by Bill Addison
A friend and I sat in the Rattlesnake Bar at Fearing’s Restaurant slurping more on the details of the space than on our strong drinks. The bar’s profusion of rich, masculine woods were in keeping with the stateliness I’d come to expect from the restaurants in Ritz-Carlton hotels.
Then a solicitous server quietly glided next up next to us.
“Guacamole on a tortilla chip?” he inquired, holding out the complimentary nibbles nestled in a luxuriously thick linen napkin.
I blinked in surprise. Guacamole at the Ritz? Biting into that chip, I now realize, was my introduction to the Tao of Dean.
Newcomer that I am, I missed out on Dean Fearing’s 21-year run as the chef at The Mansion on Turtle Creek. Certainly, I knew his reputation as not only one of the stalwarts of Southwestern cooking but as an emissary of Dallas’ blossoming dining scene.
Thus, I’d been counting the days till the debut of his namesake just as anxiously as Mr. Fearing’s bereaved Mansion regulars. So much so that I broke the food critic’s rule of waiting at least a month to try a new restaurant (I barely cheated: It had been open 3 ½ weeks). Consider this simply a first peel, then: Fearing’s starred review will be published later in the fall.
I do have intimate firsthand experience with the work of the man who designed Fearing’s space, Bill Johnson. His Johnson Studio engineers the majority of blockbuster restaurant in Atlanta, where I was a critic for several years. I’ll not be surprised if Mr. Johnson takes on more local projects: His modern sense of drama is right in line with Dallas’ love of splash and flash.
Beyond the staid bar, Fearing’s interior is an ingenious composite of five very different domains that range from casual to formal, cloistered to alfresco. Part of the first-visit experience is meandering through the entire space, eyeballing one stunning chandelier after another and deciding which area you’ll occupy during your next visit. (The same menu is served in each area.)
The idea for the design’s variety arose from a frustration Mr. Fearing faced at his last gig.
“I got beat up over the dress code at the Mansion,” Mr. Fearing said during a phone interview. “Some pf my longtime customers would tell me that if they saw one more person in the restaurant without a jacket, they would never come back. But then their kids would tell me that they didn’t want to dress anymore like that they were going to a country club.”
The hodgepodge effect seems to be paying off.
“The Mansion crowd has found their little place in the Gallery, the most formal room,” Mr. Fearing noted. “They love it, and it’s nice to see some of my old pals.”
On a recent Tuesday night, a hostess seated us in Dean’s Kitchen, the most relaxed part of the restaurant. The L-shaped, earth-toned room wraps around the open kitchen. By 7:30 p.m., the place was full and alive with buzz. (Note: This was early in the week. Weekday reservations are getting harder to snag, and prime-time weekend reservations are booked through early November.)
Even those of us who weren’t old pals basked in Mr. Fearing’s signature royal treatment. He shook hands, hugged or, at minimum, made friendly eye contact with every customer in the room.
The hustling swarm of servers looked flustered at times f=but never let the ball drop. We had a particularly nice moment when one food runner noticed that we’d eaten all the corn muffins out of our breadbasket. Unprompted, he returned moments later with a gluttonous heap f the moist little quick breads.
OK, so how’s the food? Much like the space: a fetching collage of styles. Mr. Fearing has expressed his desire to create a menu “without borders.” Yet even though dishes like five-spice hamachi with avocado cream and spicy ponzu area among the offerings, a strong undercurrent of Southwestern flavors ripples through his dishes. A crisp taquito filed with autumnal butternut squash flanks buffalo tenderloin. Quail is swabbed with a watermelon-jalapeño glaze. Barbequed shrimp taco includes a smoky citrus vinaigrette.
In fact, if I let myself indulge in one preview criticism, it would be that smoky flavors may dominate a little too much, especially in Dean’s Tortilla Soup. Yet I love the nonregional simplicity of two summer salads: lobster with mango and basil paired with a concise sphere of diced heirloom tomato with basil vinaigrette. And a custardy banana pudding.
Do these creations lean toward Old Dean? New Dean? Cant tell you. All I know is that it’s Now Dean.