Fearing’s: Best Restaurant – Esquire Magazine

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Fearing’s Restaurant is open at the new Ritz-Carlton, Dallas
By: Mary Gostelow

It is, in fact, a signature dish of one of the most stylishly lovable of chefs anywhere, Dean Fearing, now based at Fearing’s, attached to The Ritz-Carlton Dallas, which opened August 15th, 2007. As hotel GM, Roberto van Geenen – himself a food man through and through – says, it was a good thing the culinary orchestra was playing to its peak from the start, as on the second night one of the guests was the most respected nationwide restaurant critic in the USA, John Mariani. As a result of that visit, Mariani rated Fearing’s, named for chef-patron Dean Fearing, as best new restaurant in the entire country in his annual round-up for Esquire Magazine (November 2007 issue).

Mariani’s words, now: ‘When I entered the polished Rattlesnake Bar at Fearing’s, packed with some of the most beautiful women in Texas sipping house margaritas made with Cabo Wabo Blanco tequila, Damiana liqueur, and organic agave nectar, then passed the elegant small dining room set with wide sofas rather than banquettes, then arrived at the bright expanse of the more casual main dining room, with its shiny counter and broad tables surrounding a huge open kitchen, I suspected this was the place.’

It is said that the restaurant’s interiors cost $6 million, and it is honestly difficult to know how it could have been achieved for so little. Dean Fearing had a considerable say in how the place would look, as did van Geenen and the hotel’s owners at the time, Crescent Real Estate Equities Co. The main design element, however, came from Atlanta-based Bill Johnson. Give us a restaurant, everyone said, that hinted at Texas but not too much so, something that is bang up to date but timeless. The result is a strategic bar, leading to seven different dining areas that seat a total of 166 guests, with a further 40 seats outside.

First that Rattlesnake Bar, its 15 foot high ceiling formed of mahogany and dark leather panels, like its walls. The lower parts of the bar, like a ceiling-held tester panel overhead, are back-lit honey onyx, from Pakistan. The 12 foot long bar itself is leather and extends round to a snake’s head.

Next you go into your dining area of choice, perhaps a light cool place that has 700 tiny white Murano glass fish hanging overhead, or into what looks like an airy winter garden, complete with murals and some tables set with one six foot tall white leather arm chair paired with a three foot tall brown armless chair. There is a 20-seat wine tasting room, its glass walls holding 6,000 bottles (the glass can be made opaque at the touch of a button). But the most buzz is probably in the main room, next to the open kitchen that feeds all these people.

Right next to the service counter is a tall square chef’s table, like a Gulliver-sized chef’s chopping block which seats eight people, at high stools, on all its four sides. We sat at a normal height table, a big square chunk of smooth-as-satin oak, which blended perfectly with a ceiling-high column of small squares of rough sand-colored stone and, overhead, square and rectangular parchment lampshades held by whipping along adjacent sides.

Dean Fearing, whom I had not seen for seven years, came rushing out with that charismatic smile of his, greeted me as his long-lost friend. ‘Well hello you-all, how lovely of you to have popped by to see me, what can I do for y’all?’ As always he was in his customized Lucchese boots and, indeed, instead of his name or Fearing’s logo, a stylized F, embroidered on his white chef’s jacket is – a pair of cowboy boots. (In fact Fearing is Kentucky born, but he considers Texas home, and when he is not cooking, appearing on his television shows or writing yet another book, he may well be playing his vintage Fender Telecaster guitar, with his all-chef band, The Barbwires.)

Dean Fearing told us that he really wanted everyone to feel at home. Few of the tables have white linens: ours was set with brown straw-weave mats, Rosenthal bone china with the F logo, Hepp flatware and Riedel glass. Breads came in a dark brown square wicker basket. Menus were covered in brown leather. Fearing’s chef, Joel Harrington, whom I had last seen at Laguna Niguel, was cooking that night. As Mariani said, Fearing and his team searches the countryside for inspiration, using all varieties of home grown peppers, dried chillies, jicama, cilantro, tomatillos, Texas hill country wild game, birds and venison in the ever-changing menu. The dishes have plenty of Texas swagger. You can choose a barbecued-shrimp taco with mango-pickled red-onion salad and a smoky citrus vinaigrette, or watermelon-and-jalapeño-glazed quail on a three-bean salad with a hush puppy made from prawns, or the prime-cut rib eye of beef “mopped over mesquite”.

In fact, as always we ate more simply, and fortunately the two chef’s-complimentary amuse fitted that bill too. After our order was taken we were brought shot glasses of a lobster bisque. Although Fearing’s signature appetizer starter is Dean’s tortilla soup with South of the border flavors, I went for an Impressionist-look dish of a hamachi (yellowtail fish), named for Tokyo’s Tsukiji market. The hamachi duo gave me a flash-seared five-spice blodge with avocado wasabi purée, and a fish tartare with pomegranate seeds, hearts of palm and miso cream. I did choose Fearing’s signature main course entrée, however, namely a maple and black peppercorn soaked buffalo tenderloin, two big chunks on a couple of purées, an off-white Anson Mills jalapeño grits and an orange splodge of crispy butternut squash taquito (this dish, I thought, was more like a Braque painting). The grits were so gritty, by the way, that I later researched Anson Mills, and found intriguingly that the organic facility behind a car-wash in Columbia SC had been started by a career-changer, a historic restoration and hotel and restaurant designer, Glenn Roberts, in 1998. He grinds what is known as Carolina Gourdseed White corn as described in an 1850 tome as the finest corn in the Appalachians, which he freezes before grinding, www.ansonmills.com.

Fearing’s restaurant is all about these charming curlicues, the minutiae that add up to a great dining experience. Take the servers, for instance. Their outfits were specially designed by one of Texas’ best, Alexander Julian, a North Carolina-born artist known for introducing color into menswear. Here, for both sexes he has come up with pale lemon and pink shirts with old-fashioned cufflinks – the shirts are worn as overshirts by the line staff, and, tucked in, under black jackets with narrow white stripes by captains.

Before my main course, we were presented with a fine oak box holding six Sambonet steak knives. Choose your own, they said. Choosing a wine from such a splendid list would have been really a challenge, but fortunately the sommeliers, Paul Botamer and Hunter Hammett, chose a Domaine Serene, Willamette Valley 2004 Pinot Noir from Mark Bradford Vineyard in Dayton Oregon, www.domaineserene.com.

After that we were all offered another shooter, this time a shot glass of Dr Pepper. We were also, of course, lavishly encouraged to have dessert – but you know what, we had no room (and anyway I want a reason to go back!). As we left, I was given the bottle’s label, stuck to a card that was signed by both sommeliers, and I was offered a menu signed by Dean Fearing, and a personal note from our main server. This place certainly has plenty of what is often called the renowned Texas swagger.

Unless you happen to live nearby, honestly the only way to enjoy Fearing’s restaurant is to stay in the luxury Ritz-Carlton Dallas, a 218-room property that wraps itself around the restaurant – and is, itself, encompassed, as if in a set of Russian dolls, by high-net-worth luxury residences. The hotel, designed by Frank Nicholson, is an immensely soothing place. Think marbles and soft cactus and cream colors. WOW.travel especially likes corner suite 705, for its amazing sunrise views over the rapidly expanding Uptown skyline, and for the fact it is only ten yards walk along to the Club lounge. When staying there, too, WOW.travel heartily recommends a facial from the highly talented Sundari, who has several years’ experience making Hollywood Big Names looking even better.
www.ritzcarlton.com/dallas