Cook Tesar

The Commissary, John Tesar’s foray into burgers and fine-dining, is as bipolar as it sounds

DER  COMMISSARY | In the main dining room, the Tandoori lamb lettuce wrap burger, above, is do-it-yourself; in the chef’s table, burgers are replaced by foie gras and lobster, below. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

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
Price: Moderate

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This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 17, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Tasting notes

Addison casts a ‘Queer Eye’ on food (again); Axiom spins for charity

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Ted-Allen-bottle-shot
DRINK UP | Ted Allen returns to Taste of Addison to deliver a presentation on wine.

With summer basically here (on the thermometer if not the calendar), restaurants and bars are revamping their menus. At Fearing’s, that means complimentary two-bite mini tacos and three new cocktails, including a sangria and gin drink, for midweek (Wednesday and Thursday) happy hour from 5:30 to 7 p.m.  inside at the Rattlesnake Bar or al fresco at the Live Oak Bar.

Scott Gottlich and J Chastain have launched a new menu at their Second Floor restaurant inside the Galleria. Among the entrees are now a croque madame pizza, day boat scallops and a Meyer lemon meringue cake. Gottlich’s other restaurant, the fabulous Bijoux at the Inwood Village, will present a showcase of classic dishes during May and June. From May 17–20, then June 17–18, you can enjoy a five-course meal with time-honored dishes like oysters Rockefeller and beef Wellington. Cost is $68 ($95 with wine pairing).

Fin Sushi — now officially Axiom Sushi — holds the “Spin 4 a Cause” event  twice monthly on Wednesdays. Each time, the restaurant will choose a local celebrity to serve as guest DJ, who selects a non-profit of his or her choice as beneficiary. Money raised from 6 to 8 p.m. directly benefits that charity.

Blouin_Dessert_4ed
IS THAT REALLY EDIBLE? | You bet your last taste bud you can feast on the raspberry and vanilla cheesecake ‘surprise’ from The Mansion’s new pastry chef, Nicolas Blouin.

The Mansion on Turtle Creek has named Nicolas Blouin as its new pastry chef, and just a quick look at some of his architectural creations, pictured, will set your mouth watering.

Tiff’s Treats, which could single-handedly undo all my exercise gains, has opened its third Dallas location, at Hillcrest and Northwest Highway. To celebrate, on May 14 it will sell boxes of fresh-made (and still warm!) cookies and brownies, proceeds of which will benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

When we think of pizza meccas, Grapevine doesn’t pop quickly to mind, but that changes for a bit this weekend. The burb’s Main Street Days festival in its historic downtown celebrates pizza for three days putting it on a most deserving pedestal. Napoli’s, Farina’s Winery and Café and Gepetto’s Pizza are just some of the restaurants making an appearance. We hear the latter’s medium pizza is a hefty five pounds. While pepperoni is the stuff dreams are made of, think a step up with some of the offerings from Farina’s Scorcher pizza with chicken and jalapenos to Napoli’s s’mores pizza.

Speaking of, the Uptown pizzeria Coal Vines has opened a branch at The Shops at Legacy. That joins the latest branch of Deep Ellum’s Twisted Root Burger Co. which also opened there, making The Shops — with a Kent Rathbun restaurant (Jasper’s), an Angelika Film Center and other shops — is really becoming the Uptown of Plano.

Addison’s annual Taste of Addison food extravaganza starts Friday, May 20 and runs through May 22, not only with samplings from dozens of restaurants, but also music from Third Eye Blind and others. Queer Eye food expert Ted Allen and Robert Mondavi spokesperson returns to give a wine seminar for eager palates. Learn more at AddisonTexas.net.

Dickey’s Pit Barbecue has made the first permanent change to its menu in 50 years. The spicy cheddar sausage, a special item in recent months, will now be a fixture on the menu.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Vegetarian Times has nominated Dallas’ Hail Merry for a Foodie Award, recognizing its raw-vegan blond macaroons. You can vote for it at
VegetarianTimes.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 13, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Tasting notes: Valentine edition

Need ideas for how to spend a romantic dinner with your sweetie? We got ’em

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Lots of restaurants are getting in the mood for romance, so you and your sweetie can choose from among these options — and many more:

La Duni — The Oak Lawn and McKinney avenue locations offer a four-course dinner for $50/person that includes a champagne toast. Don’t forget to pre-order a lovey-dovey cupcake. LaDuni.com.

