Social norms

Posted on 01 Mar 2012 at 5:01pm

Top Chef Tiffany Derry’s Uptown eatery Private | Social experiments with a new culinary model, but its old-school touches are just as memorable

PORK-BUNARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

From the start, the essential conceit of Private | Social — the one that gave it its name — was either a curious experiment or a genius culinary innovation: The restaurant was intentionally bipolar, both physically and conceptually.

When you enter, the left of the house is “private” — that is to say, swanky dining behind a peculiar but intriguing bead-curtain, with intimate tables, a discrete area for small groups and elegant service.

To the right when you enter is a different story: Open with windows and banquette seating; the space is dominated by a large bar. It’s easy to mingle here, whether for happy-hour drinks and app, a place to cool it until your “private” table is ready or even as where you’ll stay for dinner.
Left: organized, right: creative … get it? It’s a restaurant that could have been designed by a neurologist.

But the differences at Private | Social don’t end there. The menu is also split, with “private” representing fine-dining plated options and “social” shared plates, which are generally less expensive. And you can order the “social” menu in the “private” dining area and vice versa.

It’s an intriguing idea that, for me, has never really caught on. I stick to the “private” on the left when I am feeling like a one-percenter, the “social” on the right when my proletarian bent takes over. But even if I don’t buy into the idea, the food on both sides is admirable.

I get what Tiffany Derry — the exec chef, co-owner and former reality show fan favorite — is doing: She wanted a restaurant to appeal to all groups, from snooty white tablecloth foodies to pub-crawling butterflies. And Private | Social does that, to an extent. But where is succeeds best is in the execution of elegant dishes.

Derry’s background is in cooking seafood, and while she won’t label Private | Social a seafood restaurant per se, a glance at the menu reveals her predilections: Hiramasa (a yellowtail amberjack), clams, monkfish, scallops, arctic char, sushi rolls, fish tacos. Even the items that aren’t fish suggest Asian flavor profiles. The luncheon ramen noodle bowl is an excellent example: Hints of nori imbue the broth with an aura of fishiness, though cinnamon eventually dominates, melding effortlessly with the smokiness of Berkshire pork and the creamy heartiness of a beautifully poached egg.

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PASTRAMI ASIAN STYLE | The show-cured yellowtail, above, takes on a tangy crust while keeping the fish flesh creamy; above, the pork bun is a menu standout.

Pork (a chef’s favorite protein) figures its way onto a number of plates. My favorite use may be on the pork buns (which she cannily calls “Top Chef” pork buns, a nod to her use of them on the TV show). Presentation is like a jewel-box of edible heaven: Steamed buns are as soft and airy as meringue, but cradle the crispy strip of pork and cilantro slaw, like a pig’s ear returning home. As bites of spicy-tangy sandwich minis go, you couldn’t do better.

Kudos to Derry as well for finding inventive ways to approach traditional dishes. Her version of yellowtail carpaccio cured pastrami-style, brined and smoked, leaving the flesh cool and tender, the edges dabbed with a thin crust and spicy pickled chile.

The white sturgeon (no longer on the menu) won’t be missed; the fish was well-cooked but the so-called “chowder” — a hint of liquid drizzled atop Oscar-style, with a dusting of pancetta and carrots on the bottom does not a chowder make, though the smokiness was arresting. (Not so the promise of licorice, which was virtually undetectable.)

Don’t brush off the non-fish items, though; they are among some of the best executed on the menu. True carnivores won’t want to miss the roasted marrow. Served in two thick bone haves, the dish has the consistence of pate but the taste of a nutty, meaty cauliflower, with a likable vinegar finish. Even better is the wild boar, which Derry added only recently. The meat literally fell from the bone at the softest touch. Charred but moist inside, with a shredded slaw of Brussels sprouts and a German potato salad, it made for a wholly balanced meal, remarkably not over-heavy.

Oxtail and rapini on doughy gnudi were likeable, and the insanely juicy lamb burger, available at lunch, was a smart tweaking of a traditional gyro with tzaziki sauce and red onion. (I love shoestring fries, though these were disappointingly limp.)

The heart of the dessert offerings are gelati, which change seasonally and accompany many of the room-temperature items. The salted caramel offered something undervalued in gelato: chewiness, with a toffee-like depth. The chocolate decadence bar didn’t wow me, but the chai gelato did.

Service is always good, but has yet to be outstanding. But the atmosphere — notwithstanding occasionally loudness overwhelming a “private” conversation — exudes a modern sophistication.

In some ways, Private | Social is old-school fine dining with an update: Sleek, pretty, welcoming but not prissy about its cuisine. Uptown could use a place like this.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 2, 2012.

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