It was the oxtail that convinced me. I was at Oso Food & Wine not long after it opened, wondering why I found myself so surprised at the restaurant’s accomplished menu. I had known full well that its chef and proprietor had lengthy and distinguished careers in the Dallas area. And yet—and yet—I hadn’t really believed that the place would pan out. Why did I doubt? Easy: Nine times out of ten, shopping center restaurants are boring and timid. And Oso was certainly in a shopping center. But there I was, eyes half closed with pleasure, thoroughly beguiled by a forkful of elegantly rustic braised oxtail with charred-beet salsa. My expectations had been foiled and I loved it.
Oso appeared late last fall near the epicenter of North Dallas’s toniest neighborhoods. At first glance, the four-month-old restaurant in the sprawling Preston Forest shopping complex doesn’t look out of the ordinary. It moved into and remodeled an 89-seat space previously occupied by a pizza-and-pasta joint, and while its dining room is pleasant and even a bit stylish, with drum lights and decorative wall panels, it’s obvious that millions of dollars have not been spent transforming the space into something rich and strange.
But looks can deceive. Though Oso’s appearance may be in step with its bland suburban surroundings, its menu marches to a different beat. And the reason is restaurateur Michael Cox and chef Kelly Hightower, two veterans of the Dallas food scene (Cox’s CV includes various ventures with Dallas chef Stephan Pyles, the Mi Cocina group, and Rosewood hotels; Hightower owned Kavala and was involved with Nova, Ziziki’s, and Hattie’s). “Kelly and I knew each other years ago when we were both involved with Stephan’s restaurant AquaKnox,” says Cox. “When he heard I was opening a restaurant, he Facebooked me and said, ‘Let’s talk.’ We met and I told him I was leaning toward something Mediterranean. He just started throwing out one idea after another.” Says Hightower, “I like big, bold flavors, and that’s what the Mediterranean represents to me.” His approach has tilted toward the Middle East and North Africa, and it’s obviously working. Over the course of two dinners, friends and I tried a majority of the dishes on the concise menu and came to the conclusion that if we lived nearby, Oso would be one of our go-to places.
My first visit was on one of those dark, drizzly winter days when the temperature had hit its daytime high of 45 and was in the process of dropping like a rock. On the trek north, all I could see ahead of me was a sea of red taillights, which had the strange effect of making me ravenous for exactly the type of hearty seasonal food that Oso had on tap.
Once my friends arrived, shivering, we ordered a couple of dishes to share. First up was chicken livers on a bed of creamy, rustic heirloom grits. We were quite taken with the grits and the sassy fra diavolo sauce, much more so than with the slightly clunky fried livers that were the combo’s main feature. Next came a mezze sampler with ample portions of roasted-garlic hummus, baba ghanoush, and the usual marinated olives and falafel; it was perfectly fine, but it seemed neither better nor worse than many a version I’ve had over the years.
At this point, we were still feeling a little peckish, so we had yet another starter, the kofte. Instead of being rolled into meatballs, the ground lamb had been pressed onto a wooden skewer and grilled. Jazzed with coriander, cumin, and other Moroccan spices, it took well to a cold Turkish-style yogurt dip pumped up with parsley and both dried and pickled shallots. A bright little salad of sliced radishes, Greek olives, and tomatoes came with it, as did salty blistered shishito chiles. When I asked Hightower, “Japanese peppers?” he said, “I can get them fresh, and they’re a nice change from Turkish peppers.”
Honestly, a light eater could do just fine here with the nice-sized, protein-heavy appetizers. Besides the lamb kofte, the matched pair of tartares—salmon and tuna—would work well. To round them out, I might choose two of my favorite sides: another version of grits, this one prettily accessorized with scallions and shiitake mushrooms, and the lightly cooked purple cauliflower with golden raisins steeped in sherry (so vivid it looked like a still life by Matisse).
But I was on my usual gluttonous mission, so we moved on to Oso’s tour de force: great hunks of meat and fowl. The USDA Prime New York strip steak came slicked with cabernet-Gorgonzola butter, its twelve ounces assertively peppered and accompanied by smashed mustard-seed potatoes. In the poultry domain, I quite liked the pan-roasted half chicken sprinkled with parsley and big juicy capers; it could have used crispier skin, but tender, moist meat more than made up for that.
Oso has clearly perfected the craft of slow cooking, exemplified in our favorite dish by far, the house-made pappardelle topped with the aforementioned braised oxtail. Shamelessly lolling about in its own well-rendered fat and juices, the falling-apart Niman Ranch meat was a winter feast. Says Hightower, “I wanted to bring a borscht feel to the dish,” which he did with chunky charred-beet salsa and coriander crème fraîche.
Finally we arrived, with barely enough room, at dessert. I was perfectly happy with the layered lemon curd and lemon panna cotta, topped with supremes of citrus, but that was before I tasted the fragrant spiced date cake. Spiked with rum, it was sticky-sweet, impossible to keep off one’s fingers, and utterly glorious. Having girded our loins, if not expanded our girths, for the drive home, we agreed that we would be back soon. “I’m going to add more pastas and desserts,” Hightower told me, “plus toss in some unexpected things to keep people on their toes.” Added Cox, “Over time, we want to broaden our approach to include countries in Central and South America that have been influenced by Mediterranean cuisines.” At this rate, Oso could end up giving strip malls a good name.