Tiffany does Uptown

TIFFANY TWISTED | Derry put scallops on her menu at her new McKinney Avenue eatery Private|Social, but she has taken pains not to do another seafood restaurant (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

‘Top Chef’ fave Tiffany Derry brings her new concept to her favorite neighborhood

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

It’s just a few hours before her new restaurant, Private|Social, is set to open with a red carpet gala, but if the pressure is getting to Tiffany Derry, you wouldn’t know it to look at her.

For one thing, she has help. Through the glass in the dining room looking into the kitchen, you can see a staff diligently and wordlessly going through the motions of a prep chef: mixing pizza dough, chopping herbs, readying eggs for a passed appetizer. But look closer, and the faces are familiar. Arnold Myint, dapper and pixieish, was a contestant on Top Chef; to his right, fellow finalist Kelly Liken; to his left, Kevin Sbraga, who actually won their season. These may be the best line cooks anyone’s had since Jacques Pepin peeled potatoes for Julia Child.

But that’s the kind of affection Derry generates — and a second reason why she might not look stressed out: She’s used to it.

Derry’s last 18 months have been remarkable. There has been no bigger breakout star from all seasons of Top Chef than her. She made the final five of Season 7, winning the “fan favorite” prize, then immediately returned for the first all-stars season, coming in fourth.

“I always said about the show, I don’t care if I won or lost as long as I do my best by my standards. One thing I just loved about [being on Top Chef] was, it challenged me to do more and be better,” she says.

That ended up being a good dry run for what was to come. Just as the all-stars started filming, Derry got shocking news: The owners of the restaurant in North Dallas that she’d launched, Go Fish, closed it with no notice. Dallas’ biggest celebrity of the moment found herself out of a job.

That lasted all of two days.

When investors who were interested in opening a new concept realized Derry was available, she was the first person they called. For Derry, it was serendipity.

“Had it not closed, I wouldn’t be here right now,” she says. “The moment you get a job, you start thinking anyone can take this away from me. I needed to be in a position to make my own moves.”

What made Derry popular with audiences is part of her appeal in person. She’s loud and upfront about everything — there’s no hint of politicking when she answers questions, and she has a strong sense of her own personality. She knows that serves her well as a chef… all she needs to do is bring that personality to the plate. And the shuttering of Go Fish offered her the chance to double down on her skill set in the kitchen.

“I was starting to get stale at certain things,” Derry admits. Her background is in both seafood and Italian cuisine, and a new concept offered her the opportunity to expand her palate.

“I knew I wanted to do some global food,” she says. “I do love fish — I love playing with the textures. When I see a piece of meat, my first reaction is, ‘What do I do with this?’”

Derry was intimately involved in every aspect of launching Private|Social, including the locale.

“I always knew I wanted to be in Uptown,” she declares. When she came into the space along McKinney Avenue, she says, she knew instantly that it was where she wanted to be. She hand-picked every piece of stem- and flatware on the tables, and even selected the “P” and “S” on the door handles — one opening into “private,” the other into “social.” (The menus are printed in-house, so Derry anticipates updating them at least monthly, if not weekly.)

The concept was also near-and-dear to her. The paradoxical name indicates not only the bifurcated dining areas, but the menu as well. Want high-end event dining with a seasonal menu? Ask for “private.” Prefer to meet up with some friends after work for large plates less expensive food and cocktails? Choose “social.” Both menus are available in both dining areas — even at the same table. It also means that diners with differing budgets can eat at the same restaurant and enjoy different price points to fit their wallets without feeling intimidated.

Welcome to the post-financial meltdown world of dining out.

Derry quickly ’fesses that the pre-opening part of the restaurant biz is her favorite. There’s potential at each corner to do something new. Everything is possible.

“I have to calm my tendency to make everything Asian,” she says of her menu process on Private|Social. “There is a lot of seafood; the gnudi is Italian and my vegetarian option is a pasta, but oh, well.” One item she’s happy to have added is a massive “salad” invented by Arnold Myint’s mother. It’s labor-intensive and outside her comfort zone a little, but why not try something new? Derry is used to taking chances.

