Renaissance Comes to Dallas

A changing of the guard leads to a great new restaurant and a grande dame reborn.

By John Mariani

The buzz around town was sizzling.  After 23 years in the kitchen of Dallas’ stately Mansion on Turtle Creek, chef Dean Fearing was leaving to stick his name on the door of the restaurant at the new Ritz-Carlton, Dallas.  How could the Mansion have let one of the most respected chefs in America and a progenitor of New Southwestern cuisine get away?  And who could possibly fill his Lucchese cowboy boots?

On the other hand, would Fearing, now 52, still have the chops to bring his reputation and culinary style into the 21st century, especially at the Ritz-Carlton, whose reputation for mostly formal dining rooms might suppress him with too much corporate control?

And what would happen at the Mansion, a Rosewood property long in need of revitalization? Would they hire a young Texas chef with an evolved Southwestern style that would make the hotel’s regulars feel comfortable?  Or would they go in a new direction, with someone who would diverge from that style in order to bring in fresh interest and a younger crowd looking for more casual options?

Amazingly, both the Ritz-Carlton and the Mansion were able to nail down their respective turfs with restaurants that have immediately leapt to the front ranks of modern American gastronomy.  They stand atop a lively and sophisticated culinary scene in this city, one that includes Anthony Bombaci at Nana in the Hilton Anatole, Jason Weaver at the French Room in the Adolphus, and the great Stephan Pyles at his namesake restaurant.

In the case of Mansion, management spent eight months interviewing chefs, finally deciding on John Tesar, 50, a New York veteran who was recently executive chef at Rick Moonen’s seafood restaurantRM in Las Vegas.  Tesar had more than a year to develop his menus as construction ground on at the newly – and awkwardly – christened Mansion Restaurant at Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek.

Meanwhile, Fearing’s at the Ritz-Carlton, Dallas, which took 18 months and $6 million to build from scratch, was itself receiving the kind of local and national attention hotel dining rooms rarely achieve.  From the night it opened last July, its Rattlesnake Bar and five dining areas have been packed. There’s a 66-seat kitchen dining room, a smaller, more formal room called the Gallery, the Sendero enclosed terrace, the alfresco Ocaso room, a Chef’s Table room, and a 16-seat wine cellar.  With a 2,000-square-foot kitchen of stainless steel, copper and glass, lighting fixtures wrapped in rawhide, and tables set with Riedel wineglasses and Hepp silverware, Fearing’s features both the cosmopolitan polish and slight Western twang that epitomize contemporary Dallas.

Of the dining rooms available at Fearing’s, I think the most fun is the expansive main room, with its fiery open kitchen and a communal table.  No matter where you sit, however, you will meet the irrepressible wine director, Paul Botamer (also poached from the Mansion), a man who delights in introducing guests to lively Spanish Txakoli as an aperitif, terrific small-estate Viognier, or a new dessert wine from the 360-label, 4,500-bottle wine list.

“When I arrived we had a good selection of Bordeaux and California Cabs that Dean had obtained,” Botamer says.  “So I’ve been filling it in with Italian and Spanish producers, plenty of Pinot Noirs and some lesser-priced Bordeaux and California wines.  We carry 16 wines by the glass, but I’m really trying to build up to 100 half-bottles, which I think are much better in value and obviously fresher.”

There’s no question that Fearing’s cooking is indelibly infused with Southwestern spices and techniques; after all, tortilla soup and lobster tacos are his signature dishes.  But, as he told the Dallasmedia, “We’re going to do elevated American cuisine, with bold flavors, no borders, celebrating farm-to-market foods.”

Our meal began with a glass of rich, sparkling Merry Edwards Cuvée Meredith 2000 ($220 a bottle) and a roasted poblano pepper-and-wild mushroom empanada with a green-chile salsa and ancho-honey emulsion.  Another starter was a wildly complex “Tsukiji market hamachi tartare with hearts of palm, pomegranate, sriacha and XVOO, served over miso cream and flash-seared five-spice bigeye tuna accompanied by a avocado-wasabi puree and garnished with an Asian pear salad.” Whew!

I was happy to find that Fearing has not retreated from Southwestern flavors, as evidenced in a dish like his maple-peppercorn-soaked buffalo tenderloin on Anson Mills grits laced with jalapeños and a crisp butternut squash taquito.  But I’m also glad to see that he’s incorporated more wide-ranging influences, as in his fabulous sea scallop seared on the griddle and accompanied by wilted Brussels sprout leaves sautéed with salty pancetta, sweet-tangy onion jam and celeriac puree flavored with Oregon black truffles.  With these courses, the well-balanced Robert Foley Charbono Napa Valley 2006 ($89), with freshness, fruit and acidity, cut through the various flavors and spices well.

