It was about one year ago that Felipe Gaytan found himself sitting alone in the entrance of Denison’s Palazzo building on Chestnut Street. It was shortly after the venue’s final event. As Gaytan sat in a metal chair gazing over the emptied event space he thought about what he wanted to do with this blank canvas and about what it could become.
Gaytan, a restaurateur with more than 30 years experience, expected the project to be similar to his other restaurants. Six years ago he opened Durant’s Ceviche, which serves casual dining. But this space was a chance to do more.
“It all changed when I put my feet on the ground and it grew beyond this,” he said Tuesday while spooning white queso onto individual tortilla chips at a table in the restaurant. “When you move forward you discover the sense and need of doing it right instead of cutting corners.”
Gaytan first started cooking in the United States in 1986. He moved from San Antonio to Dallas in 1999 to work at the Mansion at Turtle Creek. In 2011, Gaytan opened his own restaurant, Ceviche — named after a citrus-cured seafood dish — in Durant, Oklahoma in what was once a liquor store.
By early afternoon Tuesday, the opening day for the restaurant, the dining room was, for the most part empty. Only a few tables occupied by groups busily chatting in Spanish remained. Gaytan decided to hold a soft opening for the restaurant with plans for a larger opening later this month.
“I think the community of Texoma is ready for this kind of concept,” he said, hinting at the coming northern development from Dallas. “Business is moving this direction, and I believe we have an opportunity. I am just providing what this market needs.”
“If you don’t do it now someone else will do it,” he added.
For its first lunch service, Gaytan served about 100 people who learned about the opening through word of mouth. By Wednesday, crowds from as far as Gainesville were coming to the restaurant thanks to early publicity.
Even without traditional advertising, Gaytan has been receiving numerous calls in recent weeks asking when the restaurant will open. This publicity was helped when the restaurant opened Saturday for a private party with a group of fisherman participating in a local tournament.
As he spoke about the opening of the restaurant on Tuesday, Gaytan casually paused throughout to speak with vendors both in person and on the phone on topics ranging from internet access and television to a radio advertisement, promoting the restaurant ahead of Cinco de Mayo. Throughout, he would switch languages, sometimes mid-sentence, depending on who he was speaking to.
For the menu, Gaytan focused on cooking styles from the Yucatán Peninsula to the Mexican Pacific Coast, with plans to bring in other flavors from South and Central America, using a mixture of both seafood and more chophouse-style offerings. The key to the flavor comes down to the types of chilies used along with fruit and citrus.
“You need to do everything from scratch,” he said. “You need to boil the chicken yourself and don’t cut corners.”
As an example of the dishes, Gaytan showed off a plate of beer-battered fish tacos with a side of slaw and a pyramid of rice and grains. Another dish featured a seasoned fillet of salmon with a mango serrano chutney on a bed of mashed potatoes.
“In this day you must understand that you must open yourself to other opinions and ideas to better yourself,” he said, describing the blending of cultures he is trying to bring with the restaurant.
Though the main dining room is open, work still needs to be completed on a secondary dining room that will be used for Sunday brunches. During a tour of the space, Gaytan showed off the base for a table in the second dining room that was made from the trunk of a single tree with a hole in the center. It stretched out for more about eight feet.
Gaytan prides himself on the fact that much of the furniture in the restaurant is custom made from mesquite. The top of one table is made from a saw blade that was used to cut the wood for the dining space. Nearby, a picture on one of the walls shows the blade itself in action.
Most of the interior of the building had to be rebuilt from the ground up during the renovation. The interior walls were redone in a signature rough plaster and stonework that added to the rustic and rural feel that Gaytan wanted to bring to the restaurant.
Before Rustico, the Palazzo building could aptly be described as a blank canvas. The building was fairly generic and was more defined by who occupied it at any time for a given event. The most notable feature, however, was the size of the building itself, which gave Gaytan a 12,000 square-foot canvas to work with.
As work progressed on what would become Rustico Fine Mexican Cuisine the corners of that canvas began to fill in. Beyond the interior of the dining room, Gaytan added a full-featured, 2,500-square-foot kitchen to the space. At capacity, the restaurant will also seat a crowd of 350.
The home of his metal chair now features a host station and front desk in front of a tall wood-and-stone wall. The wall is adorned with awards Gaytan has received over the years — a proclamation from former Gov. Rick Perry, a Chef of the Year award from his home country of Mexico.
Development of the restaurant started about a year ago and the scope of the project seemed to expand throughout the project. In initial planning documents, the project was listed at about $100,000. By December, Gaytan estimated the budget was closer to $250,000. On Tuesday, the estimate was about $400,000.
“I knew I wanted to have something special here … my carrot,” he said, describing it as the kind of restaurant he dreamed of making. “I want to step up the standard in opportunity and concept because I like to challenge myself.”
Throughout the tour of the restaurant, Gaytan pointed out the features and explained their origins without missing a beat. It was the way only someone with tangible passion and excitement about his home country and region could. Along one of the walls sits an ornate keystone that was once the part of a home in Mexico; near the foyer is a table made from half a door with a yoke as a crossbar. A mortar and pestle from his hometown sits prominently in a display at the front entrance, while a bell that came from an old church in Delores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, Mexico hangs above kitchen.
“It is just the feeling of open spaces, color, texture and presentation,” he said, much more than that metal chair.