Nouveau Grub

Stephan Pyles and a passle of other innovative restaurateurs are putting their brands on a new dining experience: provocative, informal decor served up with stylish and healthy food, all at a fair price. Texans are eating it up.

May 1994By Comments

Inside a cavernous structure on the corner of Oak Lawn and Cedar Springs, renowned Dallas chef Stephan Pyles strolls about, wearing a smile that is as discreetly tailored as his blue silk suit and his close-cropped beard. The 42-year-old chef’s eyes appraise the property with dreamy fondness, imagining the wine room in the corner there, the buckskin against those windows, the great stone fireplace that will overtake the wall to his right. Within a few months the vacant property will be Star Canyon restaurant, filled with the aromas of Pyles’s cooking and, presumably, with the very individuals who now drive obliviously past the building.

At the moment, the food seems like the easy part. It has been a day of numbing details for the former chef and co-owner of Routh Street Cafe. He began the morning with a three-hour session at David Carter Design Associates, where he and his partner, Michael Cox, argued over the miniscule differences between various proposed Star Canyon logos. They couldn’t agree upon the right shade of green and at one point took the meeting outside, where they stood in front of a tree and pointed at leaves: “You mean, more like that color?” “Which one? The leaf up over there?” “No, I was thinking more like that leaf farther down.” Later, Pyles and Cox drove to Turtle Creek Boulevard, where they spent two hours in the fifteenth floor conference room of the interior design firm Wilson and Associates, amid a jungle of restaurant fixture prototypes: chairs, rugs, flatware, glasses, sconces, barstools, tabletops, and wall hangings. Later still, the topic turned to ventilation and air-duct positioning, involving the kind of brain-flogging arcana that would send most wannabee restaurateurs fleeing from the business.

Perhaps no vocation attracts so many charlatans and rubes. Stephan Pyles, of course, is neither. With Routh Street Cafe and Baby Routh, he helped introduce the world to what has come to be known as New Southwestern cuisine, and along the way achieved a celebrity that has extended way beyond the Metroplex. The much-lamented closing last year of Routh Street, one of the state’s finest restaurants, had Texas foodophiles speculating about Pyles’s next move. He did not keep them in suspense for long. In March of last year, Pyles formed a partnership with Cox, a former Routh Street maitre d’. A month later, Pyles and Cox acquired the financial backing of Herren Hickingbotham, the president of Little Rock-based TCBY Enterprises and a frequent Routh Street patron. By June, the partners had thrown out hundreds of proposed names and decided upon Star Canyon. After scouting myriad locations, they settled for the space on Oak Lawn and Cedar Springs formerly occupied by a restaurant called Cassis. A month before Star Canyon opens its doors, Pyle and Cox will hire and train a staff of ninety, who will be put to the final test during a series of charity benefits that will precede the grand opening, in the last week of May.

Star Canyon is expected to embody the state of the art in Texas dining in the nineties as Routh Street did throughout the eighties. However daunting that may be, the opening of Stephan Pyles’s new restaurant comes at a hospitable moment. Texas is currently undergoing an astonishing restaurant boom. Owing to a number of favorable economic trends—a projected steady rise in personal income, climbing employment figures, increased population, and brisk trading in the wake of NAFTA—the state’s restaurateurs are expected to benefit from a record $17.3 billion in sales this year. The food service industry’s anticipated 6.4 percent growth in sales over 1993 is among the highest in the nation. Those are the numbers, but evidence of the boom is plainly visible to anyone who leaves the house for a night on the town. In the state’s major cities, it is impossible not to notice that new restaurants are springing up on a weekly basis and are seemingly packed at all hours.

