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Natural flavors get a chance to stand out at Potager Cafe in Arlington

Potager Cafe

315 S. Mesquite St., Arlington



Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 5:30-9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday

Posted 1:12pm on Wednesday, Sep. 29, 2010

Just when you think you've got the dining scene all figured out, you wander into a place like Potager Cafe in Arlington, and things get flipped upside-down.

Here, you dictate the cost and the portion sizes. Whether you're trying one dish or four, you decide when you've had enough. At the end of your meal, bust out the calculator to determine its worth.

When Potager opened two years ago, its pricing plan seemed like a recession-era gimmick, a plea for attention. But now it has become the mark of one of the most confident and unique restaurants in DFW.

Truth is, Potager's pricing anomaly is only a small part of its ethos. Its French meaning -- "kitchen garden" -- encompasses a philosophy that includes Slow Food and a homegrown approach, adopted by owner Cynthia Chippindale. It's all part of an emerging global movement promoting the use of fresh and local ingredients in restaurant cuisine.

It's not some fancy new trend, either. It's based on the old, colonial-era idea that you eat to survive, and enjoy what you've got. That is, until next harvest. But that practice somehow got buried in all the hustle and bustle of our fast-food lives.

The menu is entirely dependent on the seasonal availability of local meat and produce. It changes daily, written in colored chalk on an old board by the kitchen. It's that kind of improvisational kitchen kung fu that has earned Potager Cafe a loyal following.

Chef Mike Shaw (of York Street fame) prepares each dish, striking boredom over the head with an iron skillet.

"You eat what's in season. Everything's made fresh, and we never use chemicals or harsh fertilizers. And we won't use anything that's not biodegradable," he told me on my last visit.

You're encouraged to savor your meal. Undeniably, it's like dining in someone's home without having to check your shoes at the door; colorful and mismatched furnishings as peculiar as their owner sit alongside you.

I had the privilege of sampling almost everything on the current board, starting with a cucumber and tomato salad drizzled in a slightly tangy mustard and herb vinaigrette. Straight from the farm to your plate, greens and vegetables at Potager Cafe are crunchy cool with a natural flavor that almost seems foreign.

I was especially impressed with their French bread. The loaves were soft with a crispy crust and a noticeably fresh, wheatlike earthy flavor. Eat it plain and don't bother slathering butter or some other colloquial condiment on top.

Another dish, the herb-seared tri-tip beef, was served alone, making it easier to appreciate its presentation. It was moist, tender and served in natural gravy. Like the salad and French bread, there was an apparent fresh and natural flavoring not obscured by gaudy seasonings. It's a light flavor, allegedly from happy cows roaming the grassland somewhere in North Texas.

For hearty helpings, we tried the robust lentil and barley soup and Mediterranean-style calamari stew. They're flavorful and surprisingly simple to prepare: Mike was able to verbally deconstruct each dish within seconds. The calamari (from Iceland) was the most well-prepared I've ever sampled.

We sampled more than eight dishes, including Israeli melon with apple spice cake, shredded summer squash with oven-roasted new potatoes, and tomato and basil quiche -- which all fell under the "a little bit" or "a little more" portion size on the pricing table, suggested prices that fluctuate depending on the dish and time of day. At lunch, for example, a main dish plus one side bears the suggested prices of $7, $9 or $12. For quiches, it's $2.50, $3.50 and $5. At the very least, Potager suggests paying the minimum, which they use to stay in business.

Including the personal tour of the place, two of us parted with a total of $30.

On your way out, drop your payment into a watering can by the kitchen. The metaphor should be pretty obvious.

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