The Insiders Go to Dallas: Fine Cuisine in The Big D

We left Little Rock on a Monday and leisurely drove to Dallas in five hours (with a stop for lunch), just in time to check into the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek.

Our instructions directed us to cocktails at the Mansion bar to meet our new friends, people affiliated with the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, other food writers and our excellent guides and drivers, June Naylor and Cynthia Wahl of Texas Toast Culinary Tours. Naylor and Wahl explained to us that most of the places we were going would give us just a sample of the foods they have to offer. Samples. That word would almost be our downfall.

We moved into the beautiful Mansion dining room for a wine and food pairing introduced by Executive Chef Bruno Davaillon and Sommelier Michael Flynn. I had planned to eat lightly, but that plan went down in flambé. Five courses of deliciousness followed, the highlights being roast veal strip loin, carrot purée, English peas and fava beans with kumquat condiment paired with Chinon “Les Granges,” Bernard Baudry 2008, Loire Valley.

The next day, our first stop was a light breakfast and tour of the new Whole Foods on Park Lane. Little Rock folks would love the wine bar or choosing wine from 1,200 labels; 90 percent are $20 or less. There was also 62 feet of refrigerated beer (local, organic, you name it), plus vinegars and oils on tap, professional chefs, catering, gluten-free ready-made foods and a raw bar.

Onward and upward, we had a tour and tasting at the Dallas Mozzarella Company with the founder, Paula Lambert, and a tour at the next-door Rudolph’s Meat Market. As if we didn’t have enough cheese and meat in our system, our next stop was Jimmy’s Food Store, an old, Italian grocery and a mainstay for Dallas residents. The owner was incredible, waiting on customers and serving up pizza and wine for us in a back room filled with photos of important chefs of Italy, and he even gave us each an olive-oil server.

A wonderful surprise waited for us at York Street Café. Sharon Hage, nominated for the James Beard Award many times, offered us glasses of white wine and the most incredible okra. In her 42-seat restaurant, diners seek her out to cook sweetbreads, rabbit, skate and tongue. While it may not be to some folks’ taste, she cooks whatever her patrons want, and in her nine years at York, she has had extremely little turnover.

Our next surprise came from Times Ten Cellars, a winery in the Lakewood area where wines are crafted on-site from Texas grapes. One of the founding proprietors, Rob Wilson, poured four wines for each of us and described them. As we sipped, he told us how he gave up a career of pharmaceutical sales to pursue a dream of owning a winery. There was something familiar about our host. I asked where he was from, and he answered, “L.A.” He laughed, “I mean lower Arkansas.” His winery is doing well, and another opened recently in Ft. Worth.

Afterward we dashed into our rooms for quick showers and out for cocktails on the Belmont Hotel bar patio. What a lovely sight of the Dallas skyline! The hotel is mid-century modern and has been beautifully renovated. From the restaurant Smoke right next door, Chef Tim Byers supplies the food and cocktails.

Clothed in secrecy, next stop was 48 nights, a guerilla restaurant open only Monday and Tuesday evenings for 6 months. The deal was you couldn’t know who was the celebrity chef until you were seated. Our chef was Julian Barsotti from Nonna, an award-winning Italian restaurant. Located in a real estate office, the restaurant’s revenue ($75 per person) will benefit the Mass Care Task Force to increase North Texas’ level of disaster preparedness.

Antipasti were served, but with a twist. Among the items we shared were asparagus, roasted fava beans and green garlic with pesto, marinated first-of-the-season cream peas and wood-oven-roasted petite shiitake mushrooms, braised lentils and house-made sausage and squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta and baked plum tomato ragout.

I did not guess the next dish, tortellini neri pasta, as I had not seen black tortellini before. Served with white gulf shrimp, this dish was so good, I still think of it from time to time. Our dinner courses just kept coming: slow-roasted Berkshire porchetta; contorni, creamed mustard greens and Anson Mills polenta; and East Texas strawberry panna cotta.

Bright and early the next day we started with coffee and pastries at La Duni, a shop in Highland Park. Pastry Chef Dunia Borga, who looked just like Paz Vegas from the movie “Spanglish,” greeted us with pastries so pretty I was afraid to mess them up. Chef Taco Borga, her husband, runs three La Duni locations.

By 9:30 a.m., we were indulging in a chocolate tour and tasting at Chocolate Secrets. Chocolatier Jason Greb has such a passion for chocolate; not only is it an art, it’s also the language of love. Truffles have names like, Take Me Now (rich dark chocolate center dipped in more dark chocolate) and Spoil Me (smooth milk chocolate with a blissful fudge center).

We crossed the street to our next tour and tasting at Scardello Artisan Cheese. We were a little daunted by the idea of 150 artisan cheeses after rich pastries and sinful chocolates, but life is short, so we jumped in. We tasted a few Texas cheeses and some made around Europe and across the U.S. We also tasted a variety of salts and purchased several exotic types, like charcoal, Hawaiian and pink salt.

From somewhere in my life I had heard of Sonny Bryan’s, the now 100-year-old barbecue joint. Even Julia Child ate there once and loved it, according to Dave Rummel, owner and beef baron. We squeezed into old wooden student desks to “sample” brisket, ribs, sausage, onion rings and cold beer. Most of us ate (and drank) all our “samples.”

