Dallas is catching up. For more than a year, Austin and Houston have been hogging the Texas spotlight, what with Chris Shepherd, of Underbelly in Houston, being named one of the eleven best new chefs in the country by Food & Wine in April and Austin’s Paul Qui scooping up awards last year from Top Chef and the James Beard Foundation. But Dallas has a slew of recently opened restaurants (Pakpao, Mot Hai Ba, Belly & Trumpet, Mercat Bistro, HG Sply Co.), and while national star potential is likely on down the road, I’ve found a few that I absolutely want to visit again.
My current favorite is Lark on the Park, a six-month-old entry from serial restaurant opener Shannon Wynne (Meddlesome Moth, 8.0 Bar, Flying Saucer). When I first saw it from a distance across the city’s new Klyde Warren Park, a great, skinny outdoor urban space located near the Arts District, I naturally thought it would be geared toward burgers and fries. Not so. Once I got past the wine and beer sippers, sitting with their dogs under the umbrellas out front, I found that Lark is stylish and smart, a place where I could grab a sandwich at lunch but also settle in later for chicken puttanesca, smoked duck breast on quinoa, or a ribeye with morels.
The dining room is immediately inviting—and big. Lark has been handling 250 or more customers on Saturday nights, so said our funny, gossipy waiter one evening. The front is floor-to-ceiling glass, the easier to sit at a rail and watch the boulevardiers sauntering by. If you don’t want to do that, or perch at the long bar facing the open kitchen, you’ll be well taken care of at a table in the tall, contemporary dining room. The space is done in muted natural tones, and in a stroke of design genius, several walls display changing blackboard murals by local artists. On one visit, I was mystified by mad mathematical equations like those in the movie A Beautiful Mind. A few weeks later, they had been replaced by drawings of Steve Jobs and an enigmatic sphere that could have been dreamed up by the novelist Jules Verne.
Perfectly in tune with the free-form decorative philosophy, the menu is all over the map. Some dishes are fairly straightforward interpretations of global favorites, like the diced potato–filled Curry Pillows, whose fantastic crumbly, buttery crusts could set a new standard for Indian samosas. A trio of Cape Cod scallops, seared to a deep copper and accented with cherry tomatoes, arrived atop al dente risotto tossed with the crispest kernels of fresh corn I’ve had in ages—they couldn’t have been picked more than half a day earlier. Other dishes I’d have to throw into the catchall “New American” bag, like a special of medium-rare lamb chops daubed with a heady salsa verde of mint, parsley, and capers, their juices pooling to moisten heavenly beluga lentils boosted with grilled okra. I’m stumped, though, for a label to stick on a grilled shrimp starter. The dish’s “house-smoked-tomato butter” turned out to be a rambunctious Mexican-Cajun chipotle-tomato-shallot sauce that drenched both the tender shellfish and the accompanying square of sturdy corn bread. I’d take it over shrimp and grits any day.
As for a dish like Lark’s carpaccio appetizer, it throws tradition to the four winds. I can’t think of another restaurant that accents this Italian specialty with sesame oil, fresh Thai chiles, ginger, and radish slices; as much as I love a carpaccio lavished with olive oil and Parmesan, this wild Asian variation is absolutely splendid. It reminded me of words I used to see on menus decades ago, “à la façon du chef ”—“at the whim of the chef.” Back then, the phrase signaled something rare and strange that the chef had dreamed up. Today, the reverse is (almost) true: la façon du chef is the norm, and tradition is rare.
Inevitably, over the course of two visits, a few things veered off track, like a stone-fruit salad in a harsh, grimace-inducing champagne vinaigrette, but overall, you have to work to be unhappy here. I was briefly disappointed that part of a hanger steak was chewy and oversalted, but it seemed silly to pout, because most of it was just fine, and the bracing chile-árbol-and-black-pepper seasoning set it off beautifully.
Desserts hew to the eclectic, globe-hopping line, like absurdly buttery crepes, folded in quarters and adorned with a soufflé-like semisweet Valrhona chocolate sauce and a scoop of vanilla-bean ice cream. Panna cotta is a regular menu item, with varying garnishes; a too-jiggly early version had become pliant and lush the next time, the Italian custard capped with a sparkling raspberry-zinfandel gelée and garnished with whole raspberries and sliced Texas peaches.
Who’s behind this hard-to-pin-down menu? The chef team of Melody Bishop, 42, and Dennis Kelley, 38. She’s from Texas, he’s from Massachusetts, but the couple says their strongest influence stems from their time in California. They attended (different) culinary academies there and went on to cook in Los Angeles, working most recently at famed chef Suzanne Goin’s Tavern, in Brentwood. They bring a world of influences to the table. Kelley says, “I grew up in Boston, and I spent a lot of years working at an Italian-based restaurant in San Francisco.” Bishop was raised in Dallas, so she’s back on home turf, but after college, she traveled around Southeast Asia and Europe, including Spain and France, and ended up for a time in a Thai restaurant. Asked if they have a personal culinary style, the two demur, saying not really. Offers Bishop, “We just wanted to use all the influences of where we have worked and traveled and make fresh, seasonal food that we would enjoy eating ourselves.” It’s a story we’ve heard before and no doubt will hear again: these days, it takes a village to open a restaurant.