Lone Star

Rebel Dean Fearing is making his own rules in the culinary epicenter of the super-luxe Ritz-Carlton

Dean Fearing wears his $6 million price tag well.

That’s the rounded cost of his much-anticipated Fearing’s Restaurant at the new Ritz-Carlton Dallas.  The city – indeed food cognescenti all over the country – waited with barely bated breath after the legendary chef left his longtime comfort zone at The Mansion on Turtle Creek after 21 years.

Eighteen months and a six-pack of millions later they got a stunning restaurant that has put an ever bigger grin on Fearing’s ebullient face since he opened in mid-August.

Known as one of the founding fathers of Southwestern cuisine, Fearing, 52, is also known for his easy-going personal style, custom cowboy boots that he wears in the kitchen and everywhere else, and his all-chef alternative country band known as The Barbwires.  (A Barbwires CD, Bliss and Blisters, just came out.)

With five dining areas and two bars, the contemporary Southwestern restaurant space is meticulously planned and sumptuously appointed.  Riedel crystal, white Rosenthal bone china and Hepp silverware… nothing but the best for Fearing’s.  Don’t be put off by the word “Southwestern.”  There are no howling coyote profiles, no jalapeño lights and nothing is painted turquoise.  Backlit honey-hued onyx frames doorways and walls to cast what Fearing calls the warm “onyx glow” throughout much of the restaurant. The lighting flatters and beguiles.

Lest you start thinking “stuffy,” the dining room, known as Dean’s Kitchen, includes a “no reservations” dining counter.  (If there’s a space, it’s yours.)  “No reservations” tracks with Fearing’s watchwords for his new place, “no borders” and “no rules.”  That includes “no dress code.”  Except Dallas chic, of course. Waiters wear loose-fitting, Alexander Julian Private Reserve Collection shirts the color of unsalted butter, tails out.

Ah, but the food.  How does it measure up against the casual opulence?  Fearing hasn’t reinvented himself.  He’s honed his craft, tightened his concept and taken his flavors and presentations to a new level.  Yes, he’s taken it up a notch… or two.  Indeed that may be the company line, but it is right on in this case.

For example, his signature dish at The Mansion on Turtle Creek, the lobster taco, has become the barbecued shrimp taco.  Let’s put this in perspective.  Remember that calling anything on a fine-dining menu a “taco” was daring when Fearing first debuted it two decades or so ago.  Now, not so much. Accordingly, his shrimp taco is similar with a red onion salad garnish but is a more refined package than its progenitor.

The same can be said for many of the dishes.  They reflect Fearing’s desire for multiple layers of flavor and his fascination with the bold flavors of the Southwest, but they are more finely tuned.  Some are almost delicate in appearance.  He’s traded his guitar for a violin, at least in the kitchen.

Another culinary exemplar: sweet corn vichyssoise with grilled salsify and smoked tomato forming an offshore platform for a Maine lobster claw.  Served slightly chilled, this dish is the essence of summer. The soup is smooth and thin, a corn cream, if you will.  No kernels anywhere.  The gentle tomato smoke perfumes the entire composition.

That’s what Fearing says he’s all about these days: seasonal and as local as possible.  Luna’s Tortilla Factory makes super-thin corn tortillas for a taquito filled with Sonoma Jack cheese and roasted butternut squash.  “Another one of those local things,” says Fearing.

Seasonality reigns, at least for now, no doubt the menu will change with the seasons.  Just as certainly, if enough customers crave a summer-designed dish in January, they will probably find it on the menu. Fearing tasted and traveled to find the products he uses on the menu.  But one diamond in the rough found him.  Pastry chef Jill Bates told him he had to taste the goat’s milk blue cheese sample sent fromLubbock.  Made from what?  From where?  Yes, from goat’s milk in Lubbock, out there somewhere on the Llano Estacado (“staked plains” of northwest Texas).

Cheesemaker Nancy Patton of Haute Goat Creamery created a piquant blue-veined cheese with a haunting flavor.  Firm enough to slice instead of crumble, Bonnie Bleu shares plate space with artisanal superstars such as Purple Haze, a fresh goat chevre from California, and Vermont-made Constant Bliss, a soft cow’s milk cheese with a thin rind.  Fearing’s personal favorite cheese plate combo is a bite of the buttery and mellow Grayson’s Cow’s Milk cheese with a nibble of honeycomb and a piece of fruit bread crisp.

Fearing found the perfect meat for one of his entrees in Oklahoma, where Lawton buffalo rancher Don Godwin raises bison.  The chef enhances the lean meat’s alluring natural tang by marinating it in one of his favorite boosters, maple syrup.  Amply seasoned with black pepper, the dish officially known as Maple Black Peppercorn Buffalo Tenderloin is an incredible testament to Fearing’s ability to find quality ingredients and make the most of them by doing as little as possible.  In other words, he lets ingredients’ natural light shine with just the barest enhancement.

Simple desserts (at least in name) are the way at Fearing’s.  Blueberry crisp accented with fresh ginger sounds homey.  It certainly is when dressed up with a dollop of lemon curd and smooth lemon ice cream.

Wine service at Fearing’s is directed by Paul Botamer, also an alum of The Mansion on Turtle Creek. Botamer is as much a legend in the wine world as Fearing is in the culinary universe.  His by-the-glass picks for a recent tasting were stupendous, such as tokay from Hungary, a sweeter wine that paired beautifully with foie gras and scallop.

The wine room, with 5,482 bottles and 14 unopened cases of top quality vintages – sosme well-known superstars as well as small vintage discoveries – is one of the five separate dining venues.  It seats 16.

Millwork paneling, Jerusalem limestone floors, inset carpeting, ceilings of cloth, leather, suede or Austinstone set a different tone in each of the rooms.  Fearing’s is its namesake chef’s dream come true.

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