Naysayers who assert the demise of artistic, meticulously crafted cuisine be informed: The genre may have taken a hiatus, but it is back with a roar.
Flora Street Cafe opened in the Arts District on the cusp of summer in May. Anticipation has been building since chef Stephan Pyles announced he was closing his eponymous flagship in favor of this new venture. Pyles recruited impressive talent to the new endeavor, including Peter Barlow, formerly chef de cuisine at Easy Bistro & Bar in Chattanooga, Tenn., and a veteran of Michelin-starred kitchens; and Ricardo Sanchez, former executive pastry chef of Nobu Las Vegas—hires that further fueled anticipation of an uberchic restaurant with good-as-it-gets fare and stellar service.
The setting, upon our approach, does not disappoint. Tucked below the Halls Texas Sculpture Walk in the KPMG Plaza at Hall Arts, Flora Street Cafe sits just across the street from the Meyerson Symphony Center, within easy walking distance of performing and visual arts venues.
We’re warmly greeted as we enter tall-ceilinged space, inviting with contemporary furnishings in wood tones, grays and whites, and engaging art. Tables are appointed with luxurious linens, fine silver and white orchids. Beneath a backlit canopy of amber alabaster is a highly visible show kitchen, fronted by an eight-seat chef’s counter and manned with staff intensively engaged with dishes in the works.
Illuminated cabinets in an adjacent wine tunnel showcase a fine cellar, but we opt for cocktails from a list with enticing botanical elements.
Crimson Root of the Garden ($14) in a coupe glass is a sparkling and refreshing mix of Rogue Pink Spruce gin, beet juice, subtly smoked carrot, fennel and herbal liqueurs. Elotes ($14) is cool and creative, a frothy cream and smoked corn blend, balanced against Tequila Cabeza’s bite and exotic nuances of lemongrass, Kaffir lime and cardamom-enhanced simple syrup. Both drinks hum with a kick of chile peppers, revving our taste buds.
Attentive staff walk us through the dinner menu, divided into four sections: Raw, small plates of ceviche, salads and beef tartare ($18 to $26); First, several cooked appetizers ($18 to $28); Taste, code for a to-die-for 10-course tasting menu ($125 per person, $225 per person with paired wines); and Main, this night’s entrees ($36 to $65) included pheasant, fish, pork, lamb, wagyu rib-eye and antelope.
Charged with sampling a varied spread, we order individual items; though the tasting menu looked divine. First comes the surprise of an amuse-bouche: petite bowls of wild mushroom crema, umami-rich pudding garnished with truffle oil, microgreens and tiny elderflowers—a fortuitous start.
Our first appetizer, sea scallops ($26), arrives, a head-turning Raw section selection presented on a platter of seaweed emitting billows of jasmine tea-scented smoke. The generous portion of fresh scallop ceviche cured in Key lime juice comes with tiny cubes of coconut gelée, chipotle-dusted buckwheat groats (a nutty grain), and “noodles” of dissolving flash-frozen pineapple mousse. It’s a perfect mix of flawlessly fresh seafood, citrus and tropical flavors—theatrical and fun.
The second, lobster tamale pie ($28) a take on Pyles’ longtime signature lobster tamales, is a splendiferous work of art for both the eye and taste buds. Served in a martini glass covered with a disk of ancho chili-accented edible “glass” the diner must break open to eat, creamy tamale made with lobster poached in butter is enhanced with wild paddlefish caviar, caramelized garlic, microgreens and edible flower petals to delightful effect.
Salads follow: The Local Garden Roots ($24) is a colorful palette of roasted, pickled and raw root vegetables accented with shaved foie gras, citrus pesto and a cracker-like goat cheese chicharrón. It’s a dish so vibrantly flavorful and artistically stacked, the carrots and radishes seem ready to romp off the plate. Embered Living Lettuces ($18) is a play on Caesar salad, this with a tasty char on a large wedge of escarole lettuce brushed with lemony vinaigrette and garnished with marinated anchovies, dried red onion and Parmesan foam. Clear gazpacho on the side is sparkling with fresh garden flavors.
Our entrees are elaborate. Red grouper ($48) is a composition in whites and pale greens—fresh tasting perfectly seared fish accompanied by tamale made with smoke-imbued white chorizo, baby fennel, cauliflower and Chartreuse romanesco broccoli drizzled with flavorful white mole sauce made with cauliflower, sesame and almonds, and plated with onion ash puree. South Texas nilgai antelope ($65) features pricey Broken Arrow Ranch loin and rib meat, brined, smoked and cooked sous-vide to tenderness, with mole nuances, accompanied by pickled peaches, roasted chanterelles and Venezuelan-style empanadas stuffed with umami bomb huitlacoche, altogether a dazzling palate.
Tempting options on the dessert menu include cakes and mousse as sophisticated as our savory dishes. We choose picture-pretty cassis parfait ($14) a petite cold custard made with tart, sweet currants on a brown sable cookie base, garnished with hibiscus sorbet, plump berries, berry-glazed jicama and candied violets. It is utterly gorgeous with a taste to match. With the tab, our cordial waiter delivers a lagniappe for the road: sweet glazed pecans to take home.
Overall, this fine-dining food was perfectly executed, delicious and stunning; the service flawless and unrushed; the setting sublime. Pyles and Chef de Cuisine Peter Barlow bring regional ingredients into a modern context, weaving them with global elements and skilled technique to create what Pyles calls “elevated Texas” cuisine. It’s both art and theater—posh, sophisticated cuisine made with creativity and meticulous care.