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Stephan Pyles at the crossroads: Flora Street gets casual while formality takes root at Fauna

After a rough year at his renowned Arts District restaurant, the chef has remade Flora Street into two restaurants with vastly different ambitions.

There is the moment after everyone is seated at Fauna, Stephan Pyles’ new restaurant-within-a-restaurant at Flora Street Cafe, when the tiny room swells with the sound of an orchestra tuning up and the rap of a conductor’s baton. After everyone — on this night, all seven of us — snaps to attention, the top panels of a wall slide open to reveal Fauna’s open kitchen and the star of the show: executive chef Peter David Barlow, intently working beneath dangling dried herbs and flowers and fish bones. Cascades of liquid nitrogen fog will douse a middle course (and will douse it again, if you like, “for Instagram”). Later, there will be fire, right there on your tabletop.

There will be food, too. And on my first visit in September, despite those goofy theatrics, it was sensational: A seamless procession of 10 small courses, each distinct and creative, like an extended-play version of the modern Texas cooking Flora Street serves on the other side of Fauna’s opaque glass doors.

Could Pyles have rescued Flora Street? It’s been, if you haven’t heard, a rough year for the restaurant. Every top staff member, plus two of Pyles’ business partners, have come and gone. Meanwhile, over the summer, Pyles finally completed his plan for a total shakeup of his elegant Arts District restaurant, turning it into two entirely separate operations with two new chefs at the helm.

Stephan Pyles took away the white tablecloths when he "casualized" Flora Street Cafe, but left the shimmering artwork and power decor.
Stephan Pyles took away the white tablecloths when he "casualized" Flora Street Cafe, but left the shimmering artwork and power decor. (Smiley N. Pool / Staff Photographer)

Now Flora Street, minus the white tablecloths and the tasting menu, serves a less expensive a la carte menu and, for the first time, brunch. (The famous lobster tamale pie, in a glass chalice topped with an ancho-dusted disk of sugar, is the only original dish on the new dinner menu.)

More surprising, Flora Street’s very beige secondary dining room — a Siberia if there ever was one — has been transformed into Fauna, a five-table fine-dining holdout that’s more formal than Flora ever was, flickering with tall, tapered candlesticks and the glow of an expensive tasting menu.

When Flora Street opened in 2016, it quickly became a touchstone restaurant for Dallas. Big and glam, sure, but also the place where one of the country’s most inventive chefs had found a way forward for modern Southwestern cuisine — a style of cooking he helped originate some three decades earlier. In 2017, it earned five stars from The Dallas Morning News, the only restaurant at the time to achieve the top rating.

Can the new Flora-Fauna recapture the magic? Let’s clear the nitrogen fog and find out.

Fauna

Barlow is actually Fauna’s second chef. He came on board in July, after the original chef departed when empty tables on weekdays led Pyles to reduce Fauna’s hours from five days a week to just Friday and Saturday.

In any case, Barlow seems ideal for the job. He was chef de cuisine at Flora Street during its five-star glory days, with a résumé that includes working at groundbreaking formal restaurants, including Curtis Duffy’s Grace in Chicago and Douglas Keane’s Cyrus in Sonoma Valley. More recently, he began the Niteshade Chef Collaborative, a Dallas catering and consulting group (and he still does private gigs during the week).

Chef Peter David Barlow
Chef Peter David Barlow (Jason Janik / Special Contributor)

Barlow and Pyles say they kept the same format and added more masa dishes, seafood and small bites at the start and finish. And Barlow can be a genius at modulating the power of wood fire and spice and chiles. It’s a shock to hear he used 13 varieties of chiles over the course of one delicately flavored meal.

The first course, based on Japanese chawanmushi, arrives in a ceramic bowl that looks like a hollowed-out stone. A nub of sweet king crab is set atop a shallow pool of custard lightly infused with aji amarillo, along with a marble-size sphere of liquid dashi, a dot of plankton oil, butternut squash, a nearly transparent slice of daikon cut into the shape of a tiny blossom, a fine orange dusting of bottarga and other small wonders. Crack open the dashi sphere and the elements unify, like having the crab take a swim through a deliciously seasoned ocean.

