By Leslie Brenner
It has been just over two years since the Front Room: A Park Cities Diner opened in the Hotel Lumen, but the place is already on its third name and fourth chef.
Slide into a booth in the newly redesigned dining room at Front Room Tavern, twirl a wide, house-made pappardelle noodle onto your fork — the pasta intermingled with winy-rich, falling-apart-tender braised brisket — and take a saucy bite. There’s only one thing to conclude: This chef’s a keeper.
The new kitchen honcho is Michael Ehlert, a talented young chef last seen serving as second in command at Hibiscus; before that he was turning out laid-back yet sophisticated fare as executive chef at the short-lived Campo Modern Country Bistro. Ehlert came to Dallas in 2011, fresh off a stint as sous-chef at Daniel Boulud’s DBGB Kitchen and Bar in New York, to head the kitchen at the Chesterfield (Eddie “Lucky” Campbell’s downtown bar-bistro, also short-lived).
Ehlert’s current gig seems like a good fit. His Modern American cooking is fresh, thoughtful and original, exactly right for the space — a laid-back, casual, come-as-you-are hotel diner. Slices of pickled Fuyu persimmon make a delicious foil for creamy Burrata, which Ehlert dresses up with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, strewing arugula leaves and slices of pickled peppers about for freshness and zing. A pretty jar of dill-flecked pickled shrimp comes with tender house-made crackers and a bowl of whiskey rémoulade: a cocktail party waiting to happen.
Yes, this is much more stylish and seasonal than what we think of as diner food, but then again diners don’t normally turn out confident craft cocktails. It’s a bit ironic that somewhere along the way (there have been nearly as many management changes as chef changes), the word diner has been replaced by tavern in the name of the establishment. The recent remodel moved away from a midcentury Palm Springs aesthetic to a warmer, more wood-grained feel. But if it seems at all like a tavern, it’s more in the sense of a comfortable, familiar, friendly spot to stop by whenever the fancy strikes than in the sense of a drinking place that happens to serve food.
Because the food is much more than an afterthought. If you have any doubt, stop by at lunchtime or brunchtime and ask for a Reuben tartine. That’s what I did on an unseasonably balmy Sunday seated on the patio, when I remembered the fabulous Reuben that Ehlert used to make at the Chesterfield. Front Room’s, which is gorgeously constructed open-faced on a thick cushion of pumpernickel, involves thin slices of fabulous house-cured corned beef, melted Gruyère, marinated red cabbage, rivulets of Russian dressing, more pickled mustard seeds than most chefs would have the nerve to spoon on (they’d be wrong) and a frilly crown of wild baby mustard greens. Served with a paper cone of perfect house-made potato chips, it’s a knockout. Also great at brunch: green chile migas with chorizo and cheddar, served with crisp-on-the-outside, tender-inside, golden-brown skillet potatoes.
At lunchtime or dinner, consider Ehlert’s herb-flecked butter lettuce salad. Carefully dressed in Champagne vinaigrette, it’s topped with an egg that’s been soft-boiled, rolled in panko and fried so that the white is just set and the yolk oozes luxuriantly into the salad. Perfect.
A sunny-side-up egg (also perfect) topped a pork schnitzel the size of a Frisbee. Unfortunately, the pork had tenderness issues (its texture also reminded me of a Frisbee), but that was the only misstep during three review visits.
One of the best dishes was handmade cavatelli in a buttery sauce with small chunks of sweet lobster meat, chanterelles, leeks, shavings of good Parmesan and half a lobster tail, tenderly cooked, set on top. Ehlert certainly has a way with pasta — and with seafood. A tidy filet of king salmon, crisply seared on the skin side, was beautifully cooked then set on wonderful green lentils simmered with mirepoix and mingled with roasted mushrooms.
For carnivores, there’s a fine New York strip au poivre with frites and a pretty little radish salad; at $35 it’s the most expensive plate.
If the one-page wine list seems pricier than you’d expect at a place where the dinner main courses average just over $25 (only two of 18 reds are less than $75 per bottle), don’t panic; turn to the well-chosen list of wines offered by the glass. Tripling the by-the-glass price buys you a bottle of any, and there are some nice ones, such as a food-friendly 2013 La Bastide Saint Dominique Côtes du Rhône for $39 per bottle. The service (wine service included) at two dinners was pitch-perfect — warm, personable and thoughtful; at brunch it was good-natured and well-informed about the menu. Servers were always attentive, professional and absolutely correct.
Pastry chef Alison Morse, an alumnus of Five Sixty by Wolfgang Puck, is responsible for an appealing lineup of well-executed (and fun!) desserts. One moment I was loving an ice cream soda fashioned from Dublin Orange Cream soda, cheesecake crumble and a graham-cracker crumble; weeks later it had morphed into a spicy fizz of ginger beer and vanilla-bourbon ice cream that Morse served with gingerbread cookies.
Chocolate lovers will appreciate a trifle that layers devil’s food cake with dulce de leche and chocolate pudding, deliciously rich, but not cloying. There’s a rustic apple crostata topped with cinnamon ice cream, and a salted caramel pot de crème that’s really more like a pudding (a pot de crème should be denser), but terrific nonetheless, decorated with a soft dollop of vanilla cream and crumbled cashew brittle.
In a town where talented pastry chefs are in short supply, it’s lovely that Morse has a stage for her excellent sweets.
It’s also wonderful that the team at Front Room has at long last gotten things so right, especially coming at the end of a season during which we’ve seen a dull parade of alcohol-drenched debuts, taverns featuring bar food more glorified than elevated. The kind of cooking that Ehlert, Morse and company are delivering — relaxed yet sophisticated and seasonal, stylish but unpretentious, and with price tags that don’t break the bank — is exactly what Dallas needs more of.
Front Room Tavern (4 stars)
Price: $$$ (breakfast dishes $7 to $19; lunch and dinner appetizers and salads $5 to $17, sandwiches and main courses $14 to $35; brunch dishes $9 to $24; desserts $5 to $9)
Service: Good-natured, professional and attentive; absolutely correct
Ambience: A laid-back, casual, come-as-you-are hotel diner with comfortable booths, an appealing patio and an inviting bar
Noise level: Noise never impeded conversation (though the restaurant was never very busy)
Location: Hotel Lumen, 6101 Hillcrest Road, Dallas; 214-219-8282; frontroomdallas.com
Hours: Breakfast daily 7 to 11 a.m., lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., brunch Saturday-Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., snacks daily 3 to 5 p.m., dinner daily 5 to 11 p.m.
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar. A one-page list of wines by the bottle, mostly from the West Coast and France, is pricier than the modestly priced menu would seem to warrant; more affordable options by the bottle are to be had by tripling the price of the wines, many of them interesting and food-friendly, offered by the glass.