After a 5-year absence, Stephan Pyles roars back with a signature spot that provides a perfect palette to display his culinary artistry
Foodies can be an opinionated, stuffy bunch.
Consider the McDonald’s French fry. There’s not much to it, and you can get a hundred of them for a few bucks at about 3 million locations in the Metroplex (the real number may be slightly smaller). Nothing is sophisticated about these fries or anything else on Mickey D’s menu but you can’t argue with taste: They are nearly identical from batch to batch and, when you crave them, nothing satiates better.
Just don’t look for a review in Bon Appetit. That’s foodies for you.
But even ingredients as ordinary as the lowly potato can be gussied up properly so that foodies sing their praises. Suddenly you don’t have just a French fry, you have pommes noisette, and mere “food” is now “cuisine.”
A person who can inventively turn the banal into the exciting, especially someone who can do it better than anyone else, is someone touched by genius.
Stephan Pyles is that kind of genius.
What is it about his cooking that causes normally sane critics to go bonkers, wearing down pages of the thesaurus to find the proper adjectives to describe his eponymous downtown restaurant? Is the food really that good, or is there something else at work? And is that something else anything more than reputation?
Reputation is a part of it, but not such a big part. If some of the reviews of the restaurant sound over the top, maybe they are. (Foodies also don’t like to be told what to like, and there has been a minor backlash against it.) But without a doubt, Stephan Pyles is one of the finest tables in town right now.
There’s no denying that Pyles is some kind of savant when it comes to cooking. What he does in the kitchen approaches alchemy. Pyles understands food like some mathematicians understand the Law of Very Large Numbers or master composers have an inherent grasp for the structure of a great symphony.
But to fully appreciate Stephan Pyles the restaurant means realizing that having genius does not equate to flawlessness; Picasso painted “Guernica,” but he also doodled.
So is everything on the menu perfect? No. But there is substantial pleasure in discovering that fact for yourself.
One of the best-tasting items isn’t even on the menu: A tiny blue cornbread Serrano chile muffin that a hostess delivers as an amuse bouche soon after a guest is seated. It’s smaller than an avocado pit and so inconspicuous that in any other eatery, you may let it go by unsampled.
That would be a mistake. Pyles’ version will spoil you with its exquisite balance of flavors. Even some friends who have reacted with yawn at the overall menu dismissively waving off the praise as excessive hype have conceded that it’s a magical muffin. When’s the last time someone you know agreed that a piece of bread was akin to heaven on a plate?
It’s that promise, that mystery about what little treasures you might uncover, that triggers the obsessive drive to visit Stephan Pyles.
Pyles has always been associated with Southwestern cuisine, distinguished by loads of local chiles, herbs and fresh ingredients touched
with smoky, even fiery elements. But during his
downtime, Pyles moved further south of the border for inspiration. Much of the current menu incorporates unusual Central and South American techniques and tastes.
A delightful way to experience some of these concepts is through the ceviches, which are available in near infinite combinations as a meal or an appetizer. Many betray their Latin pedigrees in their names (Honduran tuna, Ecuadorian shrimp, salmon Veracruzano). Others you’ll just have to take a chance on.
We braved several, including the hamachi (yellowtail fish), ($12), the sea scallops ($12) and the lobster with mango and basil ($19). All three were impressive.
The hamachi came served with agave nectar and guanabana a large, prickly tropical fruit with hints of vanilla so unusual we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try it. The scallops were diced with oranges and golden tomato and flavored with a Peruvian chile-spice that had us reeling. My dining companion, a sucker for lobster anyway, declared this version the best ceviche he’d ever had.
Duck confit empanadas ($9) are curiously flavored with cherries, Portobello mushroom and olives, but we loved them. The seared foie gras ($18) came with a rice and lentil patty (tacu tacu) and a carmelized slice of banana that rolled sweet and savory elements together seamlessly. So far, so good.
Then came the salmon ($26), served on a bed of crabmeat paella. It divided the table. The preparation can be slightly off-putting, as the fish is steamed inside a leaf called hoja santa, a green, aromatic plant that imparts flavors of anise and sassafras. If you’re not a licorice fan or at least don’t want it in your fish steer clear. But the taste is tender and rich, and the paella comes with enough water boiled off to add a crispy, firm bite, offsetting the fleshy salmon. It definitely won me over.
The rack of lamb ($32) is another highlight. A complex rondo of spices coriander, pepper, basil, cilantro season the meat and the potato pancake that accompanies it.
Predictably, the d?cor and service are top-notch. Although our waiter could have been slightly more attentive, his knowledge of the menu and professionalism was apparent. Come early, and you can get a decent table, but later in the night the bar area becomes active and loud and prime seating is hard to come by.
Fans of the old Star Canyon have several holdovers, including the heaven and hell cake ($10, and good as ever) and the delicious Pina Diablo cocktail ($6, which looks like a dirty cosmopolitan but packs more punch than an angry trail mule).
But Stephan Pyles isn’t simply Star Canyon Redux. It’s an ambitious and satisfying exploration of the cuisine of the Southwestern hemisphere that is unlike anything you’ve probably tried in this country.
A MEAL FROM HISTORY
Even if you don’t know exactly why Georges Auguste Escoffier is revered by chefs around the world, chances are you instantly associate his name with fine dining. In fact, he almost invented modern cuisine.
Virtually no major restaurant today doesn’t employ many of the techniques and innovations that Escoffier championed. He was the man who implemented the tradition of serving meals in courses (instead of an all-at-once buffet); the man who turned hotel restaurants into centers of exceptional food (he opened the Hotel Ritz in Paris, from which the term “ritzy” developed); the man who created the contemporary division of work in a kitchen (called the brigade system).
Avner Samuel, chef and owner of the nationally acclaimed Aurora restaurant on Oak Lawn Avenue, has chosen April to kick off a year-long tribute to Escoffier with a surprising and rare wine dinner.
Known as both “the king of chefs” and “the chef of kings,” Escoffier prepared a remarkable six-course dinner for the Russian royal family in 1905 a meal Samuel will painstakingly recreate on April 19. (Others will follow.) The menu will pair delicacies such as frogs’ legs, stuffed rabbit and crepes Suzette with luscious French wines including Veuve Clicquot champagne and a Chateau Rieussec Sauternes. (It’s one thing to order strawberries Romanoff at a restaurant! It’s another to be served like a Romanoff.)
The prix fixe meal runs $175 per person. Seating is limited. Reservations recommended.
Aurora, 4216 Oak Lawn Ave. April 19. 214-528-9400.
Arnold Wayne Jones
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, April 14, 2006.