King Crab with a sphere of liquid dashi, plankton oil, butternut squash and custard infused with aji amarillo
King Crab with a sphere of liquid dashi, plankton oil, butternut squash and custard infused with aji amarillo(Jason Janik / Special Contributor)

The kampachi escabeche rethinks a crudo course, with a lightly pickled strip of the fish rolled in a mixture of crushed chiles and pepitas, and accented with a brilliant red hibiscus chile oil and green apple.

One of my favorite dishes offers few visual clues to its luscious flavors and textures, all of its elements hidden under a crescent of ruffled sea lettuce. Beneath it, a slice of curry-braised pumpkin serves as a delicate “crust” holding thin slices of sea scallop briefly cooked on embers. There are also thinly cut fennel, lime and many other subtle flavors, all hidden under the sea lettuce, itself dressed in black sesame oil and a dark, umami-rich dab of house-made abalone XO sauce.

Dry-aged squab gets a final sear at the table.
Dry-aged squab gets a final sear at the table.(Jason Janik / Special Contributor)

All of that, and we’re not even to the pyrotechnics course, involving a bell-shaped pedestal for a miniature empanada topped with crunchy chapulines and a flame-shooting porcelain hibachi delivered to each table, where duck hearts skewered on rosemary branches get a good sear before they are replaced with incredibly succulent squab breast, dry-aged to develop flavor and eliminate gaminess.

At this point, Barlow called for an actual intermission, a welcome chance to wander into the busy Flora Street dining room or chat with Pyles, then return to find a beautiful centerpiece made with whole coconuts and overflowing with liquid nitrogen and a palate-awakening frozen cocktail of young coconut, sotol, wild agave and lime.

And … there was more. Much more.

Lamb loin and belly with hoja santa, mole de calabaza and chicatanas (flying ants)
Lamb loin and belly with hoja santa, mole de calabaza and chicatanas (flying ants)(Jason Janik / Special Contributor)

Sommelier Aaron Benson, who has worked at numerous restaurants around Dallas including Veritas Wine Room and Stephan Pyles, assembles two impressive wine pairings for each menu. The Lieu Dit pairing ($125) is the more adventurous, with wines such as the unusual sherrylike 2015 Gavalas Nikteri Assyrtiko from Santorini, ideal with the kampachi escabeche, or two mourvèdres served side-by-side, one made in the Texas Hill Country by William Chris, the other a 2014 Bandol from Château Pradeaux, with an Akaushi rib-eye course. The Grand Cru pairing offers more prestigious bottles, but it’s not compelling enough at twice the price.

Benson’s nonalcoholic pairings are also clever and as visual as floral arrangements. Each glass contains the components of a wine experience, with acids from fruit vinegars, savory characteristics from miso, teas, tonics and bitters, and many other ingredients cooked up by Benson himself.

The staff creates unique coctails to go with each new menu at Fauna in Dallas, TX, on Oct. 26, 2019. (Jason Janik/Special Contributor)
The staff creates unique coctails to go with each new menu at Fauna in Dallas, TX, on Oct. 26, 2019. (Jason Janik/Special Contributor)(Jason Janik / Special Contributor)

In all, it was a four-star evening, but unfortunately, the same wasn’t true of my second visit.

On that night, the heat and spice were overbearing in almost every dish, obliterating the flavor of delicate ingredients, including in the desserts. Dishes that should have been warm were served cold. The dashi sphere in the king crab course was actually frozen. Alcohol-free pairings were less astute. There was a loud crash, unnervingly while the flaming hibachis were being cleared.

Our server asked at the end of most every course, “Are you done working on that?” Something no one should hear in a restaurant of this caliber. No one offered to take my coat, so I sat on the crumbled up thing for the entire 2 1/2 hours.

A room this small amplifies any tension, and on this night, the relaxed flow of the first dinner was replaced with something tight and jumpy, like when you’re at someone’s house for dinner after the hosts have had an argument.

