Three years ago, Dallas chef Kenny Mills returned to his home town of Arlington to open a gourmet burger restaurant. With imaginative creations like a burger featuring two grilled-cheese sandwiches as the bun, Mills earned acclaim from food critics and the steady patronage of suburban diners.
Now Mills is raising the stakes with steaks.
Chop House Steak and Seafood in Pantego is a midprice steakhouse with twists to the expected menu. Mills seems admirably determined to set a grilled-cheese-burger-type stamp of originality on his projects.
Our meal started with popovers served with a lemon rosemary butter, a light and lovely alternative to the usual basket of rolls.
Next, our waiter brought a chilled plate and fork for the salad bar, which turned out to be one of the most extravagant salad bars we’ve encountered. Lettuces included spinach, radicchio and dandelion greens, “picked” from the farmers market that morning.
The multicolor lettuces made for a pretty display, but that was just the start of this lavish salad bar, which featured 30-plus unusual add-ons, including roasted Brussels sprouts, wasabi peas, jicama salad, kimchee, whole dates and salmon “bacon bits” (smoked-dry salmon broken into tiny pieces). Most of the salad bar toppings and all of the dressings, including a popular beet vinaigrette, are made on-site. A trip to the salad bar is $12.99, $5 with an entree.
The appetizers are the portion of the menu where the greatest risks are taken. These include sweetbreads with a lemon caper sauce, lengua (beef tongue) with a chimichurri sauce, and bone marrow with toast points. We weren’t feeling adventurous on this evening, so we chose two more common starters, shrimp and crab cakes ($12) and the tuna tower ($10). The two crab/shrimp cakes were generously portioned (about the size of poached eggs), with nickel-size chunks of shrimp punching up the traditional crab dish. It was a pleasing melding of seafood flavors accompanied by a puddle of mustardy remoulade sauce for dipping.
The tuna tower, though beautifully presented, was a disappointment. The three-layer cylinder — rice, sushi-grade tuna and shreds of crab — and the plate were drizzled prettily with two colorful sauces and dotted with wasabi peas. Unfortunately, both the crab and tuna layers were excessively fishy, and, worse, we bit into a chunk of shell in the crab layer.
Steaks were next up on our culinary triptych. Mills is proud of the pedigree of his meat, purchased under the Genuine Texas Beef program, which guarantees that it has been grass-fed on a Texas lot for at least the 100 days before slaughter. But that’s just the start of the “special.” Chop House steaks are hand-cut and trimmed on-site, and, perhaps more essential to the flavor, the steaks are all mesquite-smoked. Mesquite is more porous than oak, and therefore burns hotter, making for a nice char on the steaks, Mills explains.
The 8-ounce filet ($24) was done to a perfect medium-rare and was buttery-soft. It didn’t require the side of Diane sauce ($3), but the rich sauce with chunks of mushroom was a nice touch. The edges of the “medium-plus” Cowboy Cut rib-eye ($30) had a yummy crust, courtesy of that mesquite grilling, and the inside was just a half-shade past medium, per our specification. Mills’ steaks are choice, not prime. We couldn’t have asked for a silkier cut of beef than our filet, but diners with a discerning palate might be able to tell a difference between choice and prime on other cuts.
We rounded out our meal with two of the Chop House family-style sides ($5). We particularly liked the maque choux, a traditional Louisiana dish of corn, bell peppers, bacon and more. We’d call the potatoes whipped rather than mashed, but whatever the name, they had a pleasant smoothness and just the right hint of garlic to nicely side a steak.
As we mentioned, Mills has taken some risks here, but perhaps the biggest is with the physical environs of his steakhouse. Located in a modest shopping center in tiny Pantego, Chop House is, on the one hand, perhaps too high-end for the expectations of the area’s diners, while on the other hand, the decor — drop ceiling, artwork that could have been created by someone’s aunt — seems much too dowdy for the level of culinary sophistication this steakhouse is going for.
Mills has clearly poured head and heart into the creation of the Chop House menu. He needs to pour some of that attention into other details, including decor and air-conditioning.