Chefs are crazy—that’s a given. Well, maybe “crazy” is too much. But they’re definitely driven, and they love to take on monumental projects that a sane person would dismiss out of hand. Which is why, when Cody Sharp, the thirty-year-old executive chef at Filament, told me about the four hundred pounds of Fresno chiles, I thought to myself, “I rest my case.” Sharp and chef-owner Matt McCallister could have easily used a good bottled sauce—Tabasco springs to mind—or done something on a smaller scale. But no. That would have been easy. Instead, McCallister bought a truckload of Fresnos from purveyor Rae Lili Farm, in Cooper. Describing what ensued, Sharp gets all wound up. “So first he fermented the chiles for three months, then he took them out and added vinegar and sugar and pureed them. It could have been served right then, but they put it back in recycled bourbon barrels and aged it for another nine months. The depth of flavor is amazing! We made one hundred and fifteen jars, and we also bought two hundred little bottles so we could set some out on the tables.”
If you’re curious about the results, go try the grits and braised greens, one of a slew of contemporary Southern dishes at this new restaurant in Dallas’s sketchy but slowly reviving Deep Ellum neighborhood. When four friends and I stopped by on a Monday night, it was almost full. Surveying the character-enhancing chips and dents of what was once a machine shop, one of my companions observed,“They have done absolutely nothing to those brick walls.” Another finished her sentence, “And that is what’s so great about it!” The long, tall room is softened by votive candles and curvy booths upholstered in blue. At the front, little pots of orchids adorn a drill press that now serves as a host stand.
Settling into one of the oversized booths, we checked out the cocktail list, whose drink descriptions helpfully include both ingredients (“sloe gin, amer gingembre, blood orange”) and aftereffects (“inappropriate back rubs”). Then we turned to the menu, its “regional Southern” label signaling an alignment with the culinary renaissance that has taken place across the Deep South in the past decade or so. Sharp later told me, “Matt and I traveled quite a bit, especially to Charleston, where we spent time with Sean Brock.” (Brock’s restaurant Husk has been at the forefront of efforts to reimagine classic dishes.) “We also went to Atlanta and New Orleans to eat in Hugh Acheson and Donald Link’s places,” he added, “and many, many others.” They wanted to understand what was going on but not copy it. Scanning Filament’s bill of fare—which includes not only fried chicken and ham hocks but also grilled octopus and johnnycake okonomiyaki—I thought they’d made progress toward that goal.
Deciding that we needed a drink or three, despite the menu’s ominously ambiguous warnings of “poor decisions” and “dark alleyways,” our table first took the precaution of ordering a charcuterie platter. Beautifully laid out, it had that key to any successful cured-meat selection: variety. At opposite ends of the long white plate, buttery grilled toast played off a smooth, almost plummy chicken liver mousse. In the middle, thin slices of meaty country ham were balanced by both sweet and spicy grain mustards and a (rather runny) pepper jelly. The only serious flub was a garnish of leathery bits of fried chicken skin atop lush duck rillettes.
The aforementioned johnnycake okonomiyaki sounded so intriguing we had to try it. Basically a Japanese pancake pumped up with ham and red cabbage, it had been Southernized by the addition of cornmeal gruel. As Sharp said later, “People either love it or hate it.” I could see that. Though mild, it had a distinctive ferment-y flavor, thanks to a shot of Kentuckyaki (a bourbon-infused teriyaki sauce) in the batter and fluttery shavings of dried bonito on top. Our group had mixed reactions. The haters sniped that it was spongy and bland, while the lovers deemed it a cool fusion experiment and quite comforting.
Moving to larger courses, we cycled through assorted animal proteins. The 21-day-dry-aged double-cut pork chop arrived thoughtfully sliced and accompanied by braised greens and charred turnips. Making it novel was a salty-sweet onion-and-bacon marmalade. The best bargain of the night was a fish course, a large whole trout. Carefully cooked to a flaky medium and nicely marked from the grill, it wore a rakish herb salad with a lemon dressing (I could have done without its strange, tart smoked-giblet-and-boiled-egg gravy, though). A third selection, a terrific grilled half chicken with a loving spoonful of Spanish-style salsa verde on top, was bested only by my favorite dish of the evening, the New Orleans–style barbecued shrimp. Not smoked, as Texans might expect, but drenched in an outrageously rich Worcestershire butter sauce, the big shellfish straddled what looked like slabs of meatloaf but turned out to be thick, sauce-soaked toast.
By this time, we realized we had seriously over-ordered, prompted by the very reasonable prices, so we went easy on sides like the fluffy parboiled baked rice known as “Charleston ice cream” (it was rather plain-Jane, despite Sharp’s insistence that it’s “the only way to cook rice”). We had a bit too much of the wood-roasted baby carrots and cauliflower gratin in a wicked white cheddar sauce but still saved room for a couple of desserts, the best being a slice of buttermilk pie interestingly balanced by a Campari granita.
A week later, when I was wrapping up a conversation with Sharp, I asked him how the hot sauce supply was holding up. “It’s going down faster than we expected,” he said. “Somehow those little bottles keep disappearing into people’s purses and pockets.” But far from being upset, he was amused. “We’ve joked that we need a label that says ‘This bottle stolen from Filament.’ ” But don’t you think that’s just going to encourage theft? I asked. “That’s fine with us,” he said. “It’s cheaper than advertising.”
Filament: 2626 Main, Dallas (214-760-1080). D 7 days. $$$
Opened: December 7, 2015