Dallas, USA: It's Texas to a 'T'
"Honey, you can't drink that margarita on your own," drawls a buxom 40-something sitting halfway down the bar from me. "A cocktail like that is too darn good for solitude."
It really is - it was made tableside using dry ice and comes with lime foam and candied jalapenos. It's also the size of a saucepan and contains a generous measure of Patron Citronge.
Before I've had time to exclaim "Yeehaa!", Cindy, the voluptuous barfly, has dragged me over to her corner, introduced me to her friends and paid for my drink and dinner. I had come to Dallas expecting stereotypes - big hair, big personalities, deep wallets. What I wasn't anticipating was such an abundance of generosity.
Over the course of the week I find that the city, America's ninth most populous, is full of these contradictions. There's Lone Star swagger aplenty - I meet oil tycoons, visit the grassy knoll etched into folklore for its alleged role in JFK's assassination, cheer on the Dallas Cowboys and hear talk of "Southfork", the ranch setting for the long-running soap opera that borrowed the city's name.
But I also spend a day exploring the country's largest arts precinct, meet young chefs pushing every boundary imaginable and check in to cutting-edge hotels that wouldn't be out of place in New York. It's at once cowboy and cool, and it's hard not to like.
My first stop is The Joule, a Main Street bolthole set in a 1920s neo gothic building that was once the Dallas National Bank.
A recent US$78 million Adam D. Tihany makeover saw rooms and suites upgraded with sleek Italian woodwork, ivory calfskin, leather headboards and Bram Tihany photographs; the lobby is home to a two-storey black iron gear; a mix of paintings by Andy Warhol, David Levinthal and Richard Phillips are on display throughout; and on the 10th floor, a glass-edged swimming pool extends 2.5 metres over downtown Dallas.
The industrial-chic twist begins to make sense when I learn the hotel's owner is billionaire Tim Headington, founder of Dallas-based Headington Oil.
Further west in Oak Cliff, the Belmont Hotel (once a motor lodge) is more modest but equally memorable, with its 68 retro rooms housed in 1940s Charles Dilbeck buildings that draw hipsters in droves. This is ground zero for Dallas cool, with artists, musicians and foodies flocking to sip cedar wood-infused Jose Cuervo tequila fireside in the lobby or gaze out over the Dallas skyline from the balcony bar.
Many move next door to Smoke for dinner - an impressive restaurant set-up where chef Tim Byrnes pickles, cures and smokes everything he can get his hands on - and end the night nursing hand-crafted cider at the freshly minted Bishop Cider Co. located in the nearby Bishop Arts District.
A pair of oak-lined streets, the Bishop neighbourhood is home to 60 or so boutiques, bars and restaurants occupying 1920s warehouses. I begin in Dude, Sweet Chocolate - I challenge you to walk away from the crispy bacon strips covered in artisan dark chocolate or blocks flavoured with Stingray spiced rum, molasses and pecan fudge - before moving on to the Artisan's Collective, with works from 150 Dallas-area creative types, and finally the light-filled dining room at Bolsa, located in an historic cinder-block building.
The area owes much of its regeneration to gay entrepreneurs; Dallas has the country's sixth-largest population of same-sex couples.
On the same side of the Trinity River, in the shadow of the stunning cable-stayed Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge - a year-old, US$93 million addition to the city - sits Trinity Groves, a new incubator project conceptualised to nurture emerging restaurants, shops and bars in pop-up spaces.
There are dozens of development projects like this under way across the city - some US$14 billion worth, in fact. Much of that money is poured in to the upgrade and expansion of the Dallas Arts District, the largest continuous arts zone in the US. Marquee designers and Pritzker Prize-winning architects are reimagining this downtown neighbourhood, covering 19 city blocks, and which is home to galleries, museums and concert halls.
The Dallas Arts District Friends lead a free one-hour tour around the area, taking you past the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Centre, an I.M. Pei design housing the 4535-pipe Herman W. Lay and Amelia H. Lay Family Organ, a $1.36 million instrument, the lozenge-shaped, Foster + Partners-designed AT&T Performing Arts Centre and Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House; and the Nasher Sculpture Centre, a private collection of 20th century sculptures set in a Renzo Piano building and across green gardens.
It seems design is built into Dallas's DNA and it's once again making news. The Perot Museum of Nature and Science is the latest addition to the city's arts scene, the dramatic Thom Mayne-created building a frenzy of forms in Victory Park.
Victory, like the gallery, is the brainchild of Ross Perot, Jr, son of billionaire tycoon Ross Perot, part owner of the Dallas Mavericks. Unsurprisingly, no expense was spared here. The Museum of Nature and Science features a 16.5-metre, continuous-flow escalator contained in a glass-enclosed, tube-like structure that dramatically extends outside the building, all wrapped in puckered and striated precast concrete panels.
The surrounding gardens are an abstract cross-section of Texas, from an eastern Texas forest of large native canopy trees to the plains of the Texas Panhandle. Inside, interactive exhibits, state-of-the-art video and 3D computer animations entertain children and adults alike.
I'm more interested in the entertainment offerings at Deep Ellum, an industrial neighbourhood turned artsy hub where jazz and blues clubs occupy one-time warehouses and factories and graffiti artists create colourful, oversized street advertisements for local businesses. Life in Deep Ellum was launched here some five years ago, showcasing street art at the Mokah gallery and surprisingly good coffee at a bar by the same name.
The Deep Ellum Brewing Company is a more recent addition, opening its doors in 2011 and becoming the first true microbrewery in Dallas. I visit on a Thursday evening and once again find myself surrounded by gregarious locals offering tourist tips and dinner dates.
But I have a booking at FT33, the Dallas bastion of creative cookery. One of the first restaurants in the Design District - an up-and-coming neighbourhood where homewares, antiques and furniture stores abound - FT33 sees 32-year-old chef Matt McCallister curate regularly changing menus that might feature velvety uni pancakes, a "salad" of heirloom tomatoes with blueberries, olives and curry pudding, or bacon and chicken sweetbread sausage.
It is the kind of modernist fare that you would expect to see in Scandinavia.
McCallister's refined plates are a world away from the mod-Texan fare at celebrity chef Stephen Pyle's second Dallas restaurant, Stampede 66, where bullhorns are transformed into artful chandeliers and wire horse sculptures dance on the walls.
It's here I meet Cindy and am convinced to order a dish of pickled eggs with devilled bocadito - it's a stellar recommendation, served with candied bacon and jalapeno pop rocks. Later, there are smoked chicken dumplings crowned with perfect spheres of herbed caviar plus a deconstructed lemon tart, presented in a fermenting jar with cactus-pear meringue.
And then, of course, there's that cocktail, which leaves me clinging to Cindy's arm for balance. It's big on flavour and personality, and yet has subtle notes of genius.
In many ways, it's Dallas like in a glass.
The writer was a guest of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau.
STAYING THERE The Joule is one of the city's newest, and hippest, hangouts, with a stellar swimming pool and Charlie Palmer restaurant off the lobby. Rooms from US$279 (NZ$320.8). Rooms at The Belmont offer some of the best views in town and come with vintage flair and flatscreen TVs and free Wi-Fi. See belmontdallas.com. Rooms from US$115.
MORE INFORMATION visitdallas.com.