Right now, though, she has to get back to the kitchen to get ready for her opening. Then there’s a trip to the salon and a night of media and guests and reality TV shows filming every moment of the most important day of her life.

But Derry doesn’t break a sweat. This is what she lives for. If she can survive Tom Colicchio’s judgments, she’s ready to take on anything.

• online exclusive

For red carpet photos of the opening night gala at
Private|Social, visit DallasVoice.com/category/Photos.

—  John Wright

Munch madness: Brackets makes a run as an upscale sports bar, but it’s a swing and a miss

THE USUAL LINEUP  |  Even upscale sports bars stick to the fundamentals: Pizzas (pretty good), nachos and nibbles. No home runs, though.

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

Ever since the Hotel Palomar opened as a Hilton more than 40 years ago, it’s had a Trader Vic’s onsite — even when the restaurant was shuttered for more than a decade, the bones of it remained.

Until last year.

Now, the only tiki you’re likely to see in the space of the old Trader Vic’s is named Barber and may be commenting on one of the innumerable TV screens that dot the room. Gone are the wicker and bamboo; in their stead, brushed concrete and the green felt of pool tables. Polynesian is so 1962; Brackets is a the newest trend: The high-end sports bar.

Which is kinda sad. Are there any real sports bars left?

Brackets tries. You won’t recognize the space, which extends cavernously back a lot further than Traders Vic’s did. The food is slightly upscale, but the wide-open atmosphere, plethora of pool tables and ping-pong stations and dart boards mark this as a guy’s hang.

Which, just as March Madness is underway, it should be. Though it doesn’t have the buzz yet.

On several visits (including lunchtime during a recent game), we’ve been one of the few tables occupied by paying customers, and a sports bar demands buzz. You want to feel part of the action, lubricating it with likeable food and free-flowing alcohol. A lonely sports bar is really lonely.

The potential is there. The New York trend of high-end table-tennis gastropubs is its model, and if it catches on, this is the place to be for it. We liked the glass wall partitioning diners from the occasion stray ball landing in our soup, with a huge hi-def TV on the far wall to give up a clear view of the game. But you want someone playing on that table.

Otherwise, it’s just wasted space.

The kitchen tries for something as contemporary as the atmosphere. It’s what it needs to be — pub grub. And that means shareable bites with lots of flavor. That worked with the pepperoni rosettes and knotted garlic pizza dough ($8), sickeningly rich and delicious and almost certainly unhealthy-for-you appetizers that were meant to be washed down with a match playing over your shoulder. Probably slightly healthier but also good was the asparagus/green bean tempura ($8) with spicy Asian mayo. Good start.

Then came the short-rib nachos ($9). The chips themselves were more like fried wontons crisp, airy and firm and sufficient to support the plentiful garnishes on top. The meat was styled more like pulled pork than a more traditional bone-loosened strip, and the meat itself was excellent. We think. The black bean puree that crowned it was simply too salty and overpowering. Bar food is meant to make you thirsty — its how you sell beer — but this interfered with the taste. Although the guac looked slightly anemic and pale, the taste was spot-on — creamy with chunks, and we got lots of heat from the side of jalapeño.

The pizzas ($9–$15) are a combination of New York and Chicago styles: Airy but thin-crusted, except for the bulbous edge crust. They are filling without forcing you to feel engorged.

There are several thoughtful ideas to elevate the preparation, chiefly a wood-burning oven. That’s what’s used, we assume, to prepare the wood fired pork chop ($16). It’s a thickly cut slab of meat, but that’s a danger with a pork chop you’re not stuffing: It gets quickly tough, as this one did. The plum glaze, a gooey concoction, added sweetness to the garlic mashed potatoes, but only tended to obscure the flavors of the pork. Perhaps for good reason: The pork was bland. Sliders were more on track, especially coming on potato bread with matchstick fries.

Desserts are out of the popular playbook for middlebrow cuisine: molten chocolate cake and cheesecake and the way-over-the-top s’mores calzone ($6), so sweet as to make Julie Andrews seem like a bitch. It’s definitely diet defeating.

That’s all right during the playoffs. Or the NCAA finals. Or the Super Bowl. But what’s gonna get me coming back here off-season? That’ll take a hail mary.

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

—  John Wright