Dean Fearing has been called the “Father of Southwestern Cuisine” and garnered much praise and attention during his 20-year tenure as the chef of the fabled (Rosewood) Mansion on Turtle Creek, including being awarded the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest in 1994.
In August of last year (2007), Chef Fearing opened his own eponymous restaurant in the Ritz Carlton in Dallas. Since then, the restaurant has generated tremendous buzz for its interior design and Chef Fearing’s inventive Southwestern cuisine. This year, Fearing’s at the Ritz Carlton was nominated as one of the five Best New Restaurants in America by the James Beard Foundation (Michel Richard’s Central in Washington, D.C. won). It was also named The Best New Restaurant of the Year (2007) by John Mariani in Esquire and was among Frank Bruni’s Top 10 new restaurants outside of New York.
I had planned on having only one lunch at Fearing’s (with a friend). Arriving early in Dallas offered the unexpected opportunity for an extra mid-day meal. Happening to walk by The Ritz Carlton on my way to the Dallas Art Museum, I dropped in for a sneak eat.
The interior is quite extensive. There are, in addition to the Rattlesnake Bar, three interior dining “rooms” and outdoor patio seating. Each of these areas has its own name, style, and appeal (you can take the online tour, led by a cheeky Chef Fearing).
Despite (or maybe because of) the seemingly ceaseless praise for the design, I was underwhelmed by the restaurant’s interior. My favorite aspects were the lofty high ceilings, the artwork (some of which, a few paintings in particular, is quite beautiful); the woodwork; and the stunning back-lit panels of glowing honey onyx employed throughout the restaurant.
What is perhaps most significant about the design of the restaurant is its departure from the formality of Fearing’s former home at The Mansion on Turtle Creek. Diners have the option of experiencing the same high-level of food and cooking in four different settings: padded and classy (“Gallery”), sunny and semi casual (“Sendero”), en dehors (“Ocasa,” or outdoor patio), or completely casual (“Dean’s Kitchen”). This is some cause for some celebration; it gives the restaurant personality, if not a mildly schizophrenic one.
In many ways, the restaurant seems over-conceptualized. I’ve seen ugly banquettes and I’ve seen pretty banquettes and I prefer either to an uncomfortable settee. Though they arguably contribute a home-like feel, I found the settees in the Sendero Room extremely low and uncomfortably soft. For the thrill-seeking interactive diner, you’ll be disappointed to discover that sitting in “Dean’s Kitchen” – the dining room with a generous view into the wide open kitchen – gets you nowhere near the line, or the action, as Chef Fearing claims. Even if you sit at the spacious counter – the seating closest to the kitchen – where I perched for my first lunch, you have to strain to catch a glimpse of the expediting line. If this were a sushi bar, they’d be importing your imported fish from the kitchen.
I bet that the food served (and/or the special attention he got? Check out the second paragraph.) at the “Chef’s Table,” and not the table’s situation or the table itself, was principally responsible for it – table 321 – being named the Top Table of the Year by Mariani. The Chef’s Table – a high top which seats up to 8 – sits squarely in the spillway between the kitchen, the patio exit, and the dining room, and seemed ill-placed and entirely undistinguished. Although one of its biggest selling points is its elevation – 20 inches higher – which supposedly affords the diners a better view of the kitchen (really, the pastry dispatch), one side sits with its back to the kitchen. But Mariani is a different man with his own opinion, and more significantly, a more important food writer than I, so he’s entitled to highlight whatever table he wants.
I had originally requested to be seated in the Gallery Room – the most plush and “formal” of the three dining rooms – for lunch with my friend. But, it was a lot darker than I had envisioned (from the video tour on Fearing’s tricked-out website – it, in fact, has no windows to the outside as it appeared in the video) when I peeked in on my first visit. The Sendero Room, on the other hand, right across the hall, was a bright solarium with a gorgeous “school of fish” chandelier. It was much less formal than the Gallery Room, but no less pleasant – if not more pleasant to a light-seeking diner like me.
But the Sendero Room appeared closed during my first visit. When I inquired whether it was used during the day, the restaurant’s manager, Justin Beam, reassured me that it was used, alternating, with the Gallery Room, but more often as a spill-over space during unusually busy lunch services or, as Frank Bruni discovered, as a private party room. Noting that I had requested the Gallery Room for my subsequent reservation, but sensing that I liked the Sendero Room better, he asked whether or not I would prefer to sit in the Sendero Room the next day. Although it was a lovely room, I told him that he needn’t bother the staff with opening up and prepping a room just for my friend and me. Of course, when I returned the next day, my friend and I were shown into the Sendero Room and offered our pick of any table. The Gallery Room saw no diners that lunch.
This touches upon what was, perhaps, the highlight of the Fearing’s experience: service.
