It has a quirky name and a slightly quirky location (being a few blocks away from two hot restaurant areas) but Fort Worth’s Clay Pigeon gave me one of the best-prepared meals that I have had this year when I attended as a media guest. Add to the food, a good wine list and thoughtful, attentive service in a restored brick dining room with lots of free parking right outside and you have all the elements of a successful destination restaurant. In fact, visitors to Fort Worth, driving from Dallas or elsewhere, should consider putting Clay Pigeon at the top of their list for New American food while in the city for the museums, performing arts, the rodeo or shopping. It is nearby all those things, but not embedded in one of the restaurant ‘clusters’.
Don’t be fooled by what realtors call the ‘drive up appeal’. It looks like a gas station because it started life that way. Although Clay Pigeon wasn’t on the site quick enough to symbolically preserve one of the gas pumps as did one restaurant in a former gas station that I once visited. Inside, the walls have been sanded back to the brickwork. It makes for a warm, inviting space with maybe too much squareness to be called ‘cosy’. On one side is a shaft of light from the open kitchen and at the back a functional bar that turns out specialty cocktails. The design keeps noise levels reasonable for conversation.
The culinary motive force behind all this is execuchef/owner Marcus Paslay, a native Texan who traversed the country honing his skills before he and his wife returned to Fort Worth to raise a family. The ‘grand tour’ included stints at Meadowood Resort (3 Michelin stars), Canlis in Seattle (which Paslay considers would get at least two stars if Michelin rated the city), Hawaii and local resort Rough Creek Lodge. He brings a bit of all of these places to his menu. He also brings a strong commitment to ‘local’. The charcuterie – made in house; the peppered bacon – made in house; the gloriously crusty bread – made in house; the rich smooth ice cream – made in house. He is outward-looking enough to realise that there are great foods that can’t be found locally, but if an ingredient of equal quality is available from a local producer he will favor it. You might describe him as a ‘locally aware qualityvore’.
The menu has that understated turn of phrase often found in good restaurants. ‘Mussels. Leek-Fennel-Pancetta-Garlic-White Wine’ ($15) reads like a shopping list, or the list of ingredients on the side of some prepared food. No mention of preparation technique, sourcing information, or florid prose about the mental state of the bivalves. Our waiter, Kevin, had the details. The menu description concealed that the mussels were actually plump and juicy, served in a light garlicky broth with a side of oven toasted, buttered house made bread. In a world where it is commonplace for mussels to be emaciated and dejected at the bottom of the shell, this was a reference work in fine sourcing and preparation. That fine preparation was to become a theme, by the way, as dish after dish arrived prepped and cooked spot on. Incidentally, we received minified versions of each dish so don’t take the size of the helping shown in the photograph as typical.
Next up was Seared Diver Scallops. Butternut Squash Purée-Candied Pecans-Sage-Blue Cheese (punctuated in menu-ese), $35. Usually, the prospect of scallops on a menu evokes a non-visual yawn in me, so ubiquitous are they. More fairly, any chef intending to put them on his menu should bear the burden of justifying it. Based on this dish, Paslay would be the first to clear the examination. Sure the mollusks are sautéed, but the sweetness of the candied pecans is a distinct highlight amid the scallop flesh. Adding blue cheese as well may sound like over-egging the pudding but in fact provides a contrasting tart note. I wonder if, during the development of this dish, Paslay added one and then felt its effect needed a counterbalance. Hence the other. Alongside the scallop sits is a smear of butternut squash purée that helps bulk out the dish.
I claim that foie gras will solve most global civil conflicts and Clay Pigeon’s with apple sourdough (as it is laconically described on the menu), $19, may guarantee world peace. The apple is actually granny smith diced julienne, mixed with cilantro and drizzled with apple vinaigrette. On top of the torchon of foie gras is puffed cinnamon, a new one on me but it contributes bag fulls of sweetness and a powdery textual note.
“Today’s House Made Pasta” ($25) is such an unprepossessing name that it might refer to Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (likely buried in its powdered sauce of iridescent orange). In reality, we had perfectly al dente house made pappardelle pasta, house made peppered bacon, diced zucchini, tomatoes and fresh microplaned parmesan.
‘Grilled Duck Breast, Three Potato and Kale Hash’ ($35) was the pièce de résistance. The sliced duck was wood-grilled a perfect medium rare and served over a mixture of hashed potatoes (yukon golds and russets), sweet potatoes, caramelized onions and veal demi glace. A simple dressing of sliced radish and cilantro added a photogenic flourish.
Desserts are made in house. The trio of ice creams (green apple and pineapple, vanilla and coffee-toffee) that we sampled were silky smooth to the tongue with stark, pure flavors.
Clay Pigeon has been rightly praised for its wine list. There are over 120 carefully chosen selections, 15 by-the-glass and (unusually) 17 half-bottle selections. It is priced at about 2.2x retail (vs. the citywide average of about 3x retail). The majority of wines are domestic but outsiders in the areas of German Riesling, Austrian Grüner Veltliner and Spanish Tempranillo are well-chosen. One weak point is a poor representation of Texas wines (only one, albeit a good one, McPherson Viognier). Craft beer and cocktail mavens will be well satisfied with a thoughtful selection there as well.
Clay Pigeon might be described as Fort Worth’s American Bistro. It is a mixture of hearty and elegant non-esoteric New American food that is exceptionally well prepared and driven by a commitment to make from scratch and buy local when they can’t make it. Having opened in December of 2013 it is eligible in Best New Restaurant Awards 2014. Whether it wins or not it comes highly Crave Recommended.