rib-eye was under-seasoned and undercooked, bloody rare rather than medium rare. But, once again, the side dish almost saved the meal, this time a rich collard green-potato gratin. Happily, Acme F&B’s most popular dish—chicken and dumplings—deserves its popularity. Rather than the goopy, creamy dish of Southern kitchen fame, Johnson and O’Hare’s version was far more refined, with its tender chicken, pillowy gnocchi, and rainbow chard resting in a thin pool of gravy. An added plus: you can request white meat, dark meat, or both.
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In late September, Acme F&B made some changes in the kitchen. O’Hare and Johnson stepped down as the restaurant’s daily chefs and hired Norman Grimm, formerly of Texas Spice and Nosh Euro Bistro. While maintaining ownership of Acme F&B, the duo is exploring other restaurant possibilities. On one hand, I feared the restaurant’s highly personal menu might change. On the other, I hoped the kitchen would find the consistency I so craved.
On a final visit, I was happy to find that Acme F&B’s spirit remained intact. Chef Grimm had executed some seasonal changes: creamy cauliflower soup with toasted Marcona almonds and golden raisins; succulent duck breast, its skin perfectly crisp; and a steak tartare—that night, a rough chop of top round and tenderloin—that had a lusty, rustic quality. It may have been the best tartare I’ve had in Dallas.
Now the place had me confused. Which restaurant was I going to get? The daring one with the inconsistent kitchen or something more reliable yet still delicious? Though I’d gotten off to a rocky start at Acme F&B in the main dining room, on the bar side, I could still imagine curling up on its green velvet sofa next to the industrial-style furnace, sipping a glass of wine from its thoughtful and reasonably priced list. Or perhaps stopping in for a late-night dessert of pineapple upside down cake served in a miniature cast-iron skillet. Even overdecorated, Acme F&B’s cozy vibe is that seductive.
Underneath that reclaimed barn wood surface lurks a great restaurant. I’m sure of it. Given time, it may mature into one of Dallas’ finest restaurants. But until then, Acme F&B, I think we need some space.