A Chicken-Fried Gourmet

Newsweek

Granny Fearing’s ‘Paper Bag Shook’ chicken with whipped potatoes appears on the same menu as a nice foie gras duo.
By Julia Reed
NEWSWEEK

My friend Robert Harling is a screenwriter who lives part of the time in Louisiana, which means that when he flies to L.A., he is forced to go through Dallas—a lot. But now that Dean Fearing has opened his new eatery, Fearing’s, Harling no longer minds. In fact, he invents reasons to stop there. On his last visit, he took his 14-year-old niece Susan with him, and when she bit into the “chicken fried” lamb chop with smoked tomato gravy, she said, “This tastes like Texas.”

At a time when food fetishists obsessively track the provenance of radishes and happily wait months to score a reservation, a taste of Texas sounds perfect. Fearing’s is unpretentious, not crazy expensive and lots of fun—it may just be one of the best new spots in the country. It’s a restaurant that knows what it wants to be. Chicken-fried steak is not only identified with Texas, it was invented there (by German immigrants to the Hill Country attempting to replicate wiener schnitzel). But a lot of other things taste like Texas, from tacos and barbecued brisket to chili. The state’s considerable bounty includes a mother lode of Gulf seafood and wildfowl (Dick Cheney’s quail-hunting “incident,” you will remember, occurred at a ranch near Corpus Christi), in addition to its livestock; its cuisine incorporates Mexican influences, of course, but also the contributions of the more recent influx of Vietnamese immigrants and the country cooking of the Deep South.

From buffalo tenderloin to barbecued-duck tamales and jumbo lump crabcakes, all of it is amply represented on Fearing’s extensive menu. “It’s so important to have a sense of place,” Fearing says. “I don’t want to do French food. I don’t live in France.” Dean Fearing spent 21 years at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, where he put the Dallas restaurant on the map with such signature dishes as lobster tacos and the world’s greatest tortilla soup. But now that his own name is on the door he has been, he says, “reborn.” At the Mansion, “I always felt I had to create expensive, glamorous food,” he tells me. “We had to add something to the plate to get that $55 or $65 price tag. But here I’m free to do great food the way I want to do it and charge accordingly.” Hence Granny Fearing’s “Paper Bag Shook” chicken with whipped potatoes and all-day green beans appear on the same menu as a foie gras duo.

With Fearing it’s all about seasoning. “Twenty percent of our business is New Yorkers. They come in here and say, ‘Oh my God, we don’t have those flavors’.” As a child growing up in Kentucky, pretty much the only “spices” his mama and grandmama used were salt and pepper, but they used them better than anyone else. “They knew how to season, and that’s 90 percent of the deal.” He waxes on about the “smoky with the sweet” components of the salsa accompanying his sublime barbecued- shrimp tacos. When I ask him the secret to his amazing mashed potatoes, he tells me he adds a pinch of a grated fresh cheese he found south of the border. “What it is,” Fearing says, “is just good-tasting food.”

It is also good Texas fun. Fearing is not only a great cook—he and Robert del Grande, the equally talented chef at Houston’s venerable Café Annie, have a band called The Barbwires, whose CD, “Bliss and Blisters,” is surprisingly good. Since its opening six months ago, his restaurant has been packed every night. When the chef is not in his 2,000-square-foot open kitchen, he works the crowd of bejeweled Dallas matrons and cowboy-boot- wearing hedge-fund managers with an enthusiasm bordering on the manic. “What we all love about restaurants is walking in and knowing you’ve arrived,” he says. “You want people in those seats laughing, waiters hurrying past. You want that addictive feeling of being at the right spot.” And whenever I’m there, I do.