Recipe for reinvention

Dallas Morning News

By BILL ADDISON / Restaurant Critic

How does a celebrity chef unshackle himself from flattering but limiting perceptions to reinvent his future? And how, in the process, can he captivate a fresh culinary audience without alienating a generation of longtime devotees?

Take a gander at the crowd at Fearing’s in the Ritz-Carlton Dallas for some insight into those meaty questions.

A senatorial gentleman in one room unhurriedly spoons tortilla soup into his mouth. His whole body seems intent on the bowl before him, but the nostalgia in his eyes suggests his mind is meandering through two decades of memories.

Across the way, three preternaturally blond women confab over a bottle of 2003 Silver Oak Cabernet. One discreetly nods at a table of handsome thirtysomething businessmen, all wearing ties made of a silk so fine you can appreciate the texture across the room.

Outside, at the Live Oak bar, a guy in leather pants waits for his friend to grapple with the hotel’s disgruntling valet snarl. He’s patient, mostly because he’s deeply enjoying his $17 glass of Pappy Van Winkle’s, an artisan bourbon aged to mosaic richness.

Dean Fearing, the boot-wearing force behind this labyrinth of luxury, chats up these folks and nearly everyone else in the place. With his improbably charming demeanor that combines the aw-shucks-ma’am cordiality of Roy Rogers with the maniacal ebullience of the Emcee from Cabaret, Mr. Fearing has single-handedly drawn the eyes of the nation’s style arbiters back to the Dallas dining scene.

He is so at home at the helm of his new show that his storied history as an ’80s progenitor of Southwestern cuisine and his 21-year reign as the chef at The Mansion on Turtle Creek could easily vaporize into the annals of time as pivotal but obsolete steppingstones. Fearing’s right-now design is alive with striking detail in such a way that, more so than in other restaurants, it becomes an active part of the experience, just as a city sometimes functions as a dynamic character in a novel or film.

But the olden days have a tenacious way of clinging to one’s sensibilities, and that shows in the menu. Much of it trudges over too-familiar ground, creating a tug-of-war between Mr. Fearing’s professional present and past. Happily, at the most recent of three review meals, I tasted dishes that wriggled ever closer to the current moment in American cooking, even as I fell more and more in love with the restaurant’s all-out elegance.

THE SPACE

There are three solid reasons to show up early for reservations at Fearing’s:

• The valet situation can be a congested mess that, during peak times, involves a trail of cars backed up onto McKinney Avenue.

• Once inside, you’ll want to take a discreet stroll through the restaurant and decide in which dining room you’d like to encamp for the evening.

• Most important, when you lay eyes on either of the restaurant’s come-hither bars, you’ll be relieved you left time to slurp up the details over a martini or Manhattan. There’s much scenery to behold.

When Fearing’s opened in August, word was that the Rattlesnake Bar, the gateway to the restaurant from the hotel’s lobby, attracted an older crowd. That still seems true, perhaps because it swiftly became a de facto gathering spot for local businesspeople as well as corporate travelers. The design’s timelessness lends itself to white-collar meetings of the mind: Chocolaty woods look melted into place around doorframes and leather wall panels, while stately couches and chairs bolster quiet, intense conversation.

But the backlit honey onyx that flows around the actual bar gives this nook some sci-fi titillation. Incredible what nature produces: The swirling pattern in the onyx resembles a sepia-toned map of Mars’ surface.

As for the younger patrons, they’ve all congregated at the Live Oak bar. The tableau of beauty out there is almost intimidating: couples slouching on low-slung furniture, the women’s casually dangling feet showing off their latest shoe purchases, the men in their designer jeans and blazers rustling the ice in their glasses. In the winter, that swanky outdoor fireplace will be billowing a whole new bonfire of the vanities.

Finished with your cocktail? Everyone convenes at the hostess stand to be seated in one of four settings that vary dramatically in style and formality (a fifth realm, the Wine Cellar, is reserved for private parties of up to 16 people). Though the reality is probably much more practical, I’ve concocted a whole fantasy wherein the black-clad staffers who greet you here operate as a collective Sorting Hat, a la Harry Potter: Your essential character (or at least your wardrobe) dictates in which of the distinct rooms you’ll be dining.

After years in the Mansion’s starched surroundings, Mr. Fearing very publicly declared that Fearing’s would have no dress code, and that the same menu would be offered throughout the restaurant. That being said, the most casually dressed patrons are often ushered into Dean’s Kitchen, the restaurant’s buzzing command center. It’s bright and noisy, but not uncomfortably so. Even through the diverting hustle of the open kitchen and the bustling to-and-fro of servers retrieving plates, the juicy design details finessed by Atlanta’s Johnson Studio pop out: the ascending loops of rawhide stitching on boxy light fixtures, the translucent wall behind the stoves splattered with black squiggles that are surely meant to reference Jackson Pollock.

The distinguished gentleman savoring Mr. Fearing’s signature tortilla soup? He belongs in the Gallery, the most buttoned-up room, which remarkably evades being stuffy. The light in here is the color of clarified butter, thanks in part to two bamboo-shaped chandeliers that look as if they were fashioned from sugar. Willy Wonka would happily dine under them, perhaps parked in one of the droll, oversized Mad Hatter chairs set at various tables around the room. Honey onyx runs prominently through the Gallery as well. Both it and the huge, weathered antique mirror look like portals to other worlds.

The women sipping cabernet have an air that harmonizes with the Sendero, a calming, glass-walled room that miraculously makes wicker furniture appear fetching. Though the staffers unfailingly try to accommodate whichever setting customers request, I always secretly hope without saying anything that I’ll end up in this space, mostly because of the Murano chandelier. Its majestic, bow tie pasta-shaped ornaments hang roughly in the form of an egg, swaying softly and hypnotically. It adds a fairy-tale quality to the place.

