Thursday, September 28, 2023 Sep 28, 2023
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Petra and the Beast Is An Affordable Laboratory for Experimental Food

Chef Misti Norris is filling paper trays with her stellar handmade pastas, house-cured charcuterie, and foraged provisions.
By |
Kevin Marple
On Saturday nights, chef Misti Norris hosts tasting dinners at her restaurant, Petra and the Beast. In the mingling hour before, as you mill under bundles of dried flowers hanging from the ceiling, you may be handed a glass with the explanation “Misti’s been foraging, so there’s a cocktail with elderberry and sunflower syrup and some gin.”

Lest you think you are here to make daisy chains under the wild yarrow sprigs, be forewarned. Norris came through Matt McCallister’s FT33, steeped in the school of wild provisioning and high-art rusticity that used smoke and funk and tweezered plating to change the notion of what a meal can be. She made the ethos her own and took it further as executive chef at Small Brewpub (a 2016 James Beard semifinalist).

So, then, her project here—at a place backed only by herself, with the absolute freedom that comes with that—is to challenge. To push. There will be bitterness. There may be blood.
Norris spent a year thinking about Petra and the Beast, traveling, foraging, drafting business plans, meeting with other chefs with their own restaurants. Her dream house is a converted vintage gas station turned catering space turned casual food laboratory. Diners come as they are, filling communal tables and stashing BYOB libations in the standing shared fridge. The food comes on butcher paper or in disposable paper barquettes. You eat with plastic knives and forks.

Her weekday menu, scrawled on chalkboards, is mostly divided into the categories of “snacks,” “noods” (handmade pasta), and “meatums,” dictated by the seasons and Norris’ relationships with purveyors or her inclination. A charcuterie board may feature toasts, one smeared roughly with paprika-laden ’nduja—tawny-orange, warm with spices—the other with a creamy teawurst. Norris may have fashioned a terrine laced with bits of pig’s ear and herbs in aspic, or the Northern Italian ciccioli. Whole-muscle cuts are cured with koji fungus spores that lend elusive umami flavors.

It would be a mistake to think the food cannot be light. Under snacks, I was underwhelmed by the slightly pale specimens in a Texas tomato salad, the first arrival. But celtuce’s juicy green stalks, accented with fermented garlic chive powder, can counter decadent pig tails, rendered so the fat melts on your tongue like caramel candy. It’s more about synchronized profiles that give an impression of lushness. It’s a good trick.

Plate of the art: Some of Norris’ surprising partnerships include turnip cake with a tangy chive sauce.

One raucous night, I join four friends and just as many bottles of wine, augmenting the mix with kombucha (which the restaurant sells) to complement what we know will be sour and fermented flavors. Our first bite is a sandwich, divided into fifths on the crusty bread that Brock Middleton, Norris’ friend and fellow chef, makes for her. Chewy and gorgeously tangy, it’s cut thick, layered with brined cottage ham, koji-laced butter, and dandelion greens—and everyone goes wild. I catch murmurs about the mustard. You come here when you want bar bites to start clamors.

There is more of the same for gnudi, ethereal ricotta dumplings infused with garlic chives, doused in a pig-ear ragù that trickles and pools. And for cavatelli that look like fat larvae, topped with crumbles of morcilla (blood sausage). And the sacchetti, fat pouches like juicy soup dumplings, filled improbably with head cheese. No one could convince you to eat miscellaneous anatomy more blithely.

You might find that you do not love the porridge of fermented peanuts that rests under fried eggplant. Or a crispy farm egg’s sinfully dark, bitter roux. It’s the luck of the draw on evenings that feel like a cross between a food truck dinner and the most intimate soirée you can conjure. But the crispy chicken hearts meant to fold into a minty-green, garlic-chive pancake with young collard leaves—I want those for breakfast.

These dishes are more approachable than they were at Small Brewpub, less willfully artistic. The technical wizardry of powders and emulsions wielded for different reasons now. You are just as much in Norris’ imagination. And on those aforementioned Saturday nights, you have a chance to delve deeper into Norris’ mind—an ever-changing seven-course tasting dinner for $135, one seating only.

For one tasting, Norris has rustled up wild sunflowers, among other things, and so they are laced throughout the menu, along with the tenderest okra.

As all the tastings do, the meal begins with a board that is a full spectrum of texture and skillful manipulation. A one-bite okra boat with a Parmesan cream and pork crackling. A charcoal-colored gelée fluttered with a dusting of house-made chicken katsuobushi (dried, concentrated flakes). A dehydrated eggplant chip jutting out of a quenelle of chicken-liver mousse. A grilled Texas donut peach with a sprinkling of toasted puffed sorghum.

Next is a chilled knot of rye tagliarini twirled into a single bundle, garnished gracefully with peppery chaste berries, wild green mustang grapes, and segments of smoked eggplant that are firm and almost as smoky as bacon. (I inhale as I bring my face closer to the dish.) A vial of orange liquid—tomato-magnolia broth—appears alongside, chilled, as the rest of it is, to pour on top. It’s a refreshing summer dish, as though by magic bearing the floral notes of the salted magnolia petal tincture. The vial business can be gimmicky. But it isn’t. Not even for a second.

Then sunflower hearts, which have been deep-fried into nuggets, their bitterness paired brilliantly with a toasted pecan mojo and medallions of raw, pickled purple potato. Veal sweetbreads, which could have been creamier, follow, lolling with dandelion greens, languidly strewn across a board in a lovely serpentine gesture.

These courses­—in which flatware has replaced plastic—get artful, with pretty, structural presentations. A blushing mound of egg whites whipped and barely tinted with fermented Texas red bean paste; a turnip cake with a swish of tangy chive sauce; or a Yukon Gold potato mille-feuille with a smear of mousselike farm cheese and fermented tangerine beurre monté. The partnerships—sometimes astonishing—are made for diners not interested in the apparatus of fine dining.

Which leads to dessert. Those who know Norris from her time at Small Brewpub know that she is not head over heels in love with sweetness. When Tony Ibarra, both sous chef and pastry chef (he was sous chef at Small Brewpub), sways sweet-ward, it might mean a dark chocolate cake, not dry, but severe, with an unusual Chantilly sweetened with spent grain syrup and cacao nibs folded in.

At this tasting, dessert is a cube of ricotta cheesecake with mashed purple potato folded in, mild and light, almost like taro. There is a beautiful, intense, luminous custard on the side, flavored with flower syrup and dotted with a crumble of dried blossoms that the wind could have scattered there.

Ibarra tends to extend Norris’ sense of poetry. A last mignardise bite of blue-cheese mousse flirts between sweet and savory, a pale mousse with a hidden funky depth over a sesame-pepita brittle. It’s a brilliant bite, creamy and arresting. “Just don’t talk to me for a moment,” my neighbor says. I know exactly what she means.

I always left knowing I would remember dishes, finessed in many ways, rough-hewn in others. Not unlike Petra and the Beast itself. Trailblazers do not always have their own places, but Norris does. With badass technique and plastic forks.

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