These restaurants resonated the most for us in 2014
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
Doing an end-of-year write-up about restaurants is always a challenge. With film, TV, books and music, the item reviewed is more fixed and unchanging; with theater, it was something planned and refined, which existed but lingers as a memory.
But restaurants are different: They exist and they change and they are ongoing. What makes for a great dining experience is some ineffable combination of chef, waitstaff, décor, atmosphere and of course food. Change one, and you change the entire experience.
Which is why a roundup of the best new restaurants (really those that opened within the last 18 months or so, depending on when I was able to get to them, but all enjoyed in calendar year 2014) is really just a bet — a bet that what was great before (more than once) has the possibility to be great again. It’s why I call my list “top tables,” and not “best restaurants,” because the best is ever-evolving. (Some promising 2014 openers, like Proof+Pantry, Neighborhood Services, Parliament and others, will be considered on next year’s roundup.)
So, from hole-in-the-wall hangout to white-linen event eatery, here’s the list.
1. Knife (at The Highland). Chef John Tesar caused more of a stir than a whisk in a dozen egg whites, but put aside the grandstanding and controversy and savor the food: Precisely grilled aged steaks, engaging sliders (for lunch), exquisite mac and cheese and a cocktail menu that’s worth its own visit, all transforming the previously clinical interior of The Highland into something as warm as the food. It was high-end, high-concept and highly addictive.
2. Casa Rubia (in Trinity Groves). Plainly the glittering star of the intriguing culinary experiment that is the Trinity Groves development, this restaurant specializing in Spanish-influenced tapas elevates the theme of small plates with huge flavors and elegant presentations, inventively balancing a variety of elements in every dish yet arriving at a unified and cohesive cuisine.
3. San Salvaje by Stephan Pyles. Dallas’ most honored chef shuttered his world-cuisine resto Samar to retool the space and concept into this “Wild Saint,” which looked southward for the angelic recipes that make up the bill of fare. With a magpie’s curiosity, he culled ideas from Mexico, Latin and South America and redefined his constantly-redefining specialty that focuses on bold flavors given beautiful showcases. He’s still the master.
4. Gemma. Full disclosure: It was when I was judging the food at the Chefs for Farmers’ fall Oyster Bash that I went from fan of Stephen Rogers’ work at Gemma to evangelical convert. (We gave the top prize to his twofer of tartare and hot oyster on the half-shell.) His Henderson Avenue restaurant is cozy and warm, with superbly produced plates that are just as good to share as they are to enjoy for yourself.
5. Stock & Barrel. Jon Stevens has long been one of Dallas’ unsung star chefs — he led the kitchen at Uptown’s Nosh for a while — but he gets an entire chorus praising his skill since opening this Oak Cliff restaurant, whose vibe combines homey, hipsterish and sophisticated … just like the food.
6. Clark Food & Wine Co. The most recent restaurant opening to make the list is this surprise. Well, perhaps not a surprise, as it is at the center of the Lower Greenville renaissance that also includes last year’s No. 2 finisher, H&G SPLY Co., the devilishly fun Truck Yard and of course Trader Joe’s, which makes grocery shopping a foodgasm. The review will come in a few weeks, but suffice it to say the variety of dishes they handle well, and the ease and approachability of the space, make it the kind of place you wanna hang out at.
7. Chino Chinatown (in Trinity Groves). True fusion cuisine is actually pretty rare these days, so the deft mix of Mexican flavors with Chinese classics made us fans from the first bite. Chef Uno Immanivong has given Szechuan and Sinoloan, Hunan and Jalisco, equal footing on a menu as a coolly decorated and inventively seasoned as you’ll find in Dallas, where high-quality Chinese food is at a premium.
8. El Come Taco. Great restaurants can be found anywhere from great hotels to trendy mixed-use developments and anywhere in between, but the best taquerias are almost always small stand-alone buildings or in strip malls — don’t ask me why. Maybe because when it comes to great Mexican street food, you don’t wanna be too far from your target audience. El Come along Fitzhugh is one of the nicer taco joints in terms of décor, atmosphere and service, but what will always draw me back are the spectacular tacos (especially the suadero) and flavorful salsas. And the price can’t be beat.
9. Pecan Lodge. In some ways, including this one on the list is cheating; the owners’ stall at the Farmers Market has been a draw for a couple of years … when it was open, when they didn’t run out, and when you could wait in line for it, then scramble for a place to sit. But the move to Deep Ellum last spring gave footing and reliability to some of the best barbecue in North Texas.
10. Henry’s Majestic. My first meal at Henry’s was a brunch, and if it were only open midday on weekends, it would probably make my list anyway, but there’s much more to the latest entry in an accursed corner of McKinney Avenue; it’s casual and hipstery with a gastropub ethos that gives due credit to the intent of gastropubs with contemporary preparations of familiar dishes.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 2, 2015.