Lastly, there’s the Ocaso patio, laid out among blue-tiled fountains and precisely shorn topiary (note the red chile pepper plants in the garden patch). It has a unique dual appeal: The rippling shadows at night give the tables a cinematic sort of romance, yet I’ve seen solo diners contentedly ensconced out here as well.

The collective atmosphere at Fearing’s epitomizes the direction that fine dining is headed in America: accessible, versatile, heady but tangible.

Perhaps that’s why some of the throwback themes in the cooking clash so discordantly with the expectations established by the space.

THE FOOD

Five basic tastes are ascribed to the human palate: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (meaty or brothy). Some cultures include spicy on that list. Mr. Fearing wholeheartedly embraces another: smoky.

On a menu where roughly half the offerings conjure Southwestern cuisine’s halcyon days (with the other half dedicated to more contemporary New American and Asian vantage points), smokiness seeps into too many dishes. It bullies every other flavor in Dean’s Tortilla Soup, a revamped recipe from Mr. Fearing’s Mansion days. It pricks the taste buds jarringly in the barbecued shrimp taco, another reworked Mansion classic that once included lobster (and at $20 for an appetizer, I wish it still incorporated the tonier crustacean). Its presence in the Caesar dressing whomps this variation of the salad at lunch. The mesquite wood used in the kitchen’s grill imparts a smokiness that trumps even the assertive, though pleasant, gaminess of coriander-crusted lamb chops.

Of course, smoke can be a sly charmer when employed with the appropriate proteins. Case in point: a big brute of a rib eye is mopped over the mesquite grill. Even the smell of the meat beguiles the senses without bludgeoning them.

But smokeless meat provides gratifying variety: Buffalo tenderloin, for example, is marinated in maple syrup, whose layered sweetness augments the meat’s natural savor. The preparation lets the lean, moist tenderloin take its place of pride among silky jalapeño grits, a tuft of garlicky spinach and a fun, crisp butternut squash taquito that mingles with the maple to evoke autumn.

Meals have a gracious rhythm at Fearing’s that begins with a simple amuse-bouche such as roasted potato vichyssoise. But an old-school propensity toward too many ingredients in a single dish can disrupt the directness established by those focused teasers. Other folks rave about the signature surf ‘n’ turf number, but I don’t find the appeal. Filet mignon is spiked with a compound butter whose cuminy spice mix tastes like something best left in 1988. And chicken-fried lobster? Thick batter simply doesn’t complement the seafood. The surprise contender on this entree is the spinach enchilada. Its filling, though thoroughly infused with dairy, still tastes essentially of leafy greens. Can you order those a la carte?

Barbecued oysters get lost in a hide-and-go-seek of artichokes, spinach and Gulf crabmeat. Sea scallops on brussels sprouts leaves with bits of Virginia ham aren’t well-married by a tangerine essence. It’s an intriguing mix of ingredients that still needs tweaking.

And speaking of tweaking, I’m praying that Mr. Fearing rethinks the fried chicken served on Sunday nights. The skin is soggy! The tomato gravy tastes like liquid smoke! The supposedly “all day green beans” had a crispness that indicated they were steamed for only seven minutes! That $28 Southern fiasco was my single biggest disappointment.

Ah, but then Mr. Fearing and his cooks can surprise you with some modern, provocatively executed enchantments. On my last visit, I marveled over duck breast graced with smashed sweet potatoes and a jammy huckleberry glaze. On the side was a nicely bitter frisee salad with a lump of duck confit nestled in its frizzled limbs. And in the corner sat a prim square of foie gras terrine whose flavor brought every other element on the plate back to an unctuous neutral. Excessive? Yep, but thrillingly cohesive, too.

The most distinguished among Mr. Fearing’s Asian dabblings is soy-glazed black cod served with rice punctuated by hijiki (a feathery seaweed), a tempura shiso leaf (a Japanese herb akin to mint) and not-too-salty miso clam broth. Cilantro shoots give a fresh, Chinese perspective to a lunch entree of Alaskan halibut prepared in the Spanish escabeche style.

Lunch also furnishes Fearing’s most understated salad: a tight disk of peeky toe crab with languid slices of avocado, sweet pepper confit and a laudably subtle smoked carrot-cumin vinaigrette.

THE SERVICE

The servers delivering this culinary roller coaster gained gracefulness on each of my visits. At first, many of them wore expressions of barely contained panic. Only sommelier Paul Botamer had his cool from the opening moment. His assistant sommeliers needed fine-tuning, but they’ve caught on to recommending interesting varietals to those of us not willing to spend triple digits on a bordeaux. Now, in the eye of the publicity storm around this restaurant, the service team is navigating the arch of meals with more confidence.

My tablemates and I have always developed a warm rapport with our servers by dessert time, which makes us suckers for ordering more than we have room to devour. The sweets are actually the most consistently accomplished aspect of the meal: Butterscotch pudding (that tastes, to me anyway, like the coveted cake batter left over in the bowl) gilded with crunchy apple fritters. A dreamy banana pie crowned with a thunderhead of meringue. A plate of whimsical cookies that include a Little Debbie-like concoction and a fudgy Valrhona brownie. Each dessert is clean and direct, with a winking nostalgia that still succeeds in a contemporary context.

So has Mr. Fearing liberated himself from the ghosts of Mansion past? Not quite yet, though he seems to be finding his footing evermore in the present. Maybe if fewer creations smacked of smoke …

At any rate, brave the valet, join the throngs and taste (and see!) for yourself what the city and national magazines are buzzing about. Fearing’s is as much an event as it is a restaurant.