QUICK BITE: Stepchild
by Andrew Chalk
‘Attalie Featuring Stepchild by Misti Norris’, as Resy calls it, is quite a word salad. What it unpacks to is that the AT&T Discovery District has a food hall where one of the sites is a rotating restaurant venue named Attalie (fateful terminology. So many cell phone customers would agree that “ATT (is) a Lie”). Its first occupant is a concept named Stepchild from Misti Norris, best known as the creator of Petra and the Beast. I made one visit, paying with my own dime, so this is a limited impression rather than a detailed review. Stepchild is open Thursday-Sunday.
Attalie and Stepchild are open a month and a half and undiscovered even by the two dullards serving at the ice cream booth opposite the entrance (who stare at a huge sign with the name every day).
I am skeptical about seeing a concept at its best in the first three months of opening as often the principals at the front and back of the house struggle to make the idea work and even discern what the idea is. It may involve a wholesale clear out of the first round of hires (including finding a job serving ice cream for the most stupid of the waiters), restructuring the menu in response to customer feedback, and everything else. Misti Norris, I make an exception for. She messages the seriousness with which she takes the food and this discourages the foul-mouthed girl fired from working the drive-thru at Burger King on Ross Ave. from applying.
Stepchild was almost empty on our Saturday night visit. It is up a long staircase, on the second floor of a building called The Exchange. The first floor of the building is teaming with messy mass-produced pizza eaters and sports bar beer swiggers. The designers have opened up most of the width of The Exchange, so there is no question of customizing the space to the cuisine.
The concept is described as French Cajun and pride of place goes to an entrée of 5 Day Aged Koji Chicken that serves 4-6 and must be ordered at least 72hrs in advance. Seeking something less structured we skipped this in favor of the regular menu.
A Duck Boudin ($17) starter sounded appropriately anti-establishment. Made of crispy duck leg (maybe the first time a boudin has revealed what it was made from), with pickled celery, duck heart ham, and mustard gravy.
The ‘duck heart ham’ (see top photo) was genius. Thinly-sliced heart of duck sautéed, possibly in duck fat, crumbled in the mouth the way of a pork charcuterie. Most people would not eat heart. Most people would kill to eat this.
The boudin, far from being packaged as a sausage, came in a ball mixed with rice and coated with panko. The dish reminded me of cannonballs stacked for ceremonial use (‘the shooting of the midday guest’?). However, the boudin flavor was not very intense. Norris, and a lot of chefs, have cut back on salt lest they be accused of killing more people than COVID-19. The result, here, like too often, was blandness. Maybe cut back as you wish in the dish, but please put salt and pepper on the table.
The other starter, Crab Butter ($18), was what we hoped was butter-poached crab claw to be spread over sherry vinegar gelée cubes coating baguette. Wrong. The crab was drowned and unappealing in a pool of butter, and seasoned with herbs. The baguette was simply sliced in half. As a result, even with lots of cubes of gelée and a generous coating of the crab butter, the bread dominated, making for a heavy and dull dish. Now if the baguette had been shaved down into bruschetta(e), and the whole blue crab meat promised on the menu had materialized, the whole impression could have been totally different.
We split Pork Chop ($30) as our main dish, deciding that the side dishes looked like a real elevation of humble vegetables. Pork Fat Confit Potatoes ($16) came as a surprise. I expected an al dente consistency from the confit treatment (a winning formula with potatoes) but they were so tough that I wondered if they would work as a substitute for the depleted uranium that helps artillery shells penetrate tank armor. Kudos to our waitress, Denisse, for recognizing there was a problem, offering to have a new batch prepared, and even, completely to our surprise, arriving with a bowl of the Embered Okra ($20) vegetarian main course to pass the time while the potatoes cooked. The potatoes would benefit from the Heston Blumenthal french fry trick. A few minutes in the microwave first.
As an okra lover who is frustrated in cooking it by slime and other properties, I was really impressed with the charred okra, pickled okra, and the sweet tomato in the tomato Jasmoon rice. Moistened with Koji Thyme Butter, this was like an Okra Risotto. Recommended.
Texas Eggplant ($15) is Norris’ medley of eggplant recipes: roasted, with preserved lemon, herb crumb lacto pressed, and with a classic soubise sauce. It showed how versatile this vegetable is.
The pork chop was massive, large enough to be the foundation stone of a museum to vegetarians. A lashing of green herb sauce was so tasty I wished it had been served in larger quantities. Ideally in a jug for individual consumption.
The only other main course meat is an A Bar N Ranch Tri Tip (not tried). Even with the Cajun heritage theme, alligator, etoufée and other faves don’t make the cut.
A Peach Tart ($14) dessert was light and ideally summery.
Why the missteps above? It could be because Misti Norris was not in the house, being at her other location.
Cocktail fans will likely find something interesting in the 7 selection list of Cajun-inspired drinks. For wine drinkers I wish Stepchild was BYOB because the food warrants some interesting wine but the sparse 16-item wine list does not even include a pinot noir. Half of it is available by the glass but on the night we went some by-the-glass selections were not available, further narrowing the choice.
Still young, Stepchild needs some time and pivots to reach its full potential. In the interim, it adds a different, and welcome, choice to this part of downtown.
THE ROTATING RESTAURANT CONCEPT
The scheduling dons apparently have Stepchild in residence through the turn of the year. Subsequent residencies will be briefer at 12 weeks. Doubtless these plans are fluid, but I am surprised that the organizers did not consult with Casie Caldwell who pioneered the rotating restaurant concept in Dallas at Trinity Groves and Deep Ellum with Kitchen LTO in 2016. She could describe the many gotchas’ that contrived to kill the idea too early. Given the costs of establishing a restaurant presence in a town with as many options as Dallas, the participants (and the concept) may have a better chance of success under some kind of membership/club arrangement.