Since moving here in 2007, chef John Tesar has become one of Dallas' most notorious chefs, known as much for his mercurial personality as his brilliant food. Outspoken, unfiltered, a chronic texter, he's a love-him-or-hate-him guy. It was no surprise when he turned up a few weeks ago on Food Network's Extreme Chef, where he had to milk a cow and endure a dust storm while putting out a dish. Of course, he won.
But at The Commissary, his casual-but-chic restaurant at One Arts Plaza, he remains intently focused on the food. Like its chef, the place has seen some controversy of its own: People like its innovative burgers, but the bumpy service initially drew complaints. Now that the restaurant has been open a couple of months, things seem a little smoother, allowing diners to focus on what is some very good food.
It's odd that Tesar would end up a burger flipper. The New York native first came to Dallas to work at the staid Mansion on Turtle Creek, which he departed in 2009. But at The Commissary, he takes a detail-oriented, Mansion-like approach. He subjects the burgers to a unique cooking technique, starting with a slow-cooking CVap oven to keep the burger moist, then searing the outside. When the burger arrives, it's a thick patty that resembles a steak, with a red center and a blackened crust.
The Commissary has a dozen burger varieties, some in two sizes: 6- and 8-ounce. All toppings are top-of-the-line gourmet. The Farmer ($10/$12), one of the most decadent, comes with a fried duck egg and tangy speck -- like a high-end bacon-and-egg -- on a brioche bun with Vermont cheddar. The Big Tex ($9/$11) is spicy, with salsa, pickled jalapeños and chipotle mayo.
Not all burgers here are beef. The Tandoori ($13, one size) is a fantastically flavorful alternative made with lamb, topped with yogurt sauce and served in a grilled pita with house-made pickles. There's also a crab-cake burger ($16, one size), and a veggie burger ($10) with a Southwestern touch, made with black beans and served in a grilled flour tortilla. It's terrific that he uses different breads -- from sesame-seed buns to brioche rolls to English muffins.
If all the place did was burgers, deciding would be a lot easier, but salads, small plates and sides are just as good. Onion rings ($5) in a tempura crust are massively crunchy, and the kitchen does an adorable faux tater tot ($5) made from sweet potatoes. Salads are positively fearless. Where else can you find a watercress salad ($13) with a gratifyingly big heap of watercress, endive and goat cheese tossed in a sherry vinaigrette? And what a pleasure to find a salad like the fava bean ($13), with greens of the day, meaty fava beans and thick shavings of pecorino cheese.
There are just a couple of entrees, and they vary with the season. There's always a seafood item, such as seared scallops or pan-roasted wild salmon, and a couple of pasta options, such as penne with black truffle essence ($16). The food is light, sophisticated and not overly expensive. A meal can also be made by sharing some of the small plates, like the fried oysters ($15), with a shaggy cornmeal crust, or sweetbreads ($13), fried in a thick, crunchy tempura crust and served with zippy Thai chili aioli.
The Commissary inherited some nice perks from Dali Wine Bar, the previous tenant, including a spectacular patio and a curving wine bar whose reputation remains intact as a popular place for wine-industry professionals to hang out.