Dining Out: Trailblazers

Our critic moseys into Texas to pit its two finest Southwestern restaurants against Rick Bayless’s legendary Frontera/Topolobampo one-two punch.

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Thirty-eight miles east, in the upscale Dallas Arts District, Stephan Pyles is doing what he variously calls “New Millennium Southwestern Cuisine” and “New Texas Cuisine” in his namesake restaurant. (These classifications combine elements of Texas, Latin America, Spain, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean.) A local celebrity, the bearded chef gets the rock star treatment as he works the room.

Nary a longhorn in sight in the parking lot; think Lamborghinis and BMWs instead. It’s a gorgeous setting before you even enter. Texas live oaks and a bridgelike path lead to a black granite reflecting pool and a waterfall cascading over a sculpture. The place is equally dramatic inside. The centerpiece glassed-in kitchen holds a smoker, rotisserie, and wood-burning grill; the décor is geometric shapes in metal and wood, original art, stacked Texas flagstone walls, terra cotta brick, and desert and sunset colors. The lighting hues change as the evening progresses. Beyond a bar stocked with expensive tequilas, a striking see-through fire pit leads to an open-air patio.

Servers get your attention immediately with outstanding potato-bacon focaccia and little blue corn muffins, and wonderful appetizers keep the buzz going. My favorites include the big butter-poached prawn with apricot sauce, avocado-tomatillo relish, and platano relleno (mashed plantain stuffed with beef tenderloin), and a tamale tart filled with roast garlic custard and a mound of peekytoe crab on smoked tomato sauce.

We feel compelled to order Stephan Pyles’s spice-marinated, beautifully grilled and charred bone-in cowboy rib eye with pinto–wild mushroom ragoût and an imposing pile of red chili–dusted onion rings. Serious Texas chow. But across the table, two companions claim that the coriander-cured rack of lamb, served with a delicious cranberry mojo sauce and an Ecuadorian potato cake, is even better. Then my third guest says her seared red snapper with a sauce of aji and creamed corn purée and crab seviche is the best snapper she’s ever eaten. I can’t disagree with any of them.

Dessert: Wow. The signature heaven and hell cake—devil’s food chocolate cake and angel food cake layered with peanut butter–cream cheese mousse and finished with milk chocolate icing—is brilliant. Stephan Pyles lives up to Bon Appétit’s claim that he “almost single-handedly changed the cooking scene in Texas.” Of course, in Texas they don’t say, ”Bon appétit”; they say, “Come and git it,” but that wouldn’t look as good on a magazine cover.

Taken together, these restaurants reminded me of Frontera Grill—winner of the 2007 James Beard Award for best restaurant in the country—and its white-tablecloth sister, Topolobampo. The first is rustic like Lonesome Dove; the second, refined and upscale like Stephan Pyles. The flavors are similar, especially where chilies, beans, corn, and grilling are involved.



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