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Cinnamon short ribs with raisin chutney

Happy Campo

by Mark Stuertz | Modern Luxury Dallas magazine | December 23, 2011

“The heart wants what the heart wants.” So said famed filmmaker Woody Allen in an August 1992 interview in Time magazine. Allen was explaining his controversial romantic entanglement with Soon Yi, his current wife and the daughter of his then partner, actress Mia Farrow.

Campo Modern Country Bistro could easily recalibrate Allen’s phrase as the stomach wants what the stomach wants. Example: Campo’s house-baked bread is brushed with duck fat and plated with a mound of butter pebbled with Egyptian sea salt. That’s salt, the alleged poison New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to banish from restaurant tables. And duck fat, an alleged saturated poison that is potentially lethal. Yet Scientific American recently said the war on salt was based on a myth. There’s even evidence to suggest that saturated fats are not as deleterious as once thought.

Who knew? Campo does. Or rather it knows that humans crave fat and salt, so damn the torpedoes or whatever it is that consulting chef Matt McCallister spits from his fingertips—let it roll out. That’s why Campo is such a salty gem in the hectoring-nanny rough. The bread is a sensual quake that rumbles from the hairs on your neck all the way down to your socks. Tear. Spread. Chew. Rerun.

Sure, you can work your jaw on healthy substances and feel terrific about yourself during the effort. Your taste buds might even enjoy being along for the ride.
Leafy pickled beets nesting in miner’s lettuce planted in a plash of mustard crème fraiche are tender, delicately sweet, and mesh exquisitely with the prickled, tangy essence of the mustard cream. “Barnstable” oysters—six of them, raw, glistening, clean—are posted in the tangled weave of red seaweed (at least it looked red; the room is so frickin’ dark it’s hard to tell rust from chartreuse). Also in the braid opposite the arc of oysters: a ramekin of bracing elderflower-apple mignonette sauce (shallots, pepper and vinegar)—the best of the oyster accompaniments.

A delicious dish of tempura battered and fried baby artichokes with Meyer lemon aioli were light, crisp, tender and greaseless—a near perfect encapsulation of modern rusticity.

Campo bills itself as a purveyor of seasonal rustic country cooking with sustainable ingredients from local county farms. With this the menu bundles a myriad of Latin influences including French, Italian, Portuguese and Argentinean. This is all served in spartan surroundings. Couched in an old house that was once La Carreta Argentina, a purveyor of Argentinean street food, Campo features neutral hues, simple furnishings and unusual accents. Call it “cottage industrial.”

Designed by owners Miguel Vicens and John Paul Valverde of Coeval Studios (works: Lumi Empanada & Dumpling Kitchen, Dallas; Hacienda San Miguel, Fort Worth), Campo features elements designed to conform to the distinctive space. Simple, sturdy wooden dining room chairs are custom-built in Mexico.

The bar is composed of wood harvested from barns in Waco. Bar stools are assembled from butcher-block timber in a jarring, jagged style. The stools have no legs or crossbars. One of the managers noted that women often complain the stools have no place to rest their feet. “Sometimes design is not comfortable,” she quipped. Better to look good than to feel good.

Lighting comes from bulb-tipped pipes that jut from the ceiling, and the robot-like arms reach for something to clasp. Bar chandeliers rendered from wicker baskets and table candles supplement the lumens. Still, the room is too dark. Dining is a multisensory experience. Why create conditions that fail some of the senses, diminishing the fullness of the experience—and the diner’s investment?

To compensate, sharpen your sense of smell and taste. Pork jowl, or the lower drooping cheek of the pig, is rich, tender and surprisingly juicy. It’s served with hearty braised greens and apple bacon over a bed of polenta with pulled pork. It deftly meshes sweet, savory and piquancy.

Hay smoked scallops with charred cabbage puree, bright green cupped Brussels sprouts leaves, and a rich strip of bone marrow (the stomach wants… ), were among the best we’ve ever tasted. The scallops were sweet and firm, yet tender with a wisp of brittle sear crust.

For dessert don’t miss the persimmon tart topped with a dollop of ice cream and butter shavings. Supplement this with ground-to-order, seasonal coffees served tableside via French press. On our visit, the coffee was a mild brew from Costa Rica.

The beverage list is short and eclectic—befitting a modern bistro with countrified ambitions: four beers from Mexico, Texas, Oregon and Kansas City (Kansas City?). On the mixology front, there’s the Campo Pisco, a blend of Piscol (an amber-ish brandy from Chile), Jamaican rum, lime, egg white, guava and Jamaican jerk bitters.
Wines are mostly from South America and Spain. But the supplies can be sporadic. On our visit, we went through requests for two pinot noirs (Picket Fence, Leyda) a Santa Carolina Carmenere (the signature grape, a red varietal that disappeared from Europe in the mid-19th century only to reappear a hundred years later amongst Chile’s merlot vines), a Rioja, and a New Harbor sauvignon blanc (New Zealand). We finally struck pay juice with a Cono Sur “Vision” cabernet sauvignon (Chile)—a rustic sip for a modern jowl.

While Campo has a few kinks to work out, it’s an immensely enjoyable dining room featuring distinctive and delicious cuisine at reasonable prices. And because the menu is seasonal, the satisfying variations will keep coming. Campo wants what the stomach wants.

Campo Modern Country Bistro
*** 1/2
1115 N. Beckley Ave.

Sun., Mon., Wed., 6-10pm
Thu. 6-10:30pm
Fri.-Sat. 6pm-midnight
Sat., noon-midnight
Sun., noon-10pm

Better to Look Good than Feel Good Spot
The owners plan to install special lighting under the bar to highlight the wood harvested from Waco barns.

The board stocked with house-made charcuterie

Don’t Forget…
To sample coffee by Dallas roaster Cultivar Coffee & Tea