In particular, upscale restaurants with concepts and aspirations similar to (if somewhat lower than) those of Star Canyon have cropped up almost overnight. A couple of miles from Pyles’s venture, on Travis, an excellent Italian bistro called Sipango opened at the beginning of March and began showing overflow business in its second weekend. The yuppie-grazing at Natura Cafe, on McKinney, has been intense since the high-gloss, low-fat establishment opened its doors a few months ago. In Houston the big-bucks but culinarily limited suburban area of Woodway and Voss is all of a sudden – thanks to Third Coast, Grotto, and Escalante’s—a serious dining haven. By the end of this year, the San Antonio River Walk will at last feature two excellent restaurants—one a creation of famed Biga chef Bruce Auden, the other an offshoot of the city’s beloved Italian haunt, Paesano’s. And in Austin, where fine-dining choices have been deplorably limited for as long as anyone can remember, no fewer than five ambitious restaurants have opened in the past year: Louie’s 106, 612 West, the Bitter End Bistro and Brewery, Stonewall’s, and Caffe Azzurro.

Without exception these restaurants share with Star Canyon a sensibility we might as well term Nouveau Grub Ethic. The notion, informed by new generational tastes and the hard lessons of the eighties, calls for sensible elegance with one eye relentlessly cocked toward the bottom line. The food served at Nouveau Grub establishments is stylishly prepared, using classic European cooking techniques but abandoning the traditional heavy cream sauces for lighter flavoring. It relies heavily on Texas products—chile peppers, red snapper, pecans —not simply for aesthetic reasons but also because they’re readily available and inexpensive. Additionally, the locally produced food is what Texas diners are familiar with; it is comfort food. Nouveau Grub may be anchored by regional influences, as with Pyles’s New Texas cuisine (which draws from Mexican, Southern, and range cooking techniques); or it may tend toward Italian, Mediterranean, Californian, Caribbean, and other culinary styles. But the fare inevitably complies with the nutrition-minded tastes and increasingly sophisticated palates of Texans who know their cholesterol counts by heart and buy their groceries at Whole Foods Market, Simon David, Rice Epicurean, and Central Market .

The chefs are often part owners who have thrown themselves, personal bank account and all, into every detail of the business. Like Pyles, they select the location, handpick the art, and court the media. They may wear their ambition on their sleeves, but many of them have the talent to back it up. “These younger chefs are really a different species,” says Robert Del Grande, the chef and owner of Cafe Annie, the Houston restaurant that helped usher in the new era of Texas dining. “Fifteen or twenty years ago, kitchens were run by European chefs trained in hotels. The chef’s job was to learn the classic things, like roasting the meat, and then the front of the restaurant would do the sauces and the assembling at the table. Now the kitchen creates its own style.”

As recently as a decade ago, says Del Grande, “You could go to some brick retail building, gut it, put in some white tablecloths and a great chef in the back, and it would work. But nowadays you have to have a great kitchen that prepares food with style and signature, along with an environment that gives the place a holistic sense.” As such, the new Texas restaurants share a look that is entirely in keeping with the Nouveau Grub Ethic: dramatic and provocative but unintimidating and, at bottom, informal. They are large single-room affairs with open kitchens and unsequestered bars, so that all the action is on display and the separate dramas coexist on a single stage. In place of walls, clever lighting and multiple tiers create a subtle illusion of comfortable distance. Both the ornamentation and the presentation of the food reflect a kind of accessible hipness, and there is no danger of being outdressed by the waiters.

It is almost unthinkable for a Texas restaurateur to open an establishment today and not incorporate a Nouveau Grub design. The Star Canyon blueprint follows it to the letter, Pyles’s obsession with unique flourishes notwithstanding. Paesano’s and Biga are both currently housed in classic compartmentalized structures, but their River Walk sisters will each feature the open-air look. Especially telling is the newly redesigned Anthony’s in Houston. The magnificent but always somewhat stuffy Tony Vallone establishment now possesses the electric dynamism of its younger siblings, La Griglia and Grotto, without giving a culinary inch.

A central Nouveau Grub Ethic tenet is that the food be affordable. The Texas dining boom is so acute that it has been taken as evidence that the state as a whole has transcended economic recovery and is now returning to brash prosperity. In fact, the Nouveau Grub establishments are now outperforming the rest of the Texas economy for the simple reason that they reflect a sense of fiscal sobriety. Upscale diners don’t have the expense-account budgets or hedonistic impulses they displayed a decade ago. They will take imaginative Southwestern cuisine over caviar and an evening’s worth of see-and-be-seen over two hours of being smothered by a team of officious waiters. “The new generation of customers isn’t into soggy-serious dining with a hush in the room,” says Del Grande. “It used to be that you went out to dinner, then to a show, then somewhere else for a nightcap. Nowadays, eating out is the event of the evening.”