For dessert we enjoyed a homey but satiny butterscotch custard with warm apple fritters, caramel sauce and toffee ice cream.  With this, Botamer suggested a unique and remarkable Rotta Winery Black Monukka 2003 ($45/375ml bottle; $14 by the glass), a cream Sherry from San Luis Obispo that seemed like a dessert on its own with its heady caramel and vanilla flavors.

Upon visiting the Mansion Restaurant, I was met with many options.  As at Fearing’s, different rooms cater to different moods or occasions, and in fact some of the menus are available only in certain rooms.  The chic bar offers New and Old World sparklers and sophisticated bar food.  The main dining room, once monopolized by Dallas society and energy tycoons, has been brought up to date.  Then there’s the lovely, low-lighted chef’s room, in what used to be the Sheppard King library, offering 20 guests prix-fixe menus of either three ($89) or six courses ($125), with a six course vegetarian menu at $105.

There is also a chef’s table, set within a circular arcade room.  It seats just six ans requires that guests give themselves over to Tesar’s ideas on the ingredients of that evening.  With wines chosen by wine director Michael Flynn, the bill starts as $200 per person and goes up from there.

I chose the more proletarian main dining room, now much less posh than before.  In fact, I’m told that the more relaxed dress code, which now allows blue jeans, caused a major furor in certain Dallascircles.  I found the new décor of bare, highly polished wooden tables and flat lighting a bit cheap-looking, warmed only by the original coffered ceiling and fireplace.

Although I was in the à la carte dining room, I asked if Tesar could mix things up with menu items he might serve in the two chef’s rooms (both closed on Sundays and Mondays).  It turned out to be a breathtakingly fine dinner, with Tesar’s creativity at full gallop, reined in only by his belief that simplicity in preparation brings out the best in great ingredients.

Thus, a started of seafood salad teeming with king crab, bay scallops, lobster and Gulf shrimp took on added texture and sweetness from dried corn, the shrimp tingling from a Peruvian-style dressing of jalapeño, cilantro, lime and olive oil.  Hudson Valley foie gras was enhanced by a Granny Smith applesauce, a chutney of Fuji and Gala apples, some golden raisins and a lush cider reduction.  Adding its own tangy notes to these dishes was a perfectly matched, fresh and green-grassy 2003 Sancerre from H. Reverdy ($34/375ml bottle).

I get a bit blasé about Wagyu beef, as it seems to be everywhere these days, but Tesar’s rendering of a thin slice of Japanese Kobe was simply brilliant.  Quickly seared in a red-hot cast-iron pan to achieve a caramelized crust, it was served with truffle vinaigrette, raw fennel and an artichoke salad.

Braised beef cheeks have also become ubiquitous, but Tesar’s decision to mix them with chicken livers, pack them into delicate ravioli pasta and add a side of crispy sweetbreads provided both novelty and interesting texture.

Other dishes also did well.  Roasted Texas guinea fowl took on the hearty flavors of a savory casserole with French lentils, carrots and bacon, which itself soaked up a reduction of foie gras laced with crème fraîche.  Very tender rabbit leg with fava beans, leeks and potato gnocchi exemplified intensity born of simplicity.  The same could be said of a luscious, not-too-bold B. Kosuge Pinot Noir Carneros The Shop 2005 ($79), which had moderate tannins and just enough dark fruit flavors to harmonize with the entrées.

For dessert, I liked a pear almond tart with a light chocolate glaze, drizzings of saffron syrup, and pear sorbet.

The Mansion’s wine list has had its ups and downs; todway it holds a Wine Spectator Best of Award Excellence.  Wine director Flynn, who had been at Kinkead’s in Washington, D.C., for 14 years, restocked the cellar after the renovations, and now, with 925 selections and 15,000 bottles, the list carries just about every blue-chip California wine (including seven vintages of Diamond Creek from three estates), excellent holdings in Rhône wines and plenty of trophies such as Château Ausone 1982 ($1,440) and 1949 Mouton ($6,125).

“Our focus is now more toward Burgundy and Pinot Noirs because their subtlety better lends itself to Tesar’s cuisine,” says Flynn.  “But this is Dallas, and we will always have a market for bigBordeaux and Cabs.”

For food-and-wine-loving locals and visitors, the news is good: Dallas has, in a remarkably short period of time, made it clear that fine dining, with an enduring bit of Texas swagger, is alive and kicking there – and at a level that would make most cities envious

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