If you ever decide to become a restaurant critic be prepared for the inevitable question: “What is your favorite restaurant in Dallas?” It’s a hard question for me to answer. Not because I’m evasive, it’s because I feel like I have to quantify my choice by answering “well, if I’m in the mood for Mexican then I would consider this place or that place. If I want casual then I head here.” And so on and so forth. Pick one out of 6,200? That’s tough.
Ten days ago I took my mother, brother, and sister-in-law to dinner at The Grape. I wasn’t going to do a review. I wasn’t even hungry. I’d just spent a long week and a half eating tricked up fancy food at a new restaurant in Dallas and I just wanted to kick back and enjoy time with my family. Two and a half hours later, I emerged renewed. Just when I thought I couldn’t be impressed, I was impressed. I can now say, without hesitation, that The Grape is currently my favorite restaurant in Dallas.
I decided to call chef/owner Brian Luscher, who I’ve never met in person, and talk to him about my experience at his restaurant and discuss some of the details he pursues in his kitchen. I combined the interview with a quick review.
Jump for the glory of The Grape.
I remember when The Grape opened in 1972. I half remember the meals I’ve eaten in the dark, sexy dining room over the years. The Grape has always been like an great old friend, the kind you don’t have to talk to every year but when you finally do, you pick your relationship up right where you left off.
That’s how I felt when the waiter handed me a menu filled with a list of classic bistro dishes combined with a few modern preparations. I felt centered when my eyes passed over “Sautéed Veal Noisettes.” I had flashbacks to meals made with Cognac, peppercorns, and cream at Ewald’s. I’m a sucker for what we used to call “Continental” dishes. Chefs didn’t have time to fiddle around with deconstructing a mole or turning a lamb into a lollipop; they tossed a piece of meat into a copper sauté pan and finished the dish off with a pan-made sauce.
Culinary tradition runs deep at The Grape. The kitchen’s signature mushroom soup has been tinkered with a few times, but the original recipe is the same as it ever was. “The mushroom soup is the Siren that lured many chefs here into the rocks,” said chef/owner Brian Luscher. “Yeah, I tried to tinker with it, but there has been three generations of brothers in this kitchen who have made this soup. No way I am changing that.”
My brother proposed to his wife over this soup, so naturally we ordered a bowl to share. Tasting it as a family sparked a wonderful conversation about their wedding and how fast years slip away. By the time the next course arrived, I was as relaxed and happy as I can remember being in a restaurant. How many times have you said that about your office?
Then the real showstopper was set before us: A cheese and charcuterie plate filled with rabbit mortadella, chicken and caramelized mushroom terrine, pork rillettes, manchego cheese, and house-made Boursin was delivered with fresh hot bread and crackers. Chef Luscher makes all of the cured meats. The rabbit mortadella is more like a terrine, but instead of molding the mixture in a pan, Luscher wraps the meat with a thin layer of his smoked bacon which acts like an edible casing. The tender rabbit meat receives a gentle hint of smokiness from the bacon. The more traditional and robust chicken and caramelized mushroom terrine stands up to Luscher’s house-made grainy mustard.
I love to eat this way. It’s fun to pick around a plate of cured meats and cheeses and compose different bites, each with its own peculiarities. A little cheese, a chunk of chicken terrine topped with cornichon, capers, and grainy mustard on a cracker followed by a slice of rabbit mortadella, smooth mustard, and pickled red onions on warm bread. The possibilities are endless. We paired this course with a nice bottle of 2006 Bouchard Pere & Fils ‘Beaune du Chateau’ Beaune Premier Cru.
Luscher admits he’s a freak for cured meat. “Yeah, I make it all, every single cured, smoked, or potted meat,” he said. “I even make all of the bacon that goes on all of those burgers we serve at brunch.”
Meat aside, Luscher made my mother happy with a spectacularly simple, yet elegant dish of grilled Texas red fish covered with a composition of the clean, fresh flavors of a crab, avocado, and heirloom cherry tomato salad. He charmed my sister-in-law with a straightforward version moules frites: Large PEI mussels were steeped in white wine seasoned with lemon, garlic, thyme, and crushed red pepper and served in a bowl beside two handfuls of thick-ish cut firm and reasonably salted fries. My veal, surrounded by a peppercorn cream sauce scented with Cognac, was a lovely Old World taste sensation sexed up with earthy Hen-of-the-Woods mushrooms. When the waiter placed a plate of dry-rube Kobe flank steak in front of my brother, I gasped. The meat was sliced as thin as sashimi. Each strip almost melted on the tongue and needed only a chew or two before swallowing. This dish would have been a completely different experience if it hadn’t been served as a traditional steak. I had to ask chef Luscher how he did it.
“I have one knife that is dedicated only to cutting that meat,” said Luscher. “I don’t let anyone touch it. I don’t want anyone to even look at it. It’s my secret, private knife for the Kobe beef.” For those of you scoring at home, it is a Forschner with a thin point and a shallow serrated edge.
I forgot to mention that I’d managed to sneak into The Grape without being recognized, a fact confirmed by Brian and his wife Courtney who runs the front of the house and is The Grape’s sommelier. (I have met Courtney.) At one point in the meal I wondered if I had been recognized because the service was so unobtrusive and efficient. Our waiter was delightful without joining our conversation and managed to pair us with wine without summoning Courtney, which was nice because she would have recognized me.
“Yes, Courtney manages to spread our general concern and caring for our guests to our servers,” said Luscher. “She has the hearts of the staff won over. They kidnapped her on her birthday and took her to dinner. When they see our [phone] number on caller id, they actually pick up the phone.” In other words, the staff at The Grape is happy to work there and that translates to the table.