North Oak Cliff's dining scene continues to flower, with the latest restaurants boasting serious menus and checks to match. Those include seafood restaurant Driftwood, which opened in May; Boulevard, a wine bistro, set to open next month; and Campo Modern Country Bistro, which took over the old Beckley Brewhouse (and briefly, La Carreta Argentina) space in November.
Campo is already on its third chef, a fact that might otherwise signal a restaurant in distress. But Number Three, chef Michael Ehlert, is the charm. He came from Chesterfield in downtown Dallas but was previously a sous chef at DBGB Kitchen and Bar in New York. He joined Campo in May and has brought polish and consistency while fulfilling the vision of owners John Paul Valverde and Miguel Vicens.
They have kept original dishes and added new ones, with nightly specials to beef up the selection. Entrees are $15-$25, and they are occasionally modified according to what is available or in season.
Chorizo fritters ($9), six to an order, have been on the menu since opening day. They were like savory doughnut holes, with a crunchy brown crust and moist, eggy center, and a sharp tangy flavor from the chorizo. They were good for splitting, especially with the rhubarb salad ($11).
Finding tart-sweet rhubarb on a menu is rare; finding it used as a savory ingredient, rather than in a crisp or pie, is the mark of a culinary adventurer. Two neatly peeled stalks of pink rhubarb sat front-and-center, flanked by wild arugula. The greens were studded with more rhubarb, chopped into bite-size pieces, and chunks of fresh fennel, charred until dark and sweet and smoky. The softened fennel gave the salad a rich mouth feel, enough to almost make it seem like it was overdressed.
The beef duo ($25), a showpiece dish, paired a 6-ounce hanger steak with bone marrow. Standing on edge next to the charred hunk of meat, the marrow-filled bone looked prehistoric. It came with bright green broccolini, red-onion relish and fluffy potato dumplings.
Specials are often seafood, such as scallops ($21), served one night with spinach risotto. The scallops had crisp seared edges, but the inside was pale and sweet. Risotto is always a gamble to achieve the right degree of doneness; but this rendition was exactly as you'd want it, with the rice grains' residual firmness caving as soon as you bit down on it.
The menu included a vegetarian entree: tagliatelle ($16) with squash and olives, flavorful but lacking finesse. Roasted until soft, the squash came in big irregular chunks -- rustic and appealing -- but the sauce was gloppy and made the pasta seem sticky. There were some interesting side dishes, not tried, such as ratatouille ($7) and sweet potatoes with poached fruit and spiced honey ($6).
The house bread was a fantastic sourdough boule, which the kitchen unfortunately soiled by coating it with bacon fat. The exterior was shiny, and the bacon grease permeated the loaf. Your card-carrying foodie is programmed to worship bacon, but all it did here was ruin a fine loaf of bread. Forget trying to slice it -- no way to get a grip -- or trying to wipe the bacon grease from your hands. Interesting novelty, but next time we'll ask them to put the oil slick on hold.
Desserts were pretty but not the strongest course. Chocolate tart with nuts ($7) had chunks of hardened caramel that were tough on the teeth. Cocktails were obsessively prepared with ingredients like egg white and extract of pine, added using an eye-dropper. So why did the bartender, after using an egg white, casually throw away the yolk? A conscientious kitchen with respect for food could surely find a use for it.
The staff was courteous and attentive; servers are happy to bring samples and ask for details from the chef. It's the first restaurant for Vicens and Valverde, who run a design firm, Coeval Studio. They have tapped into the funky spirit of this 1920s house with pale, unfinished wood and a recycled-wood bar tucked into the corner of this tiny 53-seat space. The cozy size and high-end food make it that quintessential neighborhood restaurant for this hottest of neighborhoods.