Hipsterism meets rustic haute cuisine in the tangy Oak Cliff haven Campo

THINK PINK | The Pepto-colored sauce from the blood orange adds a distinct tang to the veal short ribs at Campo. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

Just the bread at Campo is enough to make even the most noncommittal, fair-weather vegans weep. The individual loaves — light-and-dark spheres a la Sally Lunn bread, smooth, small ovoids as impenetrable as a Chinese box — are brushed with duck fat before baking.

Forget gluten intolerance; everything about this snack (not the least the soft, salted butter) promises an early grave … but what a way to go.

Campo is of the diet-defying brand of restaurants: Too many carbs to be Atkins-friendly, too much pork to be Kosher, too much … everything.
This is not a complaint.

Since opening late last year, it’s gone through a consulting chef (Matt McCallister, who still runs the kitchen occasionally) and two more exec chefs, the most recent coming on board just after my last visit. But so far, the restaurant has surpassed one man, focusing smartly on seasonal ingredients, simple preparation and a groovy, rustic vibe. (A wall-hanging with spoons and forks shoved in like the angry results of a bitter throwing match was deviously whimsical.)

Take the beet salad here, which isn’t what we’ve come to expect from its gourmet brethren, to-wit: Finely diced beets afloat a pontoon of frisée and topped with warm, nut-encrusted goat cheese. Pshaw! Campo removes most of the fuss and delivers instead several large, chunky red beets, garnished with a few greens and given a light vinaigrette to pool around.

It’s a dish meant to highlight the freshness of the beets themselves, which are flavorful and crisp, and with the tart sauce teasing out some depth.

Indeed, if one flavor profile predominates here, it’s the sting of citrus and vinegar. In addition to the beets, a duck entrée boasts a distinctive bite, the risotto is creamy but also tangy, with a few corkscrews of squid on top.

Presentation on the risotto is doubly unique. First is the color: The rice is a murky purple-black, the natural result of being doused in squid ink. Second is the shape: Rather than piled in a dome nestled inside the concavity of a wide-lipped bowl, the risotto here is perfectly square, like some huge chunky brownie. It’s the first sign, really, that Campo — despite is cultivated humble profile — is a fine-dining experience waiting to be appreciated.
Fortunately, that style does not come across as overworked, though it does skirt the edge.

The place-settings are coyly mismatched; at our two-top on one visit, the wine glasses included a generic stem and a wide-mouth cabernet glass — neither of which we used. The dishes themselves were delivered on an eclectic collection of casual white plates. It looks as if someone decided to turn their house into a restaurant at the last minute, and forgot to order matched dishware.

But I have a suspicion, at least when McCallister is around, nothing leaves that kitchen without being carefully thought out. They’re plating beautiful dishes to impress his diners, slinging hash in a faux-dive. If the deliberate off-handedness strikes you first as twee, it is also immediately forgivable.

The mussels came in a broth with fresh julienned carrots and a fettuccine-style flat noodle, and once again, its tartness stood out, probably from the bite of capers. (Mussels are hard to screw up, but these were especially succulent, and well-paired in the noodles.)

The brick chicken elevates the humble yardbird with a phenomenal crust on the skin and juicy flesh spoiling to come out beneath, swimming in roasted mushrooms.

Rabbit ravioli (housemade, like all the pastas, breads and sausages) warrant a taste, as do the chorizo fritters, balls of meaty batter dusted with manchego so that they seem to be doused in spiderwebs. You’ll eat them anyway.

My duck entrée was a high point, though almost for the wrong reasons. The sliver of confit duck breast was thin and slightly tough, kind of an after-thought, though the cooking of it was good and the meat rich. Rather, the duck rilettes — round deep-fried croquettes — hearken to my youth and the vinegar-based pulled pork common in North Carolina that I adored. They pack a tang.

The same was true of the veal short ribs. Short ribs are a cliché nowadays, but these were chewy and likeable, removed from the bone, shredded and reconstituted as medallions. Again, blood oranges and artichoke add bite and acid to balance the lushness of the meat.

After all those sour profiles, we expected the roasted quince dessert sounded like more of the same. Our waiter pointed out one key phrase was omitted from the menu: It should have read “quince ice cream,” along with chocolate. We dove in anyway, but were disappointed. Along with rhubarb, quince is one of the sourest fruits, and we were prepared to enjoy it lips perpetually pursed. But the ice cream was bland — almost a semi-freddo — and the chocolate pie it topped rich but dry. The pear tart was better; despite a slightly too-thick crust, the filling was sweet.

The hipster factor at the bar on one of our recent visits was high even for Oak Cliff: A phalanx of beret-sporting, Keds-wearing bearded men ordering specialty cocktails while chatting about music. You could practically smell the clove cigarettes on their hoodies as you walked by.

Perhaps they were enjoying the caipirinha, one of several signature cocktails (all under a dozen bucks) that captured my attention. Wouldn’t come as a surprise — a lot at Campo does that for you.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 18, 2012.