With a bill that can easily hit $700 for two, with tax and tip and wine, an off night is a serious problem. If Fauna is going to keep its seats filled, it will need to find a consistent groove.

Stephan Pyles Flora Street Cafe

The shimmering art, the power decor, the attentive service: Happily, the Flora Street dining room feels the same as ever, despite its “casualization.” (Well, except for the waiters, who now deliver crisp service wearing rumply Hawaiian shirts. Even in November.)

The menu, now overseen by Kylil Henson, Flora’s former sous chef, feels the same, too. It’s a surprise to learn that almost everything on it is new.

Smoked Akaushi rib eye
Smoked Akaushi rib eye(Smiley N. Pool / Staff Photographer)

Dishes are divided into sections called Shareables and Salads, Ceviches, Masa, Fall Fresh, and Large Plates. With the exception of the $42 smoked Akaushi Wagyu rib-eye — flavorful, tender and pleasantly paired with crunchy Brussels sprouts and a slab of potato pave — every dish is less than $30.

Dinner at the new Flora is lot like listening to a greatest hits compilation album: You’ll either find it a highly pleasurable way to spend an evening, or you’ll be a little bored as you work your way through some delicious dishes revived from Pyles’ Mediterranean- Indian restaurant Samar, or the original Flora lobster tamale pie, or new spins on the modern Texas cuisine that Pyles originated decades ago.

Fall mushroom quesadilla
Fall mushroom quesadilla (Smiley N. Pool / Staff Photographer)

Among the summer standouts were a braised pork shoulder that was like a refined version of barbecue, a melting rectangle of shredded meat that had been braised in red wine, guajillo chiles, cumin and other warm spices, then pulled and pressed into a cake and served with a nice goat cheese and peach empanada.

The summer taco, a black squid-ink tortilla topped with fried rings of calamari and preserved lemon aoli, has given way to fall’s mushroom quesadilla, with a poblano tortilla tinged with cilantro, a mixture of wild mushrooms, and a blend of goat cheese, cotija and Monterey Jack topped with a chiffonade of herbaceous hoja santa.

Lamb kofte, a dish originally served at Samar
Lamb kofte, a dish originally served at Samar(Smiley N. Pool / Staff Photographer)

The wine list, by Rudy Mikula, a veteran of Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York City as well as Nana, Hibiscus and Savor in Dallas, offers a well-edited range of wines from around the world, and Mikula is quick to recommend excellent bottles at around $50, along with some good choices by the glass.

The new Flora Street is not as exciting as the original, when Pyles was pouring his creativity full-tilt into the menu and you might be introduced to a fascinating wine like Movia Puro Rose. But it is a thoroughly enjoyable, solid exerience. And you can imagine coming back soon.

Stephan Pyles Flora Street Cafe

Rating: Two and a half stars

Price: $$$ (Lunch flatbreads and starters $12 to $22, sandwiches $12 to $18, mains $15 to $28, desserts $8 to $12. Dinner starters and salads $12 to $24, mains $24 to $42, desserts $8 to $12. Brunch $7 to $22.)

Service: Knowledgeable and professional, even if the servers are now uniformed in Hawaiian shirts. In November.

Ambience: Last summer, chef Stephan Pyles “casualized” his glamorous Arts District restaurant by yanking away the white tablecloths while leaving the elegant artwork and power decor intact. The tasting menu disappeared, too, and prices have been lowered on a la carte dishes, which you’ll be encouraged to share. The result is a lot like listening to a greatest hits compilation album: You’ll either find it a highly pleasurable way to spend an evening, or you’ll be a little bored as you work your way through some delicious dishes from Pyles’ deep repertoire.

Noise: Shouty (73 decibels)

Drinks: The attention to value on the menu is extended to Rudy Mikula’s well-edited, global wine list. Most bottles are less than $100, with a good many under $50, including 2016 Alois Lageder Pinot Bianco from the Alto Adige for $28. The by-the-glass list ($12 to $30) is equally solid, including a $12 William Chris Mourvèdre from the Texas Hill Country, which is also poured with the pricey Fauna tasting menu. Cocktails ($15) are complex without being fussy.

