The center of gravity of the city’s restaurant scene first began to shift when Misti Norris set up shop inside an old gas station on Haskell Avenue, serving Petra & the Beast’s whimsical, experimental fare in paper boats with plastic cutlery. Next, Donny Sirisavath took up the search for the perfect Lao rice noodle at Khao Noodle Shop on Bryan Street. And then, late last year, Ross Demers joined this nationally celebrated cohort, with his Cry Wolf on Gaston Avenue.
This progression of culinary flashes has turned an overlooked and modestly gritty locale into an indie enclave. It is a place that is becoming shorthand for pedigree and originality, allowing the sparks of inventiveness that have been extinguished elsewhere. Old East Dallas is not quaint and performative like the Bishop Arts District has become, with see-and-be-seen spots like Paradiso. It’s something new but also familiar, emerging like the ascendant Brooklyn of 15 years ago, a neighborhood where you may walk into a storefront and find one of the city’s most talented and innovative chefs in the kitchen.
You enter Cry Wolf on Gaston Avenue, lured by the simple red neon sign, and very quickly see that Demers is doing something extraordinary here. At On the Lamb, which he opened and closed in 2016 in Deep Ellum, flavors emerged out of the gloom of a bar and the din of electric guitars. Now two-tops (primarily) and a shared, cozy banquette fill a 30-seat space. The warmth is accentuated by a playlist that’s far mellower and a staff that overlapped variously in previous stints (at Khao Noodle Shop and Petra & the Beast nearby and Fauna and Flora Street Cafe in the not-too-distant Arts District). It feels like a reunion tour or an established band releasing a new album.
There is a comfort level and sense of accomplishment such that, two or four days in, it felt like they were on their second week or month instead. Part of that, no doubt, stems from the fact that Cry Wolf was a long time coming, a passion project in gestation for four years, a promise further stalled by the pandemic. The rest is because this brick-and-mortar is like being inside Demers’ brain.
On a menu that is scarcely more than a dozen items long—though there are no sides and, as yet, no desserts, nothing is missing—he bends classical French technique to his will. The kitchen executes proteins admirably: a bewitching skate wing in butter with young artichokes and fennel pollen; ambrosial prawns with muted sweetness; a perfect duck breast; smooth tiles of smoked mackerel laid over house-made crème fraîche. One night, I appreciated the tongue-in-cheek “rich man’s omelet,” a pale-yellow cloud topped with a knob of paddlefish caviar.
You can feel Demers’ adventurous spirit throughout. Roguishness imbues dishes such as a raw bluefin tartare with an egg yolk perched atop to mix in, like a classic beef tartare. Or a special of bison heart over creamed onions. Or the house-fermented kimchee served with those ambrosial prawns. Or the bread course’s squid ink-tinted grissini.
Flaws: here, a tough grilled matsutake mushroom; there, a too-sweet plum-orange vinaigrette. What I see, though, are combinations that could only have arisen from an intuitive and idiosyncratic mind. There’s talent and novelty in the dainty mignardises that come out at the end of a meal—fennel pollen and elderflower gelée or fairy-size espresso truffles—and in the wine list flush with natural options.
In imaginative cocktails I found gin, tinted mauve with crème de violette and burning with the Szechuan peppercorn-like tingle of buzz buttons, and a jammy mezcal potion that tasted of caramelized figs doused in bright lemon.
All of it is skilled but low-key, suave but edgy, deliberate and nonchalant. The menu and the room perfectly reflect one another. Tina Turner may be playing in the background, guests come in carrying motorcycle helmets and wearing leggings, and the team hangs your coat on a peg. Proximity removes boundaries. On my second visit, Demers strode out the front door for a cigarette break. It felt natural, his visible exit, his stepping into the night, wholly himself. He doesn’t have a back door, he explained and shrugged.
In this new Old East Dallas, Demers and the others cook as though no one is watching. But we are.
The lesson is that if we wait patiently, the best chefs in the city will incubate, emerge, and deliver. And they will do it anywhere.