DALLAS The first thing to notice about Wheelhouse isn’t the food, the setting or the service — all of which deserve praise of varying degrees — but the sculpture.
New York artist Daniel Arsham’s stunning 18-foot-tall “Moving Figure” — a kinetic vision in white of a person falling into what appears to be fabric — stands imposingly just outside, forcing agitated drivers on traffic-choked Oak Lawn Avenue into a momentary sense of wonder. It serves as both an anchor and a siren for an outdoor, atrium-style courtyard surrounded by three new restaurants: Italian Sassetta, grab-and-go Go Go (not yet open) and sleek gastropub Wheelhouse.
The whole thing is the brainchild of mogul/restaurateur Tim Headington, who developed the swanky Joule Hotel in downtown Dallas and its two eateries, CBD Provisions and Americano. If this all seems a bit ambitious for an industrial part of town, the Dallas Design District, which just a few years ago felt like more a redevelopment wish than a reality, you haven’t been to the Design District lately.
Along with Oak Cliff’s Bishops Arts District, West Dallas’ Trinity Groves and East Dallas’ Lower Greenville, the Design District is becoming the place for adventurous eating in Big D. Matt McCallister’s acclaimed FT33, Oak (which featured Dallas celebrity chef John Tesar as a chef-partner), Nick Badovinus’ Town Hearth and Shannon Wynne’s Meddlesome Moth are all within shouting distance of Headington’s new gathering spot, as are Ascension (coffee and surprisingly good food), Pie Tap (pizza, beer), Pakpao (Thai) and El Bolero (Mexican). Even Fort Worth burger champs Rodeo Goat (another Wynne restaurant) opened a Dallas location not far away.
Now back to Wheelhouse, which appears to be the beating heart of Headington’s hangout. From the looks of it, Sassetta is a place to go for sitdown quietude, while Go Go will be the hurried stop on the way home before “This Is Us” comes on. Wheelhouse, with its late hours and casual ambiance, sits comfortably in the middle, a spot where the food and convivial atmosphere fuse into a wonderfully pleasing whole.
Wheelhouse is half indoors and half outdoors, spilling out into the sunny, comfortable courtyard like a North Texas version of the restaurants you might find on Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road. Somewhat protected from the elements by a large canopy, this is going to be a prime spot for all of the patio people during good weather. You can even play a game of cornhole if you, or your kids, so desire.
But even if you’re inside, the wide-open design offers the feeling of the outdoors, with a U-shaped bar offering a prime vantage point for the many TVs. If the televisions make it sound like a sports bar, the pub food is definitely a cut above. The menu, including a curated beer menu featuring top-notch local names as well as brews from Oregon, Michigan and Colorado, is not large but fairly broad.
Start off with the house-made pretzel ($4), served with salted whipped butter and spicy beer mustard. It wasn’t baseball-stadium huge but still satisfying in its soft, salty goodness. The roasted tomato soup ($5 cup, $8 bowl) had a robust flavor, though it was served lukewarm when we tried it.
If you like meat, though, Wheelhouse has got your back, with such small plates as beef jerky with black pepper and coriander ($6), pastrami pork ribs with kimchi slaw and mustard ($15), and short-rib tacos with pickled jalapeño, cabbage, chipotle and Cotija, served on flour tortillas ($14). There are also sausages — roasted poblano, andouille, smoked pork kielbasa — made in-house with prices ranging from $9 for one link to $19 for three.
As for the large plates, the Scottish salmon ($24, with field peas, maitake mushrooms and charred spring onion vinaigrette) was the best of our choices. Just slightly crunchy on the outside but perfectly cooked on the inside, the salmon was delicate and delectable.
Wheelhouse may be jumping on the poke bandwagon with its yellowfin poke bowl ($18) — tuna on a bed of brown rice, jalapeño, shiitake mushrooms, cabbage and sesame — but when the results are this persuasive, you can forgive the impulse.
The sandwiches are only slightly less successful. The blue burger ($15, blue cheese, bacon, red onion jam and arugula on a brioche bun) hit the spot but didn’t stand out among the wealth of gourmet burger choices these days. The crispy chicken was more ordinary ($15, with celery root slaw on a brioche bun) but differentiated itself from other chicken sandwiches in that it was made with dark meat, lending a juiciness often missing from its competition. And if you like your fries ($6) on the McDonald’s-thin side, those at Wheelhouse certainly satisfy.
Unfortunately, Wheelhouse doesn’t offer many options for vegetarians or vegans, though there is a grain bowl ($12, quinoa, wild rice, tofu, shiitake, sunflower seeds and a ginger-lime vinaigrette). More main items for noncarnivores would be a wise move.
The desserts were a revelation, though, especially the cream-cheese brownie ($10), served with hot-fudge caramel and whipped cream. The maple bread pudding ($9), with candied pecans, molasses gelato, rum raisins and apples, wasn’t far behind.
Whatever lapses there might have been with the food were more than made up for in the efficient and friendly, but never overbearing, service. When the burger was taking longer than expected, the server and a manager came over, unbidden, to explain why: The chef wasn’t happy with the first one he made and was making another. On top of that, though the burger comes with a complimentary side salad, they tossed in a side order of fries at no charge.
On a second visit, the server from the first visit came over — even though he wasn’t the designated server for the second night — to say hello and ask how everything was going. Classy.
Then, as you’re leaving, there’s “Moving Figure” again, as impressive on the way out as it is on the way in.