No request, big or small, felt out of ordinary. Whether sitting at the counter in “Dean’s Kitchen,” or in one of the two more genteel dining rooms, I was treated like I owned the place.
Over the course of two lunches, I got a wide sampling of the restaurant’s mid-day menu, thanks in part to an accommodation by the kitchen for a request to do a five-course tasting menu on my second visit.
Actually, I’m not sure that the tasting format was an accommodation (they said that they do have a lunch tasting available upon request), but I’m fairly certain that allowing us to choose the five courses we wanted was an accommodation even though they didn’t make us feel like it was one.
Many of the lunch items are also on their dinner menu – these tended to be Chef Fearing’s “signature dishes.” I tried to stick to these.
I can sum up the food in one word: BIG.
Chef Fearing serves up bold flavors and Texas-sized portions.
Although the main courses are a notch cheaper at lunch than at dinner, the sizes couldn’t possibly differ by as much. My friend and I balked at the size of the main courses coming out of the kitchen which seemed obscenely large for lunch portions. Even though they split our five courses on the tasting, my friend and I were straining toward the end – though admittedly we did choose some of the heavier dishes.
The prices are also big. Lunch main courses skirted the thirty dollar line and dinner main courses flew far north of two score apiece. Couldn’t I pay less for something a little more reasonable in size?
Fearing pushes his Southwest agenda with regional ingredients and techniques. Sometimes, his culturally-inflected approach is aggressive yet sensible (like the “Tortilla Soup” and “Lucian’s Crab Salad” – both signature dishes). At other times, he seems to push the agenda a little too far with over-enthusiastic saucing (not an issue of quantity, rather an issue of too many different sauces on one plate) and superfluous garnishing.
There wasn’t a single thing that I tried that I didn’t like, although none of it was terribly exciting beyond being very good. (You can see all of the photos from Fearing’s by clicking here and here.) Seasonal specials achieved equal footing with Chef Fearing’s classic dishes.
Not one to gravitate towards soups, I was pleasantly surprised by the “Tortilla Soup,” which Fearing made famous at the Mansion on Turtle Creek (it was still on the menu, non-attributably entitled “Mansion Tortilla Soup,” when I had lunch at The Mansion on Turtle Creek just a couple of days later). Thick but smooth, like the best tortilla soups usually are, it possessed immense zest and zing, laced with acid and a late-blooming heat. The bowl contained a commingling of shredded chicken, cheese, and cabbage, diced avocados, and jalepenos topped with a tangle of crunchy strips of fried corn tortillas that rose to the top as the warm soup was poured in table-side. The flavors were convincing and the textural elements playful. This was the best thing I had (the recipe is on the restaurant’s website).
Everything else paled slightly in comparison.
Of the two appetizers we tried, I preferred the “Barbecue Shrimp Taco,” which found plump segments of grilled shrimp lightly dressed with smoky citrus vinaigrette and rolled inside a toasted flour tortilla. More of a wrap than a taco, it was warm, soft, and comforting. Despite my instinct and urge to pick it up, I’m convinced that the half taco was meant to be eaten with a non five-fingered utensil. How else would you get some of the chopped pecans that were strewn across the plate into each bite? The combination there was unique and surprisingly successful. Of course, that didn’t mean I didn’t try eating the taco with my hands. It was buried under a haystack of bright and tart cabbage and pickled red onion slaw (which would show up on a number of our dishes). After one bite, I put it down and picked up my fork.
The “Buffalo Taquitos” were exemplary if not entirely uninteresting: a crispy double-rolled layer of deep fried corn tortilla encasing a molten filling of shredded buffalo meat (which managed to stay soft and moist like nicely treated short rib meat) and cheese. Despite being accompanied by (perhaps one too) many “salsas” and topped with more of that wonderful slaw, the dish didn’t excite me the way that others did. Maybe I’m not a taquitos kind of guy (I don’t think that’s the problem). Or, maybe two fat taquitos, halved and stacked, was just too much taquito for one person on a five course lunch. I got tired of eating it after having just one half.
The two meat dishes on our tasting were less exemplary and even less exciting. The “Carolina Barbecue Pork Tenderloin” was a let down if only for the fact that it didn’t match my expectations of “Carolina barbecue.”
I was expecting that loose, tart, and vinegary sauce of the Southeast that I adore above all others. Instead, the dark syrup, which looked much more like demi-glace than Carolina barbecue sauce, was a touch spicy (not a bad thing, per se) and two shades too sweet. The accompanying cocotte (enameled Staub, for those who are curious) of *piping hot* jalepeno creamed corn, coated in crunchy breadcrumbs, was more cream than corn and probably more butter than both combined (this too, is not a bad thing, per se – unless you’re laboring under the weight of too much food already). I thought the round of fried green tomato – a rare treat for me – hot and tart on the inside, crunchy with a golden bread coating on the outside, was the best thing going for the dish.
