by Andrew Chalk
With interesting restaurants opening at a pell-mell pace in Dallas over the last year or two it is a halcyon time for media types without any better ideas to put together “best-of” lists, usually over a couple of drinks. They may want to ponder that the active ingredient in “new”, insofar as restaurants is concerned, is the identity of the chef in charge of the kitchen. By that measure, Graham Dodds accession to the execuchef position at venerable Hibiscus has created a restaurant that is ‘new’ in the operative sense of the word. His task was complicated in following in the path of very capable predecessors.
At a recent media event we were treated right out of the starting gate with what I have already recorded as one of the year’s best dishes. From the appetizer section of the menu came Crispy Lamb Ribs made with a brown sugar-sherry glaze and smoked mustard. Utensils are at-best optional and at-worst a diversion with these made-to-be-picked-up-chops. We grabbed the bones, and the meat, robed in an appropriately crisp layer of char that clung to it like batter, succumbed to our bites. First with a crackle, then with tender meaty succulence as we bit into the core. Generous seasoning set the meat flavors out front as we contemplated maybe just eating these all night.
Those of more of a surf, than turf, inclination should check out the Poached Gulf Shrimp in the appetizer section. The dish is served with (addictive) oven-grilled toast, pickled ramps, and a deep charred tomato cocktail sauce created from Marfa tomatoes. It indicates the chef’s focus on quality ingredients that such a tomato should even be used in a sauce. And nice touch making the cocktail sauce the base. When good cocktail sauce is served in a separate bowl I need an excuse to wipe it out. Not so when its on your plate!
The Grilled Quail gives Dean Fearing competition with this tiny native Texas bird that he does so well. Dodds plates it on creamy grits with pig ear slaw. Really, pig ear slaw. This is crazy stuff! The pigs ears are braised, then fried, before being mixed with cabbage, sunflower sprouts and champagne vinaigrette. Chow chow, a piquant southern relish, is added for accent. There isn’t a weak rod in this carefully structured recipe. It is truly sophisticated work just masquerading as country food.
A salad named Toybox Tomatoes carries over Dodds use of these miniature fruits from his Central 214 (RIP) days. Here he adds bacon, treviso, wild arugula and a slice of Blue Roan cheese. The latter continues his long association with local cheese producer Caprino Royale although, by mentioning this, I do not mean to slight the long list of other local suppliers listed on the menu. Of all the chefs that talk local, none can walk-the-walk more assuredly than Dodds.
Dallas seafood favorite, sea scallops, gets a corn pudding doped with saffron torquing up the iridescent yellows on the plate. Add some yellow squash and chanterelle conserva (the latter is a Thomas Keller style preparation of mushrooms poached in oil and stored with vinegar for weeks) and you have an inventive main course for someone who wants to eat light.
Our red meat course was a wood-grilled bavette steak served over a pickled green tomato salad, purple whole peas and creamer peas topped off with a sunny-side up goose egg and crispy collared greens. Bavette steak is a cut that appears almost bred to befuddle chefs. Tough and chewy if prepared incorrectly, it can yield tasty meat in the right hands. Dodds combination with flavorful peas and a goose egg dignifies the meat into a First Class steakhouse cut. The crisped collard green topping was an unusual and risky touch. Any other high-end restaurants around town serve collard greens?
The limited dessert menu gave us homemade ice cream and rhubarb crostada. And, unlike too many Dallas restaurants, Hibiscus offers a cheese plate. Consistent with the local theme, it is composed of Texas cheeses. Hibiscus is currently hiring a dedicated pastry chef and major changes on the dessert side will take place in the next few weeks.
Given the clear focus of the food, it is surprising to see a wine list so unenlightened. Sure, it has a good, medium-sized, core of very high quality boutique California wineries. However, the European wines are an afterthought and, most seriously, Hibiscus’ commitment to local ends at the edge of the plate. There are virtually no Texas wines on the list, let alone the separately headed section that there could be. If they are stuck as to “what”, here are the crib sheets for Viognier, Tempranillo and Roussanne.
The comfortable Hibiscus environment is familiar to most Crave readers. Noise levels are lower (82-86 dB on Decibel Meter) than many other restaurants and low enough for easy conversation with your dining companions. Our server, Andrew Shipman was the consummate professional and also has a sommelier qualification so he can talk wine.
Where does Hibiscus sit now? Any new restaurant that makes noises about being the best locally sourced, globally inspired, New American style restaurant needs to stand comparison with it. I suspect that most will likely be found wanting.