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Asador - Hidden Gem


by Andrew Chalk


It was time to return to Asador at a media event this week, the destination restaurant in the Renaissance Dallas Hotel, after a long break enforced by the pandemic.


New Team

Hotel Executive Chef Joe Graffeo comes from Marriott resort properties in Arizona with over a decade of experience under his belt. He takes responsibility for the whole shebang: catering, room service to the over 500 rooms, and Asador.


Restaurant Chef Fernando Cardona-Heredia is in charge of Asador. He was brought in by Graffeo after working with him for years in Arizona. As our meal continued, and the chefs explained each dish, his influence became clear. He became animated talking about how he had created dishes that drew on food from Lima and Mexico City.


Restaurant manager, Zackery Kea, handles the formidable business side of the operation, ensuring the staff are as polished, knowledgeable, and helpful as our waiter, Matt.

What they have done is visible, tastable, and memorable on the plate. A new menu pivots gently but unmistakably south, towards sophisticated South American fare of the type that put two Lima and two Mexico City restaurants in the top 20 restaurants in the world. A dozen craft cocktails were created by staff in the restaurant and adjoining bar. Of the 20 beers offered, 15 are from Texas, many from Dallas-Fort Worth.


Grapeful Dead. Dulce Vida Blanco Tequila, Pampelmousse Liquor, Fresh Lime Juice, Grapefruit.
Grapeful Dead. Dulce Vida Blanco Tequila, Pampelmousse Liquor, Fresh Lime Juice, Grapefruit.

There Are No Throwaways

This is a menu that has already kicked out anything that did not make the cut. For example, chicken, ubiquitous in restaurants and supermarkets, is often a textured mass with little flavor. The chicken here, from Central Texas Sustainable in Dawson, is the most flavorful I have had this side of France. Honey comes from the bee hives on the hotel roof.


What Has Not Changed

Farm to Fire was the slogan adopted in 2011 when Chef Dean Max consulted with Marriott. David Trubenbach was brought in from Max’s Florida operation to create Asador out of a JAHR (Just Another Hotel Restaurant) and brought a tidal wave of changes. Proteins were cooked on wood, menus were printed on paper barely more durable than bathroom tissue because they were updated so frequently, Dallas got blistered shishito peppers at a time when people thought shishito was a Japanese motorcycle. It may be familiar now, but it was revolutionary then.


Trubenbach took a promotion to Florida and Brad Phillips took over Asador. He cemented the style and did a lot to build supplier relationships. I remember a 2014 media event he hosted to meet Asador suppliers where Linda Hudspeth of Hudspeth Farm and Dennis Bryant of Louisiana Foods were at my table. Rocky Tassione of Tassione Farms was supposed to be there but lost his cell phone while foraging for mushrooms the previous week and had to stay home to reconstruct his contact list. Maybe that is why mushrooms are so expensive.


Peachy Keen. Deep Eddy's Peach Vodka, Aperol, Fresh Lemon Juice, Topped with Prosecco and Seltzer.
Peachy Keen. Deep Eddy's Peach Vodka, Aperol, Fresh Lemon Juice, Topped with Prosecco and Seltzer.

Paul Guatelara followed Phillips, and then Joe Graffeo arrived in March 2020. His tenure was marked by the onset of the pandemic and simply surviving in the industry, hospitality, that was worse hit by it. Nonetheless, he maintained and extended supplier relationships. On today’s menu is a QR code to a PDF of supplier backgrounds. Almost as proof that Asador sees this as a dynamic process and not a time-boxed piece of history, the document is already out of date. And one comical entry lists Profound Microfarms as supplying Bison. Profound specializes in hydroponically-grown produce. You can’t grow buffalo hydroponically because they sink (but you already knew that).


All proteins are still cooked on wood (Pecan, by choice), there is still an unrelenting focus on wringing all the flavor out of every ingredient. Charring is often used to cook vegetables (check out Charred Romaine on the menu). Throughout, vegetables (and grains) are first class members of the menu. Each entry under Greens can be considered a legit course in its own right.


Today's Asador is defined by wood-fired cooking, local ingredients, and two ingenious chefs backed by a strong team front and back of house.


The Meal

We were treated to a tasting menu constructed from dishes on the regular menu, so you can reconstruct it if you wish.