I can tell you two things about the “Chili Braised Shortribs“: the portion was way too large (my friend and I split one of our tasting portions and had the other boxed up) and the meat was awash with a beautifully rich molasses-colored braising sauce. Otherwise, flavor and texture was entirely unmemorable, including the queso fresco corn whipped potatoes, which even now seems like something I ought not to have forgotten about.
All three of the salads I sampled, two of which made my first lunch, were done well. But here again, there wasn’t anything terribly creative. Putting roasted beets – both gold and candy striped – with mesclun and fried drums of breaded goat cheese (from Dallas’s own Mozzarella Company) was not new or novel (“Summer Vegetable Salad“). It was your garden variety beet and cheese with sherry vinaigrette.
Nor was the summer showcase “Heirloom Tomato Salad” with Point Reyes blue cheese creative enough to merit much discussion. I’ll admit that topping the tomatoes with thick donut-like onion rings offered an unexpected twist, but the crusts were thick and loveless, which made the rings as superfluous as they initially seemed. (Maybe the onion rings were meant as an additional complement to the creamy basil dressing on the plate – think basil meets Ranch dressing?) The joy in both of these salads was the freshness and expert treatment of the vegetables and ingredients.
“Lucian’s Crab Salad,” on the other hand, occupied a unique corner of the Southwest by putting creamy with heat and adding a touch of sweet. The round of crab salad, more wet than dry and spicier than not, was topped with silky thin shavings of fennel and buttery diced avocado. A slightly crisp tuile offered textural contrast while carrot-cumin vinaigrette completed the flavor circle with smoky sweetness.
I wish I could have tried more than one of Pastry Chef Jill Bates’s desserts. Saving up for my dinner at York Street, I skipped dessert at my first lunch. Despite buckling under the weight of too much food, I felt the need to try at least one dessert on my second visit. I naturally gravitated toward the frozen desserts. Faced with a dilemma of choosing between the Trio of Berry Sorbets and Vanilla Malt Ice Cream Sandwiches, I defaulted to the lighter-sounding one, since it was hot and I’d be having a large dinner that night at Lola’s Tasting Room.
The “Trio of Berry Sorbets” presented a deconstructed model of three sorbet cones: a scoop each of “STRAW-berry, (pause)… rasP-BERRY, (longer pause with eyes flashing)… and BLOOO-bry sorbet” (that’s how it was affected by our awkwardly affected server) with playfully arranged whipped cream-filled cones, lying on their sides. The three cones were over and underscored with a row of pastry dough crumbs and rainbow assortment of berries, ranging from tiny golden raspberries to larger blackberries. It was pretty and cool (in more ways than one), but mostly straightforward, which is what I was expecting. The rest of the desserts sounded great, but seemed like total gut busters at the time.
Servers were gracious, if not a bit clumsy. One of those cocottes of molten creamed corn almost landed on my friend’s head. Thankfully it didn’t. And there was certainly some affectation going on with our “berry” comical friend. I don’t need that much personality out of my server.
Does Fearing’s deserve to be named as one of America’s best new restaurants? I’m not sure. I certainly haven’t eaten as extensively across our nation in the past year and a half as Bruni and Mariani have. I also didn’t have dinner at Fearing’s, when the dynamics and atmosphere, I’m sure, are different than during the day.
But I question Mariani’s tireless exuberance over Fearing’s.
I know that only a handful of very good restaurants open each year, so it’s not hard to believe that an over-achiever like Fearing makes the cut. Of Bruni’s top picks, I’ve been to three: Michael’s Genuine Food + Drink (Miami) and Tinto (Philadelphia) being the other two. I would agree with Bruni’s assessment that Fearing’s and Michael’s Genuine Food + Drink outperform Tinto (more on Tinto in a later blog post). But that doesn’t mean that Fearing’s deserves to be on that list too.
For the local food set – those familiar with Fearing’s cooking and place on the Dallas food scene as executive chef at The Mansion on Turtle Creek – Fearing’s at the Ritz Carlton is probably more of a revelation and breath of fresh air than I can appreciate. There’s no dress code (I took advantage of that lovely perk – being a “tourist” in a city with 100+ degree temps), the servers go untucked (there was some table discussion about the designer (Alexander Julian) uniforms – untucked butter-yellow button-up and grey slacks), and you don’t necessarily need reservations. The food isn’t bad either. That’s pretty much my formula for a good meal. And I had two good (but not great, and expensive,) ones at Fearing’s.
But I didn’t walk away with a strong urge to return.
Executive Chef Dean Fearing
Ritz Carlton Hotel
2121 McKinney Avenue
Dallas, Texas 75201