Longtime Fort Worthians have no doubt marveled at the ongoing redevelopment of the city’s south side, where once-forgotten buildings have been replaced by hotspot bars and independent, chef-driven restaurants.
Last year, that redevelopment took a turn for the east, past Hemphill Street, to a block of deserted buildings on Magnolia Avenue whose roots date back to the 1920s. First came a bar, Proper, joined shortly later by Spice, the latest Thai restaurant in the local Thanpaisarnsamut family’s chain.
New to the area, known as Magnolia May, is the recently opened 24 Plates, a stylish, energetic restaurant that specializes in shared plates. In step with other Near South Side restaurants, it is independently owned and the kitchen is manned by a young, vigorous chef.
A native of DeSoto, Beau Johnson is a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef who worked in Arizona for seven years before he came back to North Texas, landing the executive chef gig at the Waldron Lodge in Dallas.
Initially, his menu at 24 Plates was going to be “global tapas.” He has since moved away from that concept, instead adopting a seasonal, rotating menu made up of — hence the restaurant’s name — 24 large and small plates (at least at dinner; brunch and lunch have smaller menus). Recipes belong to Johnson and owner Joel Kleven, a former chiropractor who ran a catering business for several years.
Much to the approval of local sentimentalists and preservationists, the building’s old iconic signs — for Maria’s Mexican Food and W.F. Laurence Fine Flowers — have been kept. Until a 24 Plates sign arrives, spotting the old ones is the best way to find the restaurant.
You can dine inside or out — on a spacious, landscaped patio or in a trio of small rooms attractively outfitted with furniture made from recycled pallet wood, industrial-style lighting, exposed brick walls and tall windows that practically put you on Magnolia’s sidewalk.
The best street views come in the largest dining area, in a curvy, S-shaped room. There is a price to pay for your view: a noise level that’s difficult to overcome (a problem contained to that particular room).
There was a visual component to the food as well. Dishes were carefully plated and immaculately presented, with not so much a smudge on the pearl-white plates. This much fuss will usually cost you upwards of $30 per dish, but most were under $20.
This included the excellent dry-aged pork belly ($14) from the large-plates portion of the menu. A square of pork belly was placed on one side of the plate, four corn tortillas on the other, with a cool jicama slaw and a pool of avocado crema in between; you’re supposed to make your own tacos.
But the meat was so good — tender, rich and thanks to an orange achiote, slightly sweet — we ate it on its own. A small pile of pickled red onions lay on top, offering a slight bite. No real need for the avocado crema, as its mild flavor clashed with the achiote, and the store-bought corn tortillas were cold and stiff.
Other large plates consisted of scallops ($14), street tacos ($12) and sliders ($11). The latter’s a good choice if you want to inexpensively sample Akaushi, a Japanese beef with a rich, vivid flavor.
A lobster roll ($16) disappointed. We expected more than a small demi baguette roll filled with lobster-crab mix. We enjoyed some of the flavors: Two chunks of grapefruit accentuated the sweetness of the lobster, and mashed avocado added richness. But the bread, not buttered or toasted, was chewy and devoid of personality.
Trying to share this plate, too, was difficult, as the roll was too small and awkward to cut in half. It did come with very good truffle fries, thin, not greasy, flecked with spices.
Often, small plates don’t lend themselves to sharing. One that did was G-Ma’s Southern Style Popcorn ($5). Think popcorn chicken, only done with vegetables — bite-size portions of zucchini, fried potatoes, squash and okra, coated in a light, spicy batter. During our visit, we longed for a sauce to temper the black pepper and cayenne seasoning. The restaurant has since added a chipotle aioli dipping sauce to do just that.
Salmon crostini ($9) was also good and easy to split. Three planks of long, toasted baguette slices came topped with shredded smoked salmon and a layer of mild cream cheese. This amount of smoked salmon could have been overwhelming, but its potency was softened, and sweetened, by drizzles of honey.
Less impressive was the flash-roasted broccoli ($5), which, decorated with tiny cubes of pepperoni and spicy panko crumbs, was overly salty, and the bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with feta cheese ($3 for 2), in which a collection of strong flavors simply didn’t work well together.
The restaurant also serves a handful of salads. We found much to love about the jicama salad ($7): tiny chunks of supremed orange, nice and juicy; generous slices of fresh avocado, free from any brown blemishes; and good-size chunks of grape tomatoes. A housemade cilantro dressing was light and zesty.
We also loved the peaches and cream dessert ($8). Attractively presented in a martini glass, it featured layers of sliced and poached Parker County peaches, housemade whipped cream and, on top, ginger-snap granola. We tasted a hint of whiskey, too. Our server said a G-rated version for kiddos is also available.
With several compelling dishes, a comfortable yet upbeat atmosphere and a long list of specialty drinks, 24 Plates fits snugly into the Near Southside’s eclectic restaurant scene.