06 Jan Restaurant of the Year: Flora Street Café by Stephan Pyles
Restaurants are an oddly egalitarian pop culture phenomenon. TV shows can “find” their audiences in reruns, movies’ success can depend on good marketing and distribution, but then be later discovered on cable or Netflix and gain a new life. But restaurants are chimeras. They are not static, like a film or a CD or a season of a TV show; they change depending upon many factors, from their staffs to the training to the attention of the chef to the menu to the neighborhood. Even the greatest of them eventually shutter. And even the best — as far as critics are concerned, at least — can fail to catch on with diners, depending on parking or price point or just the death of buzz.
A critic can only say what makes a great restaurant (or a bad one); what we cannot do is make you like it (if you have preferred deep-dish Chicago pizza since childhood, no amount of prose can convince you thin NYC style is superior, no matter how many adjectives we layer on like pepperonis). And a caravan of effusive encomiums can’t predict the future — my waiter happened to make a great wine recommendation; your experience may vary.
It’s why I call my year-end list Top Tables, because these are the new restaurants (usually since about Autumn 2015 and ending 12 months later, though there are some exceptions from late 2016; but look for many late-2016 openings — Kabuki, Sugarbacon Proper Kitchen Lakewood, HG Sply Co. Fort Worth, Flying Fish, TorTaco, V-Eats Modern Vegan, Beto & Son and a host of others — to be considered for my 2017 list) that captured dining in Dallas in the previous year. (Just missing this year’s list: Julia Pearl, Whistle Britches, Street’s Fine Chicken, 18th & Vine BBQ and Tacodeli.)
There might be better meals out there, or fancier décor, or slicker service, but not necessarily places that stuck with me more regarding my dining life. I stand by all of them.
Restaurant of the Year:
Flora Street Café by Stephan Pyles
The naming of Stephan Pyles’ Flora Street Café as the best restaurant of the year is less a selection than an inevitable apotheosis, a kind of beatification or consecration of what really set North Texas’ dining scene apart in 2016. It wasn’t a question of being “good” or “better than someone else;” it was a matter of absolute culinary perfection, the kind that gave Pyles his reputation in the first place. (He cribbed the name from his first success, Routh Street Café — a reminder that as far as he’s come, he’s not far from his roots.)
There’s the décor — a wall of glass windows bring the tree-lined parts of Flora Street into the building itself; a whimsical light fixture pops from the ceiling like a perpetually blooming flower — which only enhances the sense of harmony between nature and man’s mastery of it in the form of culinary wizardry. There’s the warm, coddling elegance that makes you feel instantly ensconced in attentiveness. There are the subtle touches (small, discrete barrels upon which female diners may set their purses; the check, delivered rolled in a block of wood with a pen included, like some 18th-century scrivener’s desk set; the canelles of sweet butter) that add classiness.
And then, of course, there is the food itself, more curated than prepared. Each category (starters, entrees, desserts) is accompanied by a literary quote or poem as refined as the execution. Pyles’ renowned affinity for south-of-the-border delicacies (huitlacoche in the empanadas, cod prepared escabeche-style) elevated with his exacting standards transform even a prosaic fisherman’s dish like ceviche into a winding rope of amberjack specked with mango-lillikoi reduction and Marcona almonds.
This isn’t going to be your daily lunch hangout or a casual dinner date. It feels like an event. I guess because it is.