Driving through the Design District in Dallas on a Saturday night the streets are quiet, barely lit from street lighting appearing to be…lets say questionable. My friends, Diana and Jonathan, are finally taking me to their favorite spot. They’ve constantly talked about this vibrant, dashing Italian inspired restaurant. The Design District, being dark and my first time in the area, made me curious about the spot based on the surroundings (although I could be wrong). Then you walk into The Charles and you are immediately transported into a different world.
It’s 8:45pm and the party is just getting started here at The Charles. The bar full to the brim, every seat filled with happy faces of satisfied and hungry customers. It takes me a moment to adjust to the crowd as we made our way to the bar, where we wait for our table. Every server is squeezing by and weaving through people, kindly acknowledging everyone they may accidentally tap. The bartender, who comes to help us, greets us with a smile and energy that is too hard to explain- an electric charge that exudes around him. One of the collaborators, Chas Martin, knows my friends and makes a point to say hello, give us each a kiss on the cheek, and give off the energy ten times bigger than the bartender. You can tell he has put his heart and soul into the restaurant. You see him fluttering from table to table, person to person, making a point to connect with everyone in his establishment.
The decor of The Charles is like entering the fantasy of someone’s innermost dreams. Exposed beams create an industrial look, light fixtures that resemble bubbles or balloons adorn the ceilings. Dainty wallpaper on one wall contrasts with the leopard print chairs and benches. Boars heads, ancient Italian vases and corbels, and feather looking chandeliers all contribute to the fantasy image that one embarks upon entering The Charles. A different feel and vibe than any other Italian restaurant and I loved every bit that I took in.
When our table was ready, our sweet waitress took the time to explain the concept and idea of The Charles- family style dinner where you order several different courses and share. How very Italian. She, like the other bartender and staff, had a “je ne sais quoi” that is something you have to experience there for yourself. My friends and I all agreed, there must have been extensive or precise training for the staff to have gone through to all make the experience an incredible and special one.
The chef, J. Chastain, and Martin traveled to Italy together to immerse themselves in the Italian culture, look, and food. I learned this from my insider friends who know what’s what, especially in the Dallas food scene. You can tell by looking at the menu that this trip struck inspiration because it exudes Italian inspired items. The chef did his research and created a menu that is exquisite, rustic while also being elegant.
We started with wood fried oysters and I must say that I do not like oysters, but my friends convinced me that these are not your typical oysters. These are wood fired topped with crispy pepperoni and parsley- these will most likely be the only oysters I will ever eat in my life. The texture is not that of a raw oyster, but rather lightly cooked and not the usual slimy touch. The other item that was a first for this carnivore was beef tartare- the theme is that I don’t typically eat anything raw. This tartare was divine though, the bed of beef on top of a toasted piece of garlic bread and adorned with pepper chips and served with ricotta. These menu items I highly recommend for your starters and both are a good introduction to raw proteins.
Our next few courses came out and they are true stars. I’ll begin with the pastas:
Our first pasta is the veal ragu cappelloni which appears to be a fan favorite when you look up The Charles on Instagram. Served in a Parmesan cream sauce the cappelloni was stuffed with ragu and paired beautifully with the light sauce. Secondly we ordered the spicy creste di gallo which is a spicy shrimp, red sauce based pasta dish. The spicy kick compliments the dish as a whole and doesn’t leave your mouth on fire or with that kick stick in the back of your throat. Lastly to round out the pastas we couldn’t resist getting the cacio pepe fritters that had a delectable garlic fromage base and hint of lemon. Each pasta dish was cooked to utter perfection. Having been to Italy before each dish had that Italian inspiration with a twist to it and I felt like I could tell the chef knew what he was doing when it came to cooking the pasta. I highly recommend each of these dishes, but for me the creste di gallo takes the cake.
As for our main entree dish the pork spoke to all three of us. Fathoming this much food was a bit daunting, but the menu really has so much to offer and we couldn’t resist. Thank goodness we didn’t let the daunting task win because this pork was some of the best I’ve had. Boasting fennel, mushrooms, and orange twist the pork was a beautiful pink color inside, juicy and oozing flavor. It cut like butter and as soon as it graced my taste buds I was in heaven. It was extremely flavorful and to my delight immensely, but not overpoweringly, peppery. While there are several eye catching entrees, I would return solely for this pork dish alone (but we all know that I wouldn’t get just the one dish either). The chef really took my breathe away with this pork, to the point where I wish I had bread to collect the sauce (I would say that is the one and only downside to the restaurant, I wish I had something to soak up all the sauces and creams from each dish, seeing that licking plates in public is not necessarily acceptable).
By the end we were stuffed, the idea of dessert out of the question. But this meal was so special and we didn’t want the night to end so dessert was ordered and again we made a great choice. We tried both the infamous olive oil cake and the tiramisu. This tiramisu had a much darker color than the typical one, but still had that the great rich flavor everyone loves. The olive oil cake was moist and fluffy, drenched in almond tuile and bedazzled with grapes and a blanket of mascarpone.
The food at The Charles is obviously the principal of the show, but the soloists and corps de ballet frame the principal to create a performance that is technical, fluid, and stunning. From the interior decoration, the personalities and hospitality of every single person working there, and the attention to detail is what really makes The Charles an experience that you will forget. Accompanied with the great company of fantastic friends, The Charles is a place everyone should treat themselves to, whether it be a quiet date night or a fun night out with a group of friends. Either way you will be welcomed with open arms, just as the Italians do.