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Brick chicken spiced with Calabrian chiles

The New Gem

by Michael Hiller | Photography by Jill Broussard | Modern Luxury Dallas magazine | March 6, 2014

Just paces away from a bustling wine bar and a swanky sushi restaurant, newcomer Gemma fits right in. It’s the kind of casually refined dining room you would come across in Napa or Nantucket, where the wines wear impressive labels; waiters wear pressed white shirts; and patrons wear whatever they want. But at this Henderson haunt, you can pair chicken al mattone with a $9 wine on tap as easily as a $225 bottle of Rudd from Napa Valley, and Gemma’s sommelier, Sabrina Snodderley, won’t blink.

Neither will owners Stephan Rogers and his wife, Allison Yoder. The duo recently surrendered their jobs at Napa Valley’s acclaimed Press restaurant to relocate to Dallas and open Gemma, their first restaurant venture.

At Press, Rogers served as the executive chef while Yoder was the restaurant’s general manager, roles they reprise at Gemma. Judging from a recent visit and its early popularity, the two clearly know what they are doing.

Gemma is a neighborhood restaurant at its heart, tucked away yet frequently sought out. It’s a cozy, sleek space that buzzes with energy when the dining room is full, which is most of the time. A long marble bar runs down the left side of the restaurant, and a wood and glass divider delicately delineates the whitewashed brick from the cushioned banquets of the dining area where a gleaming, semiopen kitchen is tucked in the back of the house.

The service ably matches the restaurant’s vibe. Staff is knowledgeable and well-trained. The pace is relaxed, so despite the difficulty of snagging a prime reservation for one of Gemma’s 55 seats, you never feel rushed.

Rogers’ menu isn’t breaking any new ground. You’ve seen this food before. His cooking tends toward the style once known as California cuisine, with a reliance on seasonal, fresh ingredients, simple preparations and bright flavors. “I am not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he says. At Gemma, though, the kitchen is paying attention. Everything is handled with a tender touch and comes out impeccably seasoned.
The food here isn’t fussy or complicated, yet it’s wholly satisfying, starting with the bok choy salad with shaved fennel, chunks of Asian pear, crunchy pomegranate seeds, cashews and a splash of Meyer lemon vinaigrette; or the beautifully composed Kampachi crudo appetizer, with its pristinely fresh Hawaiian amberjack, thinly sliced watermelon radishes and tart blood orange segments. You’d be hard pressed to find better sweetbreads in town. Rogers’ are delicious in every way, both crispy and creamy, and then elevated with a swirl of whole-grain mustard along the rim of the plate.

“Everything is good,” your waiter will assure you about the one-page menu. He’s right. Rogers lavishes considerable attention on his braised veal cheeks, fork-tender and surrounded by tiny Tokyo turnips and baby carrots, sweet cipollini onions, knobs of smoky bacon and corkscrews of black pepper spaetzle. The dish unwraps in layers of flavor: the deep, meaty undertones of veal and bacon; the muted sweetness of the vegetables; a pop of acidity in the sauce.

The brick chicken, with its crackly skin and juicy breast meat, puts pedestrian fried chicken to shame. Throw in the handful of roasted marble potatoes and the kick of a few Calabrian chiles, and you have winter’s answer to summer’s picnic basket.

The kitchen at Gemma also cranks out its own pastas nightly. On a recent visit, thick ribbons of pappardelle effortlessly intertwined with braised lamb shoulder, king trumpet mushrooms, rapini and lemon thyme. In another dish, it was ricotta cavatelli that two-stepped with a ragu of Texas wild boar, sage and fennel pollen.

Vegetables are more than an afterthought too. Rogers roasts Brussels sprouts with bacon until their outside edges caramelize and their flavors soften and meld. Wedges of acorn squash, oven roasted with garlic and lemon thyme, are heartily satisfying on a chilly day when hibernation seems like the best option.

Given Rogers’ and Yoder’s Northern California leanings, you might expect a wine list sparked with Napa Valley and Sonoma prizes. You’d be right. But these vinophiles offer a great variety to pair with their fresh and modern American dishes. Among the gems spotted recently—Dalla Valle Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Colgin’s IX Estate Napa Valley Red Wine blend and Kistler Vineyards Chardonnay—you can happily get by on the array of wines served by the glass.

Dinner at Gemma is a relaxed, casual affair, one that you might imagine happening on a good night at a great friend’s house. Even better: The kitchen stays open until the wee hours. “I’ve eaten everything on the menu,” a waiter volunteers, “and all of it is my favorite.” You’ll soon understand what he means.

2323 Henderson Ave., Suite 109
Wed.-Sun. 5pm-1am

First courses: $9-$14
Entrees: $23-$35
Desserts: $7-$11