Put simply, the mission of these restaurants is to serve interesting cuisine in equally arousing environments—to provide an experience but one that isn’t financially extravagant for either side. The economy rules the chefs and designers, who dictate the food and the ambience. From this has arisen a kind of pastime. That Texans are now not only what they eat but where they eat has elevated the status of Nouveau Grub entrepreneurs to a level unimagined by the campfire cooks of another era. Improbably, they have become culture czars.

“The one thing that needs to be taught at the culinary institutes that they aren’t teaching,” says Stephan Pyles from behind the steering wheel of his Jaguar, “is Business 301. I mean, did I know anything about business when I started Routh Street? Hell, no. And looking back on it now, we were out of control from day one.”

The Star Canyon chef believes that a handful of great Texas chefs—such as the Mansion on Turtle Creek’s Dean Fearing, Cafe Annie’s Robert Del Grande, and Biga’s Bruce Auden—possess a soulful genius that cannot be taught and that mere skillful execution cannot hope to replicate. Certainly Pyles is among their number, but it’s a particular point of pride to him that he has learned how to be a successful businessman. He religiously reads the restaurant trade papers and can tell you more than you wish to know about wait staff and inventory costs. Little about his physical appearance suggests that Pyles has spent most of his adult years in a kitchen. He is of slight build and fastidious dress; it’s hard to imagine him up to his elbows in prawns and ancho sauce, embroiled in the messy alchemy of his chosen field. On the other hand, Pyles cannot step into a Dallas restaurant without being accosted by admiring chefs and former patrons of Routh Street. Like his cuisine, Stephan Pyles fulfills a new paradigm in the restaurant business. He exudes the self-preoccupied air of a brooding artist, a man whose strong, dexterous fingers seem more at home with his craft than with the glad-handing imperatives of the front office. Yet Pyles is also an articulate and worldly man who knows the business inside out. It’s good press for Pyles to emphasize his Big Springs beginnings and how he travels not to France or Italy but rather to Mexico to gather culinary ideas. All the same, it does not take much conversation with Pyles to elicit from him his close connections to the nation’s most high-profile chefs: Wolfgang Puck, Mark Miller, Julia Child, Alice Waters, and Paul Prudhomme. Pyles is both a down-home boy and a player, and in his case, the disparate ingredients work.

If the Nouveau Grub movement works, it will be in large measure because of a new generation of Texas chefs who shares Pyles’s combined kitchen artistry and business savvy. For that matter, if Star Canyon prevails, it will be because of a concept that acknowledges the outdatedness of Pyles’s claim to fame and, in turn, reveals the chef as a Nouveau Grub convert. From the time Routh Street Cafe opened its doors in November 1983 to its closing in January 1993, the restaurant was a lavish temple of Reaganomics. Corporate customers like the Southland Corporation regularly blew mounds on expense-account orgies of caviar and rare wine in Routh Street’s private room. Pyles himself willingly participated in the excesses. His culinary perfectionism led him to use only the finest cuts and the freshest condiments, throwing by the wayside enough material to stock a second restaurant. “We never had a real budget,” says Pyles as he shakes his head in amazement. “Instead we had questions—can we buy this ingredient, can we remodel that—followed by the answer yes.”

In the Nouveau Grub era, Pyles and other chefs have learned the necessity, and even the joys, of frugality. The Texas restaurant boom would not be taking place if the new establishments served entrees in the Routh Street range of $22 to $30. Star Canyon will get by as others have, by economizing in the kitchen so as to keep entrees below $20. The staples of Nouveau Grub no longer include truffles, foie gras, and raspberries out of season. Catfish, red snapper, sweetbreads, and local game are more like it. As owners pay closer attention to how chefs are spending their money, chefs look for bargain ingredients. “My philosophy now is that the best products are the ones that are in season, meaning they’re also the most economical,” says Pyles. “Sure, we can use rare ingredients, but not with reckless abandon. I’ll serve foie gras only when the price is right.”

