The Commissary, John Tesar’s foray into burgers and fine-dining, is as bipolar as it sounds
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
My foodlationship with John Tesar is long and largely accidental.
He first cooked for me back when he worked at Rick Moonen’s restaurant in Las Vegas, about six months before he took over the kitchen at the Mansion on Turtle Creek. I last ate his food at the Mansion about a week before his infamous, sudden departure a few years ago. He then turned up last fall at DIFFA’s “Burgers and Burgundy” event; among a slate of excellent chefs, he made one of the top hamburgers there.
He “accidentally” cooked for me again at a soft opening for The Cedars Social last February, after the chef scheduled to cook got snowed in and he stepped up. That was soon before he opened his latest venture, The Commissary — really, the first resto that has been truly his: Not Moonen’s, not a hotel’s, not at a one-time charity benefit.
It’s a puzzling name for any restaurant aiming for high-end status, sounding, as it does, like a functional, personality-free grocery store on a military base, or a lunchroom where the daily special is apt to be creamed beef on toast, popularly called shit-on-a-shingle by all my Air Force family members. It doesn’t really evoke fine dining.
Of course, the answer is that Tesar isn’t trying to do anything high-end. Like the folks who started Twisted Root Burger Company — Cordon Bleu-trained chefs who just wanted to open a burger joint they’d eat at — he wants mass appeal, not critical cred.
Why, then, take over a space in One Arts Plaza vacated by Dali, a delightful wine bar that oozed sophistication? Tesar has changed the interior only slightly: The clear polycarbonate countertops with sunken cork remain, as do the artsy chairs; an oversized decorative clock looms over the dining room. (The bathrooms have been updated, artwork replaced by black slate on which are written rotating chalk drawings and sayings — “Go Mavs!” or “America Rocks!” … stuff like that. I guess some could call it art; looks more like colorful toilet graffiti to me.)
And more to the point: Tesar likes the serious-chef mantle. He’s reserved the chef’s table, in a narrow, separate room along the main dining hall, for fancy, multi-course prix fixe meals, featuring foo-foo reductions and sous vide techniques and hoity-toity ingredients.
If a restaurant could be diagnosed as bipolar, The Commissary would be in the DSM IV. The food certainly is good, sometimes great, but that schizophrenia dominates your opinion of it. At one dinner, two different folks took our drink order, only to deliver our table-neighbors’ drinks to us. Later, long after my flatbread had been ravaged clean and my cocktails and water glasses were as dry as British wit, no refills were forthcoming.
It’s not just dinner. At a recent lunch, our waitress was smart, informed about the menu and polite. She (or rather, the kitchen) also forgot our appetizers (both of them), which we only received after the entrees were well on the way to completion. Though we ordered the deviled eggs with caviar, they arrived without. We got a ramekin of caviar after two of the three eggs were gone; we were charged full price for it.
That doesn’t breed loyalty, even when the food is excellent.
And there is definitely excellence on the menu, mostly made up of gourmet burgers and foodie-targeted sides, with a sizeable alcohol selection. (The Commissary seems to have inherited much of Dali’s wine list along with its décor.) The chips-and-salsa with guacamole ($7) was serviceable enough, with a thick, potent salsa that was almost heavy enough to be a pasta sauce. Even better are the avocado fries ($7), so thick they looked like fossilized raptor claws, until you bite into the soft, fleshy avocado strips, as buttery as a chardonnay.
Avocado makes its way onto a lot of dishes, including the Big-Tex burger ($9), though it was the salsa cruda that supplied the hearty punch to the taste buds. Like all the burgers, it came with a side of matchstick fries that you gotta love: Crunchy, thin, un-greasy and addictively salted. They really do call to mind commissary food, like something in a junior high cafeteria… which I mean in the best way. Comfort food expressed as a fried julienne potato. Sweet potato tots ($4) make for a fun substitute.
The star of the burger menu, however, is The Farmer ($9): 8 oz. of grass-fed medium rare beef topped by a perfectly poached duck egg, white cheddar and a thin membrane of speck. You stare at it longer than seems Christian, admiring the beauty of the tuft of albumen, strained by gravity on the yolk to burst before your eyes. Before that happens, your hands grip around the brioche bun, jauntily astride the burger like a sporty tam-o’-shanter, breaking the seal; the yellow goo that doesn’t make it to the back of your throat streams down your sleeves and onto the plate. It’s a black hole of cholesterol from which pulses only waves of flavor and fat, but I’m not complaining. Eating it is a sensual food experience, and like most sensual things, messy. I’ve never had a burger here that didn’t look like surgery after I’d finished.
Lower-cal versions (“super model” they call them, though I can’t imagine seeing Kate Moss within a catwalk of a sloppy burger bar) are available, supposedly with lettuce wraps. The one I ordered, the Tandoori lamb ($8; also available on pita) was less wrapped than do-it-yourself ready. The tzatziki sauce was mild, though it blended well with the Tandoor spices.
In the private dining room, you sense the schizoid aspect even more prominently. Tesar is a self-confessed seafood chef, which makes the decision to do a burger joint puzzling in the first place. When he gets to stretch culinary muscle with a chef’s tasting menu, it’s heavy on scallops, oysters, cuttlefish; even a lobe of foie gras is undergirded with a piece of lobster.
The tasting menu, different each meal, is a fabulous affair, but even still, not really white-glove star treatment (maybe he’ll come to the room to introduce each dish, maybe not), though unassailably well-conceived.
Some of the minor touches impress more than the big ones. The locally-made pickles are to-die-for yummy, and the pecan pie with housemade vanilla ice cream (even though I ordered it without; ah, well) chunky and rich.
Still, the Commissary’s duality — high-end and down-home; exquisite presentation but only when they get the order right — taxes your patience. Service needs to improve, and the fennel/artichoke salad should be 86’d (it’s flat and flavorless), but I’d go again just to gaze upon that duck egg, dirty thoughts entering my head. Let it stain my shirt; true love always leaves scars.
OVERALL RATING: 3 out of 5 stars
The Commissary, at One Arts Plaza, 1722 Routh St. Open Daily for lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. No reservations except for chef’s table. TheCommissaryDallas.com.
Excellent burgers compete with a vague style and spotty service. The chef’s table is fine and reasonable.
Food: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Atmosphere: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Service: 2 stars
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 17, 2011.