Recommended: Lamb kofte, house naan, fall mushroom quesadilla, fried squid taco, Mediterranean branzino, compressed braised pork shoulder, smoked Akaushi Wagyu rib-eye, Sicilian pistachio mousse, vanilla custard with cinnamon shortbread, Aria (Reprise) cocktail

GPS: The comfort level of the dining room has not been harmed in the remaking of this restaurant. There is still plenty of space between tables, and not a bad one in the house.

Address: 2330 Flora St., Dallas; 214-580-7000; florastreet.com

Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner Monday-Thursday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5:30 to 11 p.m. (bar opens 4 p.m.). Brunch Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Reservations: Accepted

Credit cards: All major

Health department score: B (81, August)

Access: Restaurant and bar are on one level.

Parking: Valet parking $10

Fauna

Rating: Three stars

Price: $$$$ (Tasting menu $150 per person, plus tax and 20 percent tip. Wine pairings $125 or $250 per person. Alcohol-free pairings $50 per person.)

Service: Personal and highly attentive, though it can be unsophisticated for this price level.

Ambience: At the same time Stephan Pyles loosened up his elegant Arts District restaurant, Flora Street Cafe, he focused his fine-dining efforts on creating this 16-seat restaurant-within-a-restaurant. The evening begins with the rap of a conductor’s baton: The screen separating Fauna’s dedicated open kitchen slides open to reveal chef Peter David Barlow and what will be a procession of 10 small courses, each intricate and distinct, like a meditation on the simpler modern Texas cooking in the Flora Street dining room just outside Fauna’s opaque glass doors.

Noise: Quiet (59 decibels)

Drinks: Sommelier Aaron Benson assembles two skillful wine pairings for each menu. The Lieu Dit pairing ($125) is the more adventurous, with wines such as the unusual sherrylike 2015 Gavalas Nikteri Assyrtiko from Santorini. The Grand Cru pairing offers more prestigious bottles, but it’s not compelling enough at twice the price. Benson’s nonalcoholic pairings are inventive and as visual as floral arrangements. Each glass contains the components of a wine experience, with acids from fruit vinegars, savory characteristics from miso, teas and tonics, and other ingredients cooked up by Benson himself.

Recommended: Tasting menu, Lieu Dit wine pairing

GPS: All five tables are within a few feet of the open kitchen. If we’re being picky, the table at the center of the room is best.

Address: Inside Flora Street Cafe, 2330 Flora St., Dallas, 214-580-7000; florastreet.com

Hours: One seating on Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m.

Reservations: Available through Tock, exploretock.com/fauna

Credit cards: All major

Health department score: B (81, August)

Access: Restaurant is on one level; the dining room is small, but there is ample space between tables.

Parking: Valet parking $10

Ratings Legend

4 stars: Extraordinary (First-rate on every level; a benchmark dining experience)

3 stars: Excellent (A destination restaurant and leader on the DFW food scene)

2 stars: Very Good (Strong concept and generally strong execution)

1 star: Good (Has merit, but limited ambition or spotty execution)

No stars: Poor (Not recommended)

Noise Levels

Below 60: Quiet. Maybe too quiet.

60-69: Easy listening. Normal conversation, with a light background buzz.

70-79: Shouty. Conversation is possible, but only with raised voices.

80-85: Loud. Can you hear me now? Probably not.

86-plus: Deafening.

Prices

Average dinner per person.

$ -- $19 and under

$$ -- $20 to $50

$$$ -- $50 to $99

$$$$ -- $100 and over

Updated on October 6 to correct Flora Street Cafe’s executive chef. It is Kylil Henson; Ross Demers has left the restaurant.

Michalene Busico, Restaurant Critic. Michalene brings a global perspective to the Dallas dining scene with a career that includes being the food editor at the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Robb Report. Until she left the West Coast for Dallas in 2018, she also ate her way around the world as an Academy Chair for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

michalene.busico@dallasnews.com /michalene.busico @michaleneb

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