The farm-to-table concept has become so much a part of our fine-dining vernacular that it’s almost the norm now for any new chef-driven restaurant to adopt the practice — expected, even.
With those expectations, though, comes the challenge: How does one farm-to-table restaurant set itself apart from other farm-to-table restaurants, especially when the menus pay homage to American classics — the road many such restaurants take? There’s an awful lot of pasture-raised this and backyard-grown that on Fort Worth menus these days.
In the case of Clay Pigeon, it does so quietly and naturally, as if there’s no other way. There are no long, over-the-top speeches from servers, no pompous explanations on the menu of the importance and significance of the farm-to-fork, make-it-ourselves movement. If you miss the “made from scratch” signage painted on the building near its entrance, you’d never know that mostly everything is sourced locally and regionally, and that most of the dishes are made in-house, except by sheer taste.
Chef and Arlington native Marcus Paslay spent years traveling the country, cooking in various restaurants near and far, from resort hotels in Colorado to Neighborhood Services in Dallas. He has come home to Tarrant County not flashily but modestly, serving well-crafted but unfussy haute American dishes. He leans toward the understated, and that’s what sets his restaurant apart.
Take the bone marrow ($8), for instance, from the small-plate section of the tightly edited menu. It may seem like there’s only so much you can do with a gelatin-like substance that you scoop out of a bone with a tiny spoon, and it makes you wonder why it’s turning up on so many high-end menus.
Instead of dressed up, it was dressed down, accented with just parsley and sea salt, allowing the marrow’s rich, fatty flavor and jelly texture to speak for itself. What surrounded it is what made it so good: crunchy pieces of house-made sourdough bread, upon which you spread the marrow, and a small fennel and shaved radish salad draped lightly in a lemony, white balsamic vinaigrette. If you’re sharing, this little salad may be a fight to the last bite.
Flatbread was another haute dish given a simple treatment. Of the two offered, we tried the guanciale ($15). The pork jowl was shaved thin and distributed economically, one piece per slice (there were eight slices), then topped with a pair of sunny-side-up eggs. When the yolks broke, you got that wonderful, breakfasty flavor of bacon and eggs. The bread was the unsung hero of this dish, with its cracker-crisp edges and soft, chewy center.
Large plates consisted of steaks grilled over oak and mesquite, a pork shank served bone side up and a chicken breast served atop a cannellini bean stew. What piqued our interest the most was the house-made pasta, which rotates each week. During our visit, it was a rich and hearty tagliatelle ($22), topped with a thick pork ragu tomato sauce with just enough spicy bite to keep you interested and twirling your fork for more.
Fish is another dish that rotates. We had flounder ($22), attractively presented in a coil, like a snake ready to pounce. Two small fillets unraveled amid wilted spinach and a luscious, buttery cauliflower puree. The fish was perfectly cooked, its skin seared beautifully, its body moist and tender; we loved its citrusy flavor.
Served three to an order, tails and heads still on, wood-grilled spot prawns ($12) were artfully presented, leaning against a house-made crostini, and were seasoned nicely with crispy kale and almonds. There was an enjoyable tug of war between the smoke of the grill and the citrus in a light beurre blanc. Two of the three were very good; however, one was undercooked.
The one dramatic dish was the apple cobbler, served in a small cast-iron skillet, still sizzling. But it came off more as ironic, perhaps in tribute to restaurants like El Chico that have forever served apple cobbler and pie in a skillet. But one bite into the warm apple filling and house-made pecan-praline ice cream, you knew instantly they were taking it seriously.
A mix of rustic and romantic, the atmosphere paints an apt description of what your meal will be like. Candles flicker, gently illuminating the restaurant’s exposed brick walls, beautiful hand-cut cedar tables (left behind by the restaurant’s previous occupant, Lambert’s) and farmhouse antiques. There’s also a lively bar area, outfitted with mid-century-style pistachio chairs.
Those may seem out of place among the branding irons, attractive wine room and dim lighting, but it certainly sets Clay Pigeon apart — again.