Love and Food in the Big D

Friday, August 23, 2013

Chef Chad Kelley - Cafe Pacific Restaurant Review

For the last (almost) year now, my hubby, Chef Chad Kelley, has led the reigns as Executive Chef of Cafe Pacific in Highland Park Village here in Dallas.  During that time, he's taken a slow and steady approach at updating a very well, long established menu.  Having opened it's doors over 32 years ago, Cafe Pacific has become the go-to restaurant of choice for many of Dallas' locals.  Knowing he may encounter resistance to changes made too abruptly or out of character, he approached the task at hand with ease, slowly molding the perceptions of what Cafe Pacific could be, elevating menu selections and adding new dishes that pleased everyone.  But since his arrival to the Cafe Pacific team, he had yet to be properly "reviewed" for his efforts...until now.  
In the days leading up to any review or restaurant critique coming out to the public about My Chef, our house is usually a bit tense.  Will they like what they ate?  Were the servers having an "off" day? Was the kitchen staff on point on that particular night, with that particular dish, just the way that particular reviewer liked it?  How does everything compare to every other restaurant out there? Whatever the case my be, it's always a nerve-racking time.  

So when this review finally came out, right on the heels of another exciting (but equally stressful) closing on our new house... my Chef was a more than just a little relieved.  ;)  

The link to the Guide Live's Review on Cafe Pacific

Restaurant review: A refreshed menu brings some welcome updates to Cafe Pacific 

Evans Caglage/Staff Photographer
Nova Scotia halibut with prosciutto and tomatoes
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Few Dallas institutions have endured with the tenacity of Cafe Pacific, which reigns supreme as a Park Cities power-dining and neighborhood destination. When owner Jack Knox became the accidental restaurateur 33 years ago, who knew (least of all Knox) he’d get the clubby thing so right? Initially, he was only supposed to put up the money, but the operations half of the equation quickly collapsed, leaving Knox to run the show.
A fresh flower on every table. An orange slice in every water glass. Smartly crisped sweet-potato shoestrings before every meal. To these details, add a stately turn-of-the-last-century cafe setting with glossy marble floors, dark woods and brass-and-etched-glass flourishes. But all this forms only the backdrop for the predictable, cosseting experience that sets Cafe Pacific apart.
Any change to such a successful enterprise is risky. But a subtle and welcome change has come with executive chef Chad Kelley, who took over the kitchen last fall. He was at the Meddlesome Moth most recently and, before that, at the Oceanaire Seafood Room, where his seafood sparkled.
Kelley has freshened up Cafe Pacific’s seafood, as restaurants across Dallas have amped up the category, not the least John Tesar’s au courant Spoon on the other side of the Park Cities in Preston Center. Kelley also has expanded the menu to include vaunted, and not at all risky, wet-aged Allen Brothers steaks.
Starting with the starters, Maryland-style jumbo lump crabmeat cake looked as if the gorgeous, sea-fresh strands of sweet crab were held together by air. (“Jumbo lump” isn’t just a flowery description; it signifies a top grade.) In another appetizer, gobs of jumbo lump were embedded with avocado, lapped by racy rémoulade and festooned with celery microgreens and Sriracha dots.
Prince Edward Island oysters were such clean-tasting little bites they didn’t need the excellent sauces: mignonette, a soy-based dipper and a horseradish- forward cocktail sauce. A special of oysters Rockefeller, aside from being a little oily, made a great run at the classic credited to Antoine’s in New Orleans.
I loved the dainty lobster roll offered at lunch on a brioche bun, its tender meaty bites swathed in mayo with the tiniest celery dice, parsley and chives. It comes with hot, crisp fries, a side Cafe Pacific turns out with military precision. No quibble, either, with the buttery-fleshed “short smoked” salmon, except I’d have liked a longer smoke.
A special of shrimp and grits put the crustacean front and center with a soulful tomato sofrito over nubbly grits flecked with corn. The dense, beefy, 18-ounce rib-eye could easily have been halved to serve two. Lovely halibut one evening wore a prosciutto party hat that was clever, if a little jarring with the fish. Delicate scallops seemed the odd man out in another special, next to sliced fennel and andouille sausage.
Kelley also has upgraded the desserts, starting with the stodgy, crust-centric Key lime pie. Its replacement: a tangy tower of filling on a buttery, graham-cracker pedestal. His strawberry shortcake is a tart slice of lemon icebox cake with strawberries, tons of piped cream and basil microgreens. (Yes, he uses lots of microgreens: tiny changes.)
But some of Cafe Pacific’s core dishes are looking more and more like upscale cafeteria food. Three-onion-crusted sea bass resembled nothing so much as a round, hoity-toity fish stick. Lemon sole amandine was drenched in lemon butter, and the accompanying carrots were woefully undercooked. (How could the kitchen get these wrong after they’ve been on the menu, what, forever?) Of course, Highland Park Village will become an outlet mall before these come off the menu. Or change.
Change is tricky at Cafe Pacific. Some things you wouldn’t want to change.
Few Dallas restaurants, for instance, achieve its level of service: cordial and hyper-attentive without hovering. One time, before we could bring our wobbly table to our waiter’s attention, he was on the spot with a fix. Another time, it was instructive to eavesdrop as a waiter discreetly prompted a server-in-training to put a to-go sack “in the chair, not on the table.” We were easily marked as nonregulars, but the servers sized us up in a good way.
The wine list is something else that needs no fix. In addition to balanced selections, it offers tiered brackets at $29, $39 and $49, each with good choices. One night, our table of four got into Oregon selections, starting with King Estate Pinot Gris 2011 ($39) for appetizers and segueing into the server’s recommended Erath Pinot Noir 2010 ($49) for our mixed entrees. As for cocktails, they come off as an afterthought.
Normally, descriptors such as staid, classic and timeless are euphemisms for moribund. Not here. In fact, they’re supreme compliments. No one’s ever going to mistake Cafe Pacific for a trendsetter, and that’s exactly the way its customers, their grandmothers and owner Knox like it.

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