Dallas has never had — nor may ever have — a more ebullient restaurant emissary than Dean Fearing. Nearing 60 but indefatigable, always working the crowd in a pair of ornate Lucchese cowboy boots, his country-boy charm and bombastic cooking has wooed customers for three decades. He helped sire Southwestern cuisine during his 21-year tenure as the executive chef at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, and in 2007 he built his self-named home base in the Ritz-Carlton Dallas. Fearing's is one of the country's most spectacular dining spaces. Enter through the Rattlesnake Bar, framed by mahogany and backlit honey onyx that casts an almost sci-fi glow, like you could reach through it into a parallel universe.
The actual restaurant features four areas (all serving the same menu) with entirely distinct personalities. Mansion habitués favor the formal Gallery, with its hardwoods and rugs and soothing shades of bamboo. The Sendero is airy and genteel, featuring a shimmery Murano chandelier and non-tacky wicker furniture. A patio arranged among blue-tiled fountains particularly beckons during the fall months. Dean's Kitchen is the most casual and the buzziest; it's where hostesses often seat first-timers.
Over the years, I've sometimes been more taken with the surroundings than the food. Fearing adheres to the more-is-more plating aesthetic, and his entrees (say, for example, halibut coated in barbecue spices with succotash, crabmeat, Tabasco-bacon gastrique, and fried okra) can be astonishing or overbearing, depending on how cohesively the myriad ingredients unify. And misses don't sit well when mains cost between $44 and $58.
That said, I've never enjoyed Fearing's more than at a recent brunch. Daylight meals are still no giveaway. A three-course meal clocks in at $38; individual starters cost $12 and entrees $24. But the meal framed the chef's particular genius for framing high-low Texas flavors. Beef enchiladas possessed all the cheesy-crispy charisma of versions served at Tex-Mex joints across the state, except the spices in the chili gravy was more finely tuned (the amount of cumin exactly right) and a decorative squiggle of cilantro cream smoothed the heat. An appetizer of two fish tacos, so large they could easily sate a smaller appetite, came piled with glossy slaw and crumbled cotija queso. The layers of crunch came together marvelously. A vegetarian combo platter included fried avocado and a lush spinach taco. Fearing's signature tortilla soup — a piquant, tomato-laced broth poured into a bowl filled with smoked chicken breast and other garnishes that evoke the region — fit neatly into this mélange.
The breezy mood of Dean's Kitchen, with cooks and stoves in full view and the light oak paneling extra cheerful on a sunny Sunday afternoon, was as enticing as ever. It was the food, though, that delivered the most satisfying sense of place.
For years Dallas was known (rightly, by my experiences) as barbecue hinterlands. Transcendent brisket required a drive to central Texas. That changed in 2010, when Justin and Diane Fourton launched Pecan Lodge, which began as a stall in the Dallas Farmers Market. In a pit named Lurlene, Justin mastered smoking brisket over mesquite until the meat and fat melded into a lush mass, the exterior blackened to come-hither bark. Media attention gained momentum, and by 2012 there were weekend lines snaking the length of the building. Last year, Texas Monthly named it the second best barbecue in the state. Dallas 'cue had caught fire at last.
A change in the public market ownership forced the Fourtons to relocate: They reopened six months ago in the Deep Ellum neighborhood near downtown, in a freestanding building large enough to keep the crowds moving quickly. Having scarfed down the brisket at the previous location, I found the version here (which is now smoked over hickory and oak, no more mesquite) equally superb, and maybe more so. Few barbecue restaurants can achieve and maintain the status in which the nubbly beef maintains a near-molten texture. It is the must-have meat. Taut pork ribs come in a close second.
Pecan Lodge serves more Southern-leaning sides than the standard beans and slaw in most Texas joints. Mac-n-cheese sprinkled with bacon and porky collards insinuate the pig into cow-country traditions. The kitchen also produces wholly respectable fried chicken, though it should only be considered a protein addendum to the star attraction.
Nothing about Matt McCallister's food hews to Texas traditions, and it keeps his dining room full. McCallister previously worked for Lone Star stalwart Stephan Pyles but launched his own restaurant cooking with a modernist slant not before seen in Dallas. Powders and foams at first embellished plates. Two years in, though, McCallister now takes his most winning cues from New Nordic aesthetics. The closest item to a straight-up steak is wagyu medallions (cut from the rib blade) cooked sous vide for three days and arranged around hay sabayon with curly endive and pâte à choux potatoes. Slivers of trout, rolled and poached, perch at the edge of a bowl among nasturtium leaves and sheets of the fish's crisped skin. In the center is a well of buttermilk sprinkled with dill. Smoked trout roe warms the flavors.
If McCallister's food possesses an edge that deviates from the typical North Texas restaurant, much of it is still broadly accessible. Burrata, mint, and sunflower sprouts liven up the ubiquitous beet salad. He uses tagliardi, a rectangular pasta, to ensnare rich Bolognese. Fun variations like house-made lambs tongue pastrami and chorizo made with goat give the handsome charcuterie board an inventive jolt. (It also includes more familiar salumis and prosciutto for the less adventurous.) A frisky dessert has peanuts, gentle curry, and coconut milk dancing around a milk chocolate cake.
It's heartening to see such a progressive restaurant thriving in Dallas, though the restaurant was so busy on a weekday evening last month that the hospitality faltered at meal's end. Four of us ordered almost the entire 18-dish menu, and the attentive server paced the meal with grace. We paid our check (over $500 with tip) and had lingered not five minutes when general manager Jeff Gregory leaned over and asked us if we might move to the bar to free up our table. The bar area was clearly full; he didn't offer to buy us a drink. I worked in restaurants for a decade and dine out so often that I'm sympathetic to tables needing to be turned, but my Dallas friends felt like they'd been shown the door. They made a beeline for the exit and didn't respond to Gregory's sheepish "goodnight."
Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back in January to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Photos: Bill Addison