It’s no secret that Monica Greene was doing modern Mexican in Dallas before it was cool, first at her stylish Aca y Alla and then at Ciudad, which closed in 2008. She took a break, went to Aspen, came back. And now, at The Cedars Socíal, Greene has assembled a dream team to deliver on the promise of the restaurant’s newly added accent mark: business partner Frankie Jimenez, bar manager and mezcal queen Leann Berry, and chef Anastacia Quiñones. Like Greene, Quiñones has long been interested in bringing modern Mexican to Dallas diners, previously at Alma, Komali, and Kitchen LTO.
The changes they have brought to The Cedars Socíal, like that accent mark, are small but noticeable. As before, the cozy, low-ceilinged space feels like a den, with an indoor fire pit now at times accented by pillows fashioned from serapes. The inherited bones, including the swanky, midcentury modern look and robust stock of spirits, are evident and embraced, though a carved and painted Mexican cherub has replaced the bicycle once suspended from the ceiling, and luchador masks line the private dining alcove.
Greene and her team’s biggest makeover is the menu. Those familiar with Quiñones from her previous kitchens will recognize her influence but also have a chance to see her anew. She’s executing casual, sometimes filling, always pretty dishes, and her homage to the new-ancient cuisine is refreshingly unselfconscious. Here, modern Mexican finds expression in contemporary plating, a fondness for edible flowers, the mastery of classical technique, and specifically items like her deconstructed tamale—steamed masa circles stacked so they sandwich a filling of mushrooms and Oaxaca cheese, the top layer then seared in duck fat. The overlay and underlay of corn husk is invisible, having left only a flavor imprint.
Quiñones’ work with masa is full of wonderful little surprises. In one early dish, quesadillas were turned into plump half-moons, pockets shaped like empanadas and filled with sautéed squash blossoms and Oaxaca cheese that pulled invitingly in strands. Marble-size masa balls hide in the velour of a carrot-habanero soup creamy from coconut milk. (They’re a play on chochoyotes.) She reveals herself as a chef, who is attentive to the way a lacy squid ink crisp adds a dynamic blackness to a pale scallop aguachile, and who waxes lyrical by infusing freshly nixtamalized tortillas with purées of beet, mole, and cilantro.
Still, the flavors reach back for something familiar. Like the sweet char and fatty soul of exceptionally tender short-rib carnitas that fall languidly from the bone and come with house-made granizo—pickled vegetables—and a small pitcher of velvety, emulsified jalapeño salsa. There are elotes, kernels roasted in the husk, tinged golden-ruddy from guajillo purée that mixes with crema to a color like warm sunshine. The sweetness of the corn enhanced by the warmth of the chiles is both beautiful and smart. In another dish, warm, handmade tortillas are the ideal vehicle to scoop the last of a spiced, chorizo-rich ragout, thick with ravishing, purple-black heirloom ayocote beans.
You may find it telling that the Southside salad, obviously meant to speak of “place,” involves local farmers’ greens, a goat cheese croquette, and mole vinaigrette. Modern, inventive swirls and an intense commitment to the seasonal join against a patchwork of deep-rooted preparations. There are also, for example, fried pork riblets with tamarind-habanero gastrique and spiced peanuts.
One of Quiñones’ strengths is a sense of balance, which is why it’s glaring when it strays. Over a sweep of aioli dotted with small cubes of Oaxaca cheese and pickled red onion for tang—the basis for what could have been a clever take on antojitos—uncrispy chicharrónes had been mashed into croquettes that were strange little pucks. Things did not come together in the fried squash blossom salad, in which the enclosed, warm packets oozing Oaxaca cheese were an odd contrast to the cold salad of grilled cactus paddle and startling, too-tart heirloom-tomato vinaigrette. The mariscos’ michelada sauce one night had an odd, tropical-fruit flavor, as though it had spent time communing with a mound of ripening bananas. And I never had a seafood entrée that was perfectly cooked. Halibut cloaked in wafer-thin potato medallions, crispy as potato chips, was overdone; scallops chewy and opaque. With so much attention paid to preparation, I was surprised to find care miscarried.
But when they do coalesce, which is often, Quiñones’ entrées feel more specific, coming from the kitchen of a more mature chef, selective and ultimately more personal, taking a greater step toward tradition. I tried to remember the last time I’d appreciated confit duck so much—rich and delicately gamy and paired with the mineral tenor of creamed spinach. (The latter’s secret: tomatillo purée and crema mixed in its depths.) The Oaxaca cheese tumbling in a sweet-cream avalanche from the chile relleno marvelously relinquishes all decorum. Deeply spiced mole joined seasoned farro, plump fried plantains, and tart house-made crema to show up a supposedly crispy chicken thigh that wasn’t.
At times, Quiñones’ inventiveness and hyper-local sourcing fail her. The strawberry flan, ultimately, was not as good an idea as it sounded—a gummy though seasonal take on strawberries and cream. Much better was the lemon olive oil tres leches cake, richly soaked and topped with edible flowers and a pretty, soft cloud of toasted meringue, or the horchata panna cotta, with its whispers of cinnamon and peanut masapan crumbles. The daintiness is all Quiñones. As is the Mexican coffee. Will it remind you of the blend that had you up late into the night after dinners at Alma? I believe it will.