Just over a year old, this latest, greatest downtown Dallas restaurant is the baby of its namesake, Chef Dean Fearing, and already the critics rave. Esquire magazine named it "Restaurant of the Year" only two months after it opened. Texas Monthly's gave Fearing's its 2008 award for "The Best New Restaurant." Frank Bruni, a food critic for the New York Times, named Fearing's one of the top ten intriguing restaurants for 2008 and described it as "big fun and big flavors." And in one Newsweek review, Julia Reed linked Fearing's with fun three times.
Dean Fearing himself is big fun. Sporting Lucchese cowboy boots, jeans and a crisp white chef coat, Fearing works the room with celebrity style. Dubbed "The Father of Southwestern Cuisine", he puts it on at the Ritz—as in Dallas' Ritz-Carlton—having left his twenty-one year reign as chef at another Dallas uber-luxury hotel restaurant, The Mansion on Turtle Creek. Foodies have followed Fearing to his new digs, which get top marks for décor, near the downtown arts district.
Comfortable yet lavish, each room has its own distinctive ambiance. My companion and I were among the first to arrive on a Saturday night and had our pick of seating. The Gallery is reminiscent of the elegant Mansion, intimate for quiet conversation. Across the hall is The Sendero—Spanish for "the path"— decorated with rattan furniture with mossy green cushions and surrounded by glass windows. It is wedged in between the two outside patios: The Ocaso, an inviting outdoor dining experience, with simply lit rectangular pools and single arc fountains, that incorporates the urban setting into its backdrop, and The Live Oak bar, which features the stately trees for which it is named. But the action takes place in Dean's Kitchen, where guests are made to feel like they are behind the scenes, within range of the chefs, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the expert wait staff.
The setting is a showcase for Fearing's "Elevated American Cuisine—Bold Flavors, No Borders." No doubt, Fearing is fearless. He starts out with familiar fare and transcends it, combining elements you won't expect. This is not food to be gobbled, mind you. Better to go slow and let each bite entertain you.
The bread basket arrived first with most notably the jalapeño bacon cornbread. Combined with a hearty pat of softened butter, we were off to a good start. Next our waiter surprised us with a roasted mushroom soup shot, topped with a dab of sour cream. This ounce of creamy gray puree stimulated our appetites, but didn't leave us wanting more.
The State Fair Apple Duo, a combination foie gras and single sea scallop starter, was almost dessert-like it was so sweet. The smoked duck liver was too rare for my taste (is blood really supposed to squirt across the plate when you cut into it?), but fortunately, the pecan/caramel/apple accompaniment was so tasty, I temporarily forgot my concern. The Corn Flake Fried Sea Scallop in Spiced Cider Broth and Crushed Peanut “Brittle” was savory with a crunchy, sweet tang, but my tastebuds couldn't distinguish the scallop from the other flavors—only its buttery texture gave it away.
This appetizer combo gave me pause for thought, however. Just as the smoked aspect of the duck liver was lost on me for the sweetness of its sides, I had to ponder why anyone would overwhelm a simple scallop by frying it. My companion commented that "sometimes a restaurant tries too hard." In this case, I had to agree.
My partner ordered a variation on the standard meat/veggie/potato entrée: Broken Arrow Ranch NilGai Antelope on Savoy Cabbage, Wild Boar Sausage and Toasted Sage Sauté with Chili Spiced Frites and Mustard Crème Fraiche. We were told by our front waiter (or was it our back waiter?) that this particular antelope is originally from India, but fortunately Fearing's doesn't have to go that far to get them; these are free-range raised in Ingram, Texas, near San Antonio. The antelope meat was lean and tender, mild and not gamy in the least. The cabbage and sage side dish surprisingly overwhelmed the Wild Boar sausage (which perhaps also came from Broken Arrow?), and the frites provided a light, sassy balance to the rest.
My choice was the Prime Cut Rib Eye mopped over live mesquite with Corn bread Pudding and Crispy Asparagus. (Mopping is a barbeque basting technique with an implement that literally looks like a miniature kitchen mop.) In this case, the result was a thin, sticky coating that clung to the steak and gave it a dark, woodsy flavor. The generous, de-boned and trimmed rib eye was divided into two: the loin and the filet; the latter was by far the better for flavor and texture. The dry asparagus begged for a dipping sauce to melt its light, tempura coating, but the corn bread pudding won me over completely. It had the texture of traditional stuffing, and my waiter explained that the recipe started out as just that. I could've forgone the rest of the meal and simply spooned this unforgettable comfort-food creation down my gullet.
My partner and I left the rest of the meal for after our evening concert at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center a few blocks away. About half way through the performance, I found myself wishing I had an anti-acid to kill the burning sensation in my esophagus—could the foie gras or the barbeque be the cause? I wondered. This didn't stop us, however, from returning to Fearing's later with a friend for desserts and an entirely different experience.
Again, we were seated in Dean's kitchen, close to the kitchen with a slight view of the white jackets behind the stainless steel counters. The room was lively now, every table packed with diners. We skipped the berry sorbet trio and the American cheese plate assortment to indulge in the most decadent desserts. We opted for the chocolate trio, the definite choice for chocoholics, with small but rich portions that allowed us each a few bites. A pudding-like chocolate custard was presented in a shot glass topped with chocolate chip marshmallows that could've passed for squares of cookie dough. The warm chocolate cake was just that—warm and deliciously dark and gooey like a molten. The fresh "fraiche" vanilla ice cream was a cool, refreshing contrast to the intensity of the milk chocolate brownie. The not-too-sweet butterscotch custard was accompanied by sugar- and caramel-coated apple fritters and topped with pecan toffee ice cream sprinkled with walnuts. This was three desserts in one, each flavor better separate than combined. Our waiter offered a taste of Jill's cookies cut into crouton-sized squares, and somehow we found room for the warm caramel spice cake with butter pears and more fraiche ice cream—the oral equivalent to autumn.
We could barely make our way out the door for the chic, couture crowd packed in the Rattlesnake Bar at the restaurant's entrance. And we weren't the only ones waiting for the valet who enjoyed watching the ultra-nouveau-riche young man wipe off a smudge before opening the door for his female companion to his black Lamborghini. For now, Fearing's is the place to see and be seen. But will it withstand the many tests of taste? Only time will tell.
Fearing's at the Ritz-Carlton
2121 McKinney Avenue
Dallas, Texas 75201
Breakfast: 6:30 to 11 a.m.
Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 6 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 6 to 10 p.m.
Sunday Brunch: 11 to 3 p.m.
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I'm a staff writer, special contributor and digital producer for the Dallas Morning News and dallasnews.com, and I've written numerous features for the Denton Record-Chronicle. My articles and columns have been published in D Magazine, FD Luxe, Edible DFW, Crave DFW, 360 West, HOME, and other newspapers and in-print and online magazines.
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