The trick to preparing meals that amount to both adventurous cuisine and low-cost comfort food is a balancing act that is replicated in the style of the restaurant itself. A new restaurant must be provocative, but it musn’t chase people off. “Restaurants now emphasize casualness and at the same time, they offer a show,” says Pyles. “Star Canyon will be like a wealthy rancher’s house in that it’ll be a warm, comfortable place. But it’ll also be very open in design so that wherever you’re seated, you can see all the action.”

When making the rounds on any given evening in Austin, one is apt—no, one is certain —to come across a casually styled middle-aged man with a peppery beard, discussing golf and sex at the bar with other member’s of the city’s urban professional singles delegation. Architect Dick Clark has made his home in restaurants. He is part of a new Austin that has emerged over the past decade, equal parts bohemian and capitalist, upwardly mobile and nocturnal. “Even during the two times that I was married, my wives worked and so I often ate out,” Clark says, “which is partly why I try to design restaurants so that they can accommodate different moods under a single roof: spots where you can be cozy and intimate, bright spots where there’s a lot of heavy action, spots where the action is more subdued.”

Nouveau Grub requires a synthesis of efforts between the chef in the back of the restaurant and the designer in the front. Among the latter, Dick Clark personifies the crucial role that style has come to play in the Texas restaurant boom. In less than five years, Clark has become the reigning architect of Austin’s Nouveau Grub establishments. His sleek, uncluttered, and decidedly masculine desgins—Mezzaluna (and its San Antonio offshoot, Luna Notte), 612 West, and Bitter End, along with the redesign of Granite Cafe – look like no Austin restaurant before them. They seem custom-made for Clark’s scenesters and look more than a little forlorn without a proper cacophany. Clark owns a peice of most of them and—as a clever and fitting proviso in his contracts—eats his Nouveau Grub at a discount.

The interiors have garnered Clark loud praise and a detectable level of scorn. Yet the Nouveau Grub movement’s reliance on eye-catching ambience means that even those who consider his structures to be forbiddingly cold take his talents seriously and admit that Clark has become a player in Texas dining on the orderof the state’s superchefs. Indeed, Clark’s designation as architect appears on the menus at both 612 West and Bitter End, while the names of the highly respected chefs – Raymond Tatum at 612, Peter O’Brien at Bitter End – do not. Clark is not ashamed to be demanding this kind of attention. “Design isn’t of secondary importance anymore,” he says. “People are coming from all over the country to visit Austin, and you’re not going to lure them into a restaurant with a style that consists of hanging a few quaint antiques on a wall.”

Clark’s most audacious creation, 612 West, epitomizes the Nouveau Grub Ethic in that its theatrical design conveys a sense of lavishness despite the fact that the restaurant’s basic materials are cost-conscious: concrete floors, particleboard tabletops, plasterboard walls, a galvanized-metal bar top and a fireplace composed of a plaster cylinder. “To do one of these kinds of restaurants, it costs five hundred thousand to a million dollars,” says Clark. Smiling, he adds, “The good architects shop around. When they let me do it my way, I go for the less expensive material.”

The effect brings to mind a tony yet ultimately informal Los Angeles bistro —not surprising, since Clark and 612 co-owner Greg Coury toured 35 L.A. restaurants before they designed 612 West. With an elevated open kitchen, the restaurant almost revolves around chef Tatum, whose preeminence at Jeffrey’s restaurant throughout the eighties ensured a certain buzz for the new endeavor. By hiring Tatum, Coury (who also owns Manuel’s, one of Austin’s most upscale Mexican restaurants) made clear his intentions to join the ranks of the city’s best three dining spots—Jeffrey’s, Zoot, and Hudson’s on the Bend. By bringing in Dick Clark, Coury was, in his words, “opening the statement restaurant in Austin.”

