Imagine a bar whose drink menu, printed on brittle scroll paper in a florid, archaic font, leads off with a self-styled “Manifesto” speaking reverently of “The Golden Age of Cocktails” when “celebration was not lost and the drink would carry us through,” when bartenders were moved by “a sense of duty to serve the community and instill pleasure,” and hence, “a Craft was born and drink became Art.” If the Cocktail Nation had a Constitution, the Chesterfield Manifesto would serve well as its Preamble.
Welcome to the Chesterfield Bar & Restaurant
, Dallas’s newest cocktail bar and the pride and joy of Eddie “Lucky” Campbell, who partnered with Ed Bailey of Bailey’s Prime Steakhouses in launching the Chesterfield. Lucky is familiar to locals from his stints behind the bar at the Mansion and Bolsa, and as one of the Founding Fathers of the local craft cocktail movement.
Lucky has been fascinated by bars since the precocious age of 11, when, inspired by a recent viewing of the execrable movie Cocktail, he broke into the Officer’s Club at Camp LeJeune – his mother was a Marine – and helped himself to a shot of Galliano, whose anise flavor he found quite wretched. He was nonetheless captivated by his surroundings – the tall, flamboyant bottles, the deep wooden hues of the bar fixtures, the lingering smell of cigars – and knew at that moment that he wanted a life in bars.
For many years, he expressed that desire primarily by drinking in them; even as he bounced from one restaurant job to another, he was unable to persuade employers to entrust their potables, and their customers, to his care. Then, after a wild weekend seven years ago that led to unpleasant consequences, he quit drinking, and was immediately offered a position behind the bar at Rockwall’s Culpepper Steak House. Since then, through exhaustive study of the history of drink-making, and with a reliance on his sense of smell, he has become one of Dallas’s most skilled bartenders, and continues his lifelong love affair with alcohol, he says, by drinking vicariously through his customers.
Now that the Chesterfield has opened, Lucky’s drinking very well, and in generous quantities, as well. At mid-evening on the Monday, December 12 opening, a seat could not be had, and the cozy, welcoming room – it seats perhaps 40 people, and some 20 more at the bar – pulsed with excited exuberance, perhaps taking its cues from the enthusiasm of its owner, who darted hither and yon across the building bringing diners their food, clearing dishes, welcoming guests, and schmoozing with recklessly energetic abandon.
Little in the way of opening day missteps was in evidence. The room is beautifully designed, bedecked in warm, welcoming colors – deep wood hues, matched with shades of burgundy, red, and plum – that integrate well with the raw materials of the 100 year-old building they occupy. The period feel is a spot-on match for the bar’s pre-Prohibition theme, and hits exactly the note of unostentatious sophistication – “fancy, not stuffy” – which Lucky aspired to.
Service was offered at a stately pace, which is not to say laggard or indifferent, but rather sociable and chatty, without the bristling efficiency that characterizes so many drinking establishments overly concerned with the velocity of product delivery. Waitresses looked beguiling in flapper attire; bar staff were attired in garb familiar to viewers of any historic Chicago movie. And as with the room’s design, and the thematic unity of the concept, the food and drink were enchantingly well-conceived, and flawlessly executed.
Our evening began with a Jack Rose, a classic cocktail built from Apple Jack bourbon, fresh lime, and grenadine. Recommended by bartender David Trammel, who selected all of our imbibements for the evening, it was crisp, bright, and refreshing, perking up our appetites for the meal to follow.
The food menu, crafted by Executive Chef Michael Ehlert
, recently arrived from DBGB Kitchen & Bar in New York, was simple, sparse, and selective. Offering only three salads, three flatbread ensembles, nine “Small Plates” and five entrée-sized “Large Plates,” it nonetheless encompassed a wide variety of ingredients and influences, left no impression that it could not accommodate the most diverse appetites and palates, and seemed particularly well-suited to those inclined to mix-and-match.
Leaning in that direction ourselves, and craving protein, we opted for two small plates - the mussels with soft leeks and tarragon, followed by coffee-poblano short ribs with parsnips. The mussels were cooked to perfection, devoid of undercooked chewiness and overcooked rubberiness, and complemented by a delicate wine sauce whose gentle leek and lemon accents left plenty of room on the palate for the featured tarragon to be heard from. The 2009 Gernot Gysler Silvaner Halbtrocken David selected as accompaniment was an agreeable pairing – bright but not brassy, it delivered just a whisper of citrus, an effective variation the mussels’ hint of the same.
We followed with the short ribs, confident that their meatiness, and the bold flavors the menu description suggested, would generate an explosively big finish; in this expectation, we were delightfully disappointed. Our first bite yielded only a wisp of coffee, and the poblano was nowhere to be found. Only as the meal progressed did its heat make itself felt, ever so softly; combining agilely with the dish’s veal stock base and melding amiably with the creamy, fluffy whipped parsnips. The short ribs themselves were cooked to an almost ephemeral tenderness, and even the garnish, slivers of fried sweet potato, managed to noticeably impart its subtleties to the combination.
It would have been forgivable, on a restaurant’s first day of operation, for a bartender to recommend a beverage based on the same expectation of poblano potency that colored our selection of the dish. David’s choice made no such test of our charitable impulses; the Derby he concocted melded Buffalo Trace bourbon, lemon, sugar, and muddled mint. Its breezy good nature proved a soothing counterpart to the mild heat of the chili. One can confidently say that the staff has been well educated regarding the menu.
And at the end, an after dinner drink; the Americana, based on the sweet, zesty, orange-flavored Italian aperitif known as Aperol. The Chesterfield steeps theirs with dried apricots, and in this cocktail, stirs in sweet vermouth and club soda. As dessert, it combined a sugary richness, a light syrup texture and the brisk, refreshing palate cleansing that citrus fruit imparts when served at a meal’s close. It was comfortable and satisfying, and gave our dinner experience a sense of closure few traditional desserts can match.
In other words: a perfect evening, across the board, from soup (as the saying goes) to nuts. With this foundation to build on, the Chesterfield Bar & Restaurant is well-positioned to be a force in the downtown Dallas social scene for years to come. Lucky indeed.
For further information, visit http://www.thechesterfielddallas.com/, and to read Eddie Campbell’s telling of his background (from which parts of this article were culled), visit http://www.texasmonthly.com/2011-12-01/theworkinglife.php.