The Mansion on Turtle Creek — A three-course meal, including dessert, runs you $125 on Feb. 14. Make it more romantic by booking a room for the weekend rate. 214-443-4747.

Nana — The Hilton Anatole is doing the same as The Mansion, offering a $99 four-course meal plus the option to book a guest room for as low as $79. 214-761-7470.

The Landmark — The restaurant inside the Warwick Melrose is really keeping it romantic, with a set price per couple. For $150, you can each put together the ideal four-course meal, served Feb. 12 and 14. Call 214-224-3152.

The Grape — The romantic bistro features a la carte choices Friday through Sunday, then a three-course tasting menu for $65/person. 214-828-1981.

Bijoux — Full disclosure: I spent Valentine’s Day here last year, and for good reason: The food is superb, and it really stands up as event dining. For $85/person, chef Scott Gottlich will whip up an exquisite four-course meal that includes lobster bisque, duo of veal and a filet, among other delectables. 214-350-6100.

The Second Floor — Over at Gottlich’s other restaurant, adorable chef J Chastain has something unusual in mind for a holiday dinner: You put it together. Rather than the traditional prix fixe menu, from Feb. 12–14 you can select from a range of popular and romantic items, from $9 to $34, for the ideal custom meal. Call 927-450-2978.

Salum — Chef Abraham Salum has a jazzy menu planned for Feb 14, that includes jazz music from singer Nadia Washington and a complimentary glass of champagne. The three-course meal costs $65. SalumRestaurant.com.

Sprinkles — Those demons at Sprinkles have taunted me again with new flavors, available for Valentine’s. You can choose from a red hot velvet (with spicy cinnamon aroma) or raspberry chocolate chip. Both are available through Feb. 14 in the Preston Center location.

On the heels of Valentine’s is a food and wine showcase to warm the blood. Bonne Sante features chefs including Scott Gottlich, Abraham Salum, Tony Bombaci (Nana), Dean Fearing (Fearing’s), Bruno Davilion (The Mansion) and Blaine Staniford (Grace), as well as several wineries. Individual tickets run $200 and benefit the National Kidney Foundation. It takes place at the Westin Galleria on Feb. 16 from 6 to 9 p.m. 214-3512-2393.

Central 214 is instituting a “pick your plate” option, starting Feb. 15. For a flat price of $30, customers can choose one salad or soup, one entrée and one dessert from Blythe Beck’s menu. 214-443-9339.

We blogged recently about John Tesar’s new restaurant in the Cedars, Cedars Social, which officially opened this week. Well, he’s got more on his plate, including The Commissary, which will open in April in the space last occupied by Dali in One Arts Plaza. It will feature burgers, wine on tap and late night meals.

Fin Sushi, from the people responsible for Sushi Axiom on Henderson, has officially opened in the ilume. BEE, Monica Greene’s new enchiladaria, is open in Oak Cliff.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 4, 2011.

—  John Wright

Former Mansion chef John Tesar to open Cedars Social next month

John Tesar has been flitting around a bit since he left the Mansion on Turtle Creek, but he seems to be settling down with a new concept, set to open in February. The Cedars Social is being described as a “cocktail den” and kitchen serving “modern comfort food.” Drinks will be designed by mixologist Michael Martensen for the lounge, developed by restaurateur Brian Williams.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Have a Holly Jolly Ball at the Mansion on Turtle Creek

“Now, more than ever we need to focus on the future success of the GLBT youth in our community,” says J.T. Williams. “The responsibility of empowering young GLBT leaders is on all of our shoulders, and events like this help send that message.”

Williams serves as co-chair for tonight’s inaugural Texas Instruments Holly Jolly Ball at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, to benefit the GLBT Leadership Education and Advocacy Program, or LEAP.

LEAP was created by the North Texas GLBT Chamber of Commerce to support youth and nurture the development of leaders. LEAP awards educational scholarships to undergraduate students who exhibit leadership potential, demonstrate strong academic abilities, and are actively involved in school and community organizations.

The Holly Jolly Ball will include complimentary appetizers and beverages, as well as silent and live auctions, with proceeds going directly to LEAP. Tickets are $50 for individuals, and sponsorships are available.

DEETS: The Mansion on Turtle Creek Conservatory and Wine Cellar, 3535 Gillespie, Dallas. 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. HollyJollyBall.org.

—  John Wright