Forget farm-to-table ingredients, fusion-minded food trucks or Michelin-starred chefs slumming with burgers. The hottest dining trend of the moment entails creating the ambiance of a friendly neighborhood joint out of thin air. The kind of place that feels instantly familiar, welcoming -- like it's been just down the street from your house for 40 years, even though it is brand new.
The Mason Bar was opened in early February by Brandt Wood, who once owned Trees and the Green Room in Dallas. It sits in a former Masonic lodge a mere block from Woodall Rodgers Freeway, is tucked away just outside downtown Dallas. It's on top of the hustle and bustle, but feels completely removed from it. With a smartly edited menu owing a debt to Gulf Coast cuisine and a small but potent craft cocktail selection, the Mason Bar is one of the most satisfying eateries (or "restobars," in the critical parlance) to open in North Texas so far this year.
The cozy room is dominated by a grand, glorious bar, topped with marble and taking up nearly one full wall facing the kitchen. Charming, pub-style bric-a-brac is scattered about the hunter green-accented walls (rock posters from Deep Ellum's heyday, kitschy modern art), the soundtrack is a smart mix of modern and classic rock (Band of Horses segueing into the Beatles) and the vibe is comfortable -- you can watch the Rangers or have a romantic night out. Water is served in Mason jars, and the staff, warm, informative and attentive, deftly guides diners through the compact menu.
Overseen by executive chef Cable Smith (ascendant young toque David Anthony Temple helped get the Mason Bar off the ground, before leaving at the end of February;
Smith is reportedly on his way out the door as well UPDATE: Spokeswoman India Bounds says the Mason Bar will be "keeping [Smith] for the foreseeable future."), the comforting, understated food is designed to be sampled and shared. Call it gourmet bar grub, yet another trend catching fire in North Texas.
The food we sampled on our visit was uniformly excellent. From gob-smacking starters to proven favorites, the Mason Bar emphasizes the freshness of its ingredients without clubbing you over the head.
The roasted beet salad ($9) is a nicely balanced mix of arugula, beets, goat cheese, walnuts and orange. But we also had to try the Mason fries appetizer, a sinful concoction that piles shredded ancho pork, cilantro sour cream and bacon crumbles atop perfectly crisp, cheddar-drenched french fries. It's a steal at $6.
The entrees -- like the chimichurri-coated flatiron steak ($19) or the zesty shrimp and grits ($16) -- stood shoulder-to-shoulder with side dishes such as the to-die-for mashed potatoes ($4), a heavenly blend of new potatoes, roasted garlic and green onion. Dessert gets short shrift -- be hopeful the "dessert of the week" ($7) is up your alley (it was a serviceable key lime pie during our visit), or make do with the bread pudding ($7).
The cocktail menu is no slouch, either: Eight "classics," such as the French 75 ($10) or the Sazerac ($8), anchor the drink offerings, with a healthy selection of draft and bottled beer, as well as a handful of wines.
The old-fashioned ($8) provided an exquisite balance of smoldering whiskey and citrus zing that can't help but make you feel relaxed; this is what it feels like to unwind after a hard day's work.
Everybody may not know your name at the Mason Bar, but it certainly feels as if they do. And although the location, slightly off the beaten path, could prove to make the early going a bit challenging, those who seek out this finely calibrated mix of intelligent, passionate barcraft and simply prepared, lovingly sourced dishes will be rewarded with an evening that feels both fresh and familiar.