It’s a testament to the Nouveau Grub phenomenon that 612 has succeeded overnight in a town that has openly advertised its aversion to all things urban. For the past two decades, Austin’s archetypal upscale dining spot has been Jeffrey’s, which has placed almost all of its emphasis on gracious service and fine food (the current chef, David Garrido, rivals Tatum as the most inventive in Central Texas), and almost none on decor. The two restaurants now have their own camps, with the Jeffrey’s devotees mocking the new restaurant’s chilly aura and 612’s turks complaining about the older establishment’s spartan atmosphere. In this debate, food seldom comes up.

Personally, I’m all for the Nouveau Grub Ethic—as long as the food is as good as it ought to be. Robert Del Grande speaks enthusiastically about the new generation of chefs. “The young guys in my kitchen are different from the ones who used to be cooking just to hold down a job,” he says. Still, no youthful master chef has stepped out from beneath the fine lights of the new bistros to join the ranks of the state’s elite. They have stepped out, of course, to advertise their names. But PR savvy, a Culinary Institute of America certificate, and a minor in accounting do not a chef make. Stephan Pyles laments the Snopes-like rise of the ambitious but soulless chef, and it is fair to say that a number of the Nouveau Grub restaurants are thusly afflicted. For some of these establishments, the signature dish is a colorful disaster—what Star Canyon manager Michael Cox terms “white willow-grilled Waco wahoo-wahoo with winter wheat waffles in a wild walnut sauce.”

The best restaurants will use artifice as a kind of thematic reinforcement. The rest will use it as a misdirection. Dick Clark has done a remarkable job with the brick-and-metal interior of Bitter End, but the fare has not thus far lived up to the trappings. Esquire magazine proclaimed Houston-based Americas to be “the best new restaurant in America,” and though it is possible to have an excellent meal there, multiple dining experiences leave one convinced that Americas earned its honor principally because of the Starship-Enterprise-goes-to-the-Caribbean spectacle that Chicago architect Jordan Mozer has created. And recently eight of us dined at Natura Cafe, an ultra-trendy ultra-healthy Dallas establishment that features the usual Nouveau Grub rudiments, along with a sculptural twist: a massive apsaragus looming over the restaurant’s exterior. A few of us were still talking about the asparagus the next morning, but we didn’t give a thought to what we had eaten.

By and large, however, the Nouveau Grub movement is rolling out impressive cuisine at prices that make it hard to complain. In Dallas Sipango epitomizes the best of the genre: a beautiful brick interior with beaded lanterns and well-spaced furnishings, a smart and energetic wait staff, and a young chef-owner from Los Angeles named Matthew Antonovich whose Italian variations are a refreshing departure from the ancho-cilantro riffraff. When the kitchen is alive, Houston’s Quilted Toque combines healthy and imaginative dishes with some of the most strikingly tasteful decor in the city. Though 612 West has justifiably drawn the lion’s share of Austin’s Nouveau Grub denizens, Stonewall’s has followed in the footsteps of Zoot by very quietly doing everything right in the kitchen. And everyone expects the new Biga offshoot on the San Antonio River Walk to showcase Bruce Auden’s artistry as Star Canyon will likely return Stephan Pyles to the forefront of culinary taste making.

I paid a final visit in the middle of March to what will soon be Star Canyon. Construction was well under way, and as I watched Pyles pace thoughtfully through the tangle of ladders, cables, ducts, and scrap wood, I realized that throughout our many visits—throughout the hours of eavesdropping while the Star Canyon co-owner inspected logo samples, thumbed through wait staff uniform catalogues, conceived tile mural designs, fended off insurance salesmen, and discussed the finer points of kitchen ventilation—we had not talked at all about what would be on Star Canyon’s menu. Nouveau Grub is, finally, about fine dining. But the genius of its economy of scale involves a smoke-and-mirrors elegance, in which high culinary standards may easily disappear by sleight of hand. So I asked Pyles about his new menu, half-wondering if he would then produce a market-tested sheet of items that distinguished themselves, above all, by their grim adherence to the bottom line.

Pyles tapped his temple and said, “It’s all up here.” With that he smiled and returned his gaze to the window, watching the traffic that would be his.

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