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Photography by Carissa Byers

Reality Bites

by Mark Stuertz | Modern Luxury Dallas magazine | October 21, 2011

It’s an understated bulge of flash. Dark trim. Exotic macassar ebony wood grain transitioning from table to menu. Polished steel. Lounge featuring U-shaped bar. Metal mesh wall dividing the room. Parade of short skirts and devilish platform heels (mostly yellow). Taut Porsches and sleek Bentleys badgering the valets.

Private Social aims to simultaneously exploit the communal and the intimate. It mimics this contrasting motif with a consistent color scheme: charcoal and ivory. Charcoal tables and chair frames, ivory leather seats and banquettes, for example. The motif seeps into menu structure, with social (small plates) and private (dinner) menus. Is this Dallas or what? Or what.

A preponderance of hard surfaces (acres of glass, concrete floors, few fabrics) means decibel levels can swell, converting casual conversation into a formal grind. (Huh? Did you say braised beef cheese? What’s that?) If simmering dining-U bar lounge energy could be harnessed via solar panels, Private Social could have kept Solyndra afloat.

A smiling, impossibly dimpled Tiffany Derry maneuvers through the room—a recalibrated ground floor in a McKinney Avenue office building—dodging her hyper-earnest staff. “My forte is training,” she insists. It shows. Though a bit stiff and formulaic, service is efficiently attentive.

Derry commands a busy, wide-windowed kitchen that cranks out near flawless New American foodstuffs with a distinct earthy footing. This with nary four days notched in its apron strings.

Servers push Derry’s Top Chef pork buns with crispy slaw (part of the script, no doubt). But don’t obsess over reality show fodder. Roasted veal marrow bones, almost nonexistent on Dallas menus until recently, sizzle brilliance under a mantle of crisped Parmesan. Gelatinous ribbons of marrow rest in split shanks. You can fork and smooth it over ovals of singed crostini, but why bother? Savor the fat—rippling with slick, rich flavor—on its own. It’s a poor man’s foie gras, though at 14 bucks them bones are more for the aspirational than the impoverished. Tiny sides of pickled cauliflower, onion marmalade and an invigorating salad of capers, Italian parsley and onions reset the palate in divergent ways.

“I told my sous chef, ‘Oh my gosh, we have sold over 20 orders of bone marrow,’” Derry laughs, hinting that she’s struck gold in Dallas’ fat tooth. “I mean that’s a lot of bone marrow.”

The 27-year-old Derry is a force of nature, a culinary sprite who bobs and weaves to her own dinner bell. Born in Beaumont, Texas, she cut her culinary teeth at the International House of Pancakes, where she learned the need for speed. She earned cred at The Art Institute of Houston as well as through studies in China and Paris. She embraced the importance of rigorous training as the opening chef for Grotto Ristorante, a posher piece of Landry’s Restaurants Inc. Derry opened Grotto sites in Palm Beach, Las Vegas and the Dallas spot down the street at McKinney Avenue and Pearl Street that went belly-up (where Morton’s The Steakhouse now resides).

She reached stardom while piloting the kitchen at Go Fish Ocean Club. It was her launch pad to Top Chef notoriety, where she proved a fan favorite after placing fifth in season seven (2010). She bested herself among the all-star chefs in season eight (2010-2011) finishing fourth as a finalist. Go Fish corporate pappy DRG Concepts closed the restaurant while Derry was in the midst of her Top Chef ascendency. Shocker.

Weep not. Investors Andy Austin and Patrick Halbert of the Halstin Group pursued Derry to star in their chef-driven concept just after DRG pronounced Go Fish Ocean Club dead. Private Social is vested in a space once held by Chihuahua Charlie’s restaurant—shuttered just before the dotcom bubble went into terminal inflation. The Halstin Group and Derry envision more P/S incarnations in other (undisclosed) urban climes.

No doubt there will be an audience for its public/private fare, such as the farm salad with a golden poached fried egg, crisp pancetta and fresh crisp greens from Dallas produce ace Tom Spicer. Or the slightly racy maple and pecan smoked venison in Texas creamer cassoulet, ribboned with dribbles of parsley-cilantro oil. Kinetic and explosive, the venison fume is nimbly tamed by the relentlessly understated cassoulet marsh.

A wedge of pan-seared salmon rests on cubes of roasted kabocha squash, soaking in a spill of vegetable puree. The exterior whispers of crisp, while the fleshy rose, mid-rare center is rich. But it’s a little mushy, especially when dredged through the puree.

The highlight here is the bright green steamed Brussels sprouts crowning the fish, their slightly crisp leaves sweating hints of refreshing citrus. A glass of the L’Ecole Semillon (Columbia Valley)—rich, slightly unctuous, sturdy acids, floral fume—refreshed and enhanced this composition’s richness even further.

The wine? Eclectic and broad, Private Social’s wine list is smart (Champagnes and sparkling wines appear under separate headings, for example) and modestly tight. There is a good selection of rieslings, a Vouvray, a cab Franc from the Loire—even a red from Douro, the great wine region in Portugal.

Yet this list could profit from a more expansive by-the-glass roster (just 22 total) and more bottle selections in the $30 to $50 range—especially among the reds. Some brief tasting descriptions and pairing suggestions wouldn’t hurt either (a selections-of-the-day page perhaps, with suggestions that best mesh with the day’s menu).

Dessert: Refreshing scoops of chai, strawberry Champagne, and Fruity Pebbles sorbet, the latter infested with the kiddy breakfast cereal. Chewy Fruity Pebbles shrapnel is making appearances as a trendy frozen yogurt topping—even as a cappuccino enhancer—as of late.

Private Social shows much promise right out the starting block. The food crackles with zest and, for the most part, is superbly executed. Plus, there are all those Derry twists you can stay tuned for.

“I put on a lot of things that I like—sweet breads, bone marrow, oxtail,” Derry says. “I want to do a menu that you just don’t see everywhere.”

Private Social
3232 McKinney Ave.

Mon.-Wed., 5-10pm
Thu.-Sat., 5pm-2am

Where to Sit
Curvaceous banquettes near the floor-to-ceiling windows provide a voyeur’s view of comings and goings on McKinney Avenue.

What to Wear
Sexed-up casual

Don’t Miss
The eight-seat communal table tucked in the corner windows at the back of the bar—great views. Décor isn’t bad either.