Roasted Plantain Queso
Roasted Plantain Queso

When I saw the name of our first dish, my heart sunk. Roasted Plantain Queso ($15). Queso is the clockwinder of a thousand Tex-mex restaurants in the DFW area. Used to satisfy punters waiting for their real order to arrive. How wrong I was. This is chihuahua cheese with huitlacoche (a fungus that grows on corn and known colloquially as ‘Mexican truffle’), herbs and chips. It is sweet, rich with a texture like finely ground corn, and pregnant with umami from those ‘truffles’. Best expression of queso that I have ever tasted. Waiter Matt said he felt the plantains made it too sweet but The Moll, who has sensitive sweetness radar, was not put off. She loved it. So share some, but don’t miss out on it. It is such an original take on a ubiquitous ‘starter’.


Leche de Tigre Ceviche
Leche de Tigre Ceviche

Leche de Tigre Ceviche ($21). A photogenic masterpiece and gustatory success. Best ceviche I have had since Stephan Pyles eponymous restaurant ran a flight of ceviche on the menu over a decade ago. Someone needs to organize a Metroplex-wide search for the current best ceviche (such is the importance of the question) ideally funded by a substantial government grant. This is the first one I would go to.


BTW. As you work though these two dishes, Fernando’s fingers are all over them (conceptually). The ceviche has Peruvian markers and the queso is venerable where nobody asked for venerable queso. He is just ripping apart the accepted order and starting from first principles. I can’t express how happy I am that chefs like this choose to work in Dallas. We are such lucky buggers.


Watermelon Salad
Watermelon Salad

Watermelon Salad ($8 appetizer/$16 main). This is simply the dish that got Fernando his job. He described the interview process, typical for a chef’s position. Cook for the Executive Chef and (in this case) the crew. Then get torn apart. How bold to choose a salad based on watermelon. Where are the leaves, people asked? It was simply stunning. No seeds, a strong contribution from the melon to the sweetness and fruitiness, earthy ahi amarillo dressing, pepitas (pumpkin seeds) for textural contrast. This is one of my 2023 Dishes of The Year. It is up against London, Oklahoma City, Prague, Santa Fe, Savannah, and Vienna but it is not overwhelmed by any of them.


Grilled Red Fish
Grilled Red Fish

Grilled Red Fish ($45). Actually red drum from the gulf. Cooked with precision. Topped with an enticing mango relish that contributed a contrasting sweetness to the earthy fish flesh (a great touch). I have to mention that the quinoa in the base was so well prepared (sauteed with squash in olive oil) that it stood on its own. I would choose this dish if I fancied fish and I would pair it with the Graves wine on the list.


Achiote Half Chicken
Achiote Half Chicken

Achiote Half Chicken ($40). I think this dish started in the supply chain. When Joe Graffeo sought out chicken suppliers he could not have put this dish on the menu had he not found Central Texas Sustainable and their animal husbandry practices. Because this bird is not sealed with batter or submerged in sauce to contrive a flavor. It is naked. The bird speaks for itself, after a measured roast. And it does so brilliantly. I even kept the tasty cilantro rice and moreish cilantro sauce separate so as not to taint the flavors.


Grilled Asparagus and Chayote
Grilled Asparagus and Chayote

Grilled Asparagus and Chayote ($10). A serious vegetable dish that is tricky to implement. The asparagus cooks much faster than the chayote (Louisiana’s mirliton) so I presume they are cooked separately, then mixed. In this case, the chayote needed more time than it got. However, the sprinkling of cheese on top was an inspired flavor enhancer.


Passion Fruit Mousse
Passion Fruit Mousse

Passion Fruit Mousse ($12). Brilliant combination of sweet mousse, tart single layer of

passion fruit, and chocolate coated passion fruit seeds (so important -- that’s where the extravagance comes from).



Baked Alaska ($16). Baked Alaska! Today? Yes, and I am so glad to see this classic return. Visually stunning and organoleptically indulgent. Works for me. May contain calories.


Get There Now

Restaurants are best in their ‘take over the world’ stage. When they are growing and see no ceilings. That is when the bravado and testosterone counts are highest. Asador is there today, so get there soon before success (or the accounting department) spoils them.


This is a hidden gem in Dallas. Hopefully the orgy of construction ‘over the road’ (I-35) in the Design District will deliver discerning customers. One tip. The hotel is slammed with conventions at The World Trade Center and market Center during the week, but Friday and Saturday are empty, so this is where it is easy to get a reservation when the rest of Dallas is hard.



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