Just because we had been eating and drinking since 8:30 a.m. was no reason to skip lunch. We headed to Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood to try Bolsa, a bistro that sources food from local farms. The restaurant was formerly a garage, and elements like large windows and doors made the eatery a fun neighborhood place.

Our arrival at the busy restaurant at lunchtime on a weekday was not a problem. The waiters were, well, waiting for us with just about one of everything on the menu, such as sandwiches, wood-fired pizzas, white chocolate rum tart on a Nilla wafer crust with brûléed bananas and more. Just after we sat down to “sample” our food, someone snapped fingers and sent about a dozen mixed drinks to our table. And of course, we had to drink them.

Next it was time for lunch at Tillman’s Roadhouse, a restaurant as funky as its neighborhood, the Bishop Arts District. We loved it the minute we walked in. Our “sampling” included a venison Frito pie and a side of three kinds of potato fries, seasoned to perfection. Owner Sara Tillman and Chef Dan Landsberg made sure we got the vibe. We got it and want to go back and get some more.

Afterward, we walked through the Bishop Arts District to find our next destination, Dude, Sweet Chocolate, an artisan chocolate shop with plenty of attitude. How about a chocolate called Depression with roasted beet and Texas olive oil? Or Puro—74 percent San Dominican and black olive salt? Young but renowned Chef Katherine Clapner, a.k.a. the dudette, probably dreams of chocolate. Her creativity is without boundaries. The small company ships chocolates anywhere, except when it is devilish hot.

Our fearless leaders aimed the van toward the West Village for a tasting at Paciugo, Dallas’s first gelato shop, opened in 2000. Cristiana Ginatta, who moved from Turin, Italy, is the creative force coming up with new flavors.

Our last tasting of the afternoon found us at eatZi’s on Oak Lawn Ave. (there is another one on Lovers Lane), a European-style market and bakery; some would call it a neighborhood gourmet grocery. I’m a geek for entrepreneurs, so when I realized Phil Romano, founder of many restaurant chains and eatZi’s, was our tour guide, I was ready to follow him anywhere. He introduced us to the concept of a gourmet grocery store. For those of us who live in Arkansas, eatZi’s is sort of like Terry’s or Fresh Market. I love them both, but the layout of eatZi’s is genius, practical for busy people who don’t have time to cook but want great food in a hurry.

Romano invited us to sit on the patio and have a sample of what eatZi’s has to offer. We pulled our chairs as close as we could to listen to our great teacher. First, we sampled flank steak, asparagus, bread and dessert.

Another dash to showers and then another van excursion later, we were visiting with renowned Chef Dean Fearing at the Ritz-Carlton for more samplings and cocktails. You think you’re busy? Fearing has seven different dining and drinking settings under one roof. Fearing is the P.T. Barnum of local food promotion (that’s a good thing). He rocks; he has the Bill Clinton charm of holding your hand while looking over your shoulder to say hello to someone else.

We sat for a while at the chef’s tasting table. For “starters” we tried a trio of griddled jumbo lump-crab cakes, barbecued duck tamale and two-bite lobster tacos with avocado relish. Then we tried the apricot barbecue-glazed bobwhite quail on iceberg wedge salad with Point Reyes blue cheese and cider-braised bacon.

Our next eating and drinking venue—located in the Dallas Arts District—was named for the chef who, along with Dean Fearing, created Southwestern cuisine. The chef is Stephan Pyles, and the restaurant bears his name. Some Little Rock travelers to Dallas on a regular basis will remember Pyles as the chef and a partner with Herren Hickingbotham at Star Canyon. In about 2000 Pyles had seen and done it all. He took off to Spain, Morocco, South America, Turkey and Greece. When he returned, he was ready to cook again, only this time he was using techniques from around the world to create new food.

Pyles put us at his tasting table/grill, and each pair of us got six ceviches in stainless steel servers. There were at least 10 different ceviches to try and great white wines to taste. We had to taste everything—it’s our job.

Soon after, we walked a few blocks to Pyles’ newest restaurant, Samar (if you don’t count Pyles’ Fuego, a four-seat restaurant-within-a-restaurant with Chef Matt McCallister, who calls his style “cuisine of the moment”). This is one of the prettiest, most exotic restaurants I’ve ever seen. The concept is international small plates. We were invited to sit in a red room, more like a tented niche, where we could see and hear everything, from dishes floating by to snippets of conversation, lots of laughing and music and patrons smoking hookah pipes.

Suddenly, Pyles dropped by to see us again. I believe he used a scooter to get there so fast. As we were being treated like royalty and food and drinks were brought to us to sample, Fearing showed up. I’m not making this up. I asked my husband/photographer to take a photo of both chefs together, just in case I had dreamed this moment. I like to see chefs/entrepreneurs work their magic and work the room.

Our waitress told us that she knew we had been eating and drinking all day. Almost apologizing, she put more food out for us and more wine on the table. Abruptly, one of our food writers put down her fork and her glass of wine. No more. She was done. And it seemed like a good idea for us all.

The next morning we felt great. Three nights and two days of eating and drinking — where’s my trophy?

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