For acclaimed restaurateur Monica Greene, coming back to the gayborhood makes everything old seem new again
It’s the day before the first dinner service at Monica’s Nueva Cocina at the ilume, and Monica Greene is still taking phone calls from the city. There are a few permits that still need to be approved, still some Is dotted and Ts crossed. Her interior designer sits in a corner at a sewing machine, diligently hemming a tulle curtain while her hunky bar manager juggles boxes of booze as construction workers toil to erect the signage out front. Anyone would have a reason to seem panicked.
Greene, though — aside from looking justifiably tired — is calm. At least on the outside.
“Opening a restaurant — every detail of it — is daunting,” she says. “It’s a good exercise in patience.”
It probably helps that she’s not new to this rodeo. In fact, sitting in a restaurant in the Cedar Springs area is something of a homecoming for her.
Greene is the restaurateur whose Ciudad on Oak Lawn helped rewrite the book on Mexican cuisine with a style that has infiltrated its way into numerous kitchens around town, from Taco Diner to Komali. When Greene closed that signature fine dining spot — she left open the more casual Monica’s Aca y Alla in Deep Ellum, although that is closed now — she all but said “goodbye” to Dallas as well.
“I went to Aspen for a month and stayed three years,” she smiles. “I love Aspen.”
What was going to be a mere consulting gig ended up transforming Greene as much as she did the restaurant.
“A friend had a vegetarian restaurant there and I was excited to transform it into something new and vital. But I learned there things I carry with me every day about food,” she says. “It was a vegetarian/vegan restaurant, which I had never done before. I learned so much about sustainability. I was cooking there on the line. I never intended to do all that. I just did it.”
Greene consulted about restaurants for others while there, but eventually, Dallas harkened her back.
She opened BEE — Best Enchiladas Ever — in Bishop Arts last year to keep herself busy (her daughter now runs it), but since last summer, her plan has been to return to the gayborhood.
And that time has finally arrived.
“You can’t help but feel how much things have changed in this area,” Greene says. “Cedar Springs is not what I remember it to be. It’s grown. It’s a very benign community — not just a gay mecca, or a straight area. For me, to be at this place at this time … it’s just perfect.”
It took longer than she anticipated; it always does. Greene signed the ilume lease and started construction on what was to be Tajin last October with an anticipated opening in first quarter 2012; but like the rest of Oak Lawn, things developed in unexpected ways.
“This space” — she gestures around the roomy, luxe surroundings of what she now calls Monica’s Nueva Cocina — “was going to be Mexican only, not Tex-Mex. I was then going to move [Aca y Alla] into the Design District,” she says. “Then the space next door [occupied by Axiom Sushi Lounge] came available and my business partner and [ilume owner] Luke Crossland suggested I move in here.”
Suddenly it all clicked: Tajin would become Nueva Cocina, a reinvention of the storied Monica’s that serves high-end Mexican-influenced cuisine at dinner only; the Axiom space would become a new concept, ME Lounge, a casual, lunch-to-late-night social hangout.
“We really needed to expand,” Greene says. “Tajin was going to be specialized food at dinner only; now we can be open for lunch and dinner and carry the same clientele Ciudad enjoyed.”
It’s a move bound to create more buzz in the gayborhood. When it was open, Ciudad — located on the cusp between Uptown and Highland Park — attracted a cosmopolitan mix of customers, from young couples to families, from the business elite to the hipster chic; from buttoned-down foodies to the enthusiastic gay community. By opening deeper into Cedar Springs, many Dallasites who otherwise might raise an eyebrow at the idea of going to “the gay part of town” will make to effort to check out Monica’s.
She’s led the way down the culinary path before. Aca y Alla was one of the pioneering eateries in Deep Ellum more than 20 years ago, when Monica was still known as Eduardo — before she became perhaps Texas’ most famous trans woman. Her Greene pasta and Mexican lasagna became staples for the pierced-and-tattooed crowd (both, by the way, are migrating onto Nueva Cocina’s menu) as well as well-heeled foodies who liked the hip look.
The new Monica’s promises to be more grown up. Yes, the walls are again a bold deep cabernet (not, Greene says, her choice, but her designer’s) with gigantic reproductions of the heads of Olmec gods staring menacingly from them. But there will be no music in the fine-dining area, and cuisine will be more adventurous than “just” Tex-Mex.
“What vegetables are common to Tex-Mex?” she asks. “What cheeses? What proteins?” If the best you can come up with are black beans, Oaxaca and ground beef, you’ve discovered the difference between Tex-Mex and true Mexican food. The latter is rich with fish and fowl, plus seasonal vegetables. Those will be highlighted on executive chef Hector Hernandez’s menu. (“I advise, but it’s his menu, not mine,” Greene insists.)
She’s just as excited, though, by the synergy that will arise from being a dual-purpose spot.
“It’s something you haven’t seen done before — not in Dallas anyway. Everyone will enter through the same door and be greeted by me,” she says, referring to both the resto and the lounge. The restaurant seating will be by reservation; ME won’t have any. Monica will escort you to your preferred locale: Live music or a DJ in the lunch-to-late-night lounge, with a breadth of cocktails and food from $2 tacos to fresh sushi; elegant destination dining past the velvet drapes.
Both spaces will be “as colorful as Mexico” Greene promises — Nueva Cocina in a vibrant red, ME with a gallery of Mexican wrestler masks — but will serve entirely different menus. All of it, though, will meet her standards.
“We make our own chorizo. We’re using modern technique like sous vide cooking,” she says. That goes for both sides of the aisle.
Greene decided to open during the sweltering days of summer — a far cry from the temperate-to-chilly weather of Aspen. But the heat doesn’t bother her. She’s just glad to be back in the kitchen.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 17, 2012.