By JOHN DeMERS
Dallas chef Dean Fearing welcomed me into his new home last night. Well, he’s actually been the face and the name behind Fearing’s at the Ritz-Carlton for two years now; but after spending a quarter-century associated with the Mansion on Turtle Creek, it’s going to be a while before his new digs start feeling the least bit old.
One of the “fathers” of New Southwestern Cuisine, or New Texas Cuisine, or whatever somebody decides to call it next, Fearing is respected and celebrated for his food almost daily. Like “Founding Brothers” Robert Del Grande in Houston, Stephan Pyles in Dallas and arguably one or two other chefs, he has the advantage of having given us a brand-new category – one at which he, quite naturally, excels. Now, however, having made the break with his old home and set up a comfortable new one, Fearing doesn’t rely on the same labels anymore. He talks a lot about cooking “without borders,” which (Lou Dobbs notwithstanding) is an immigration reform to be devoutly wished.
The new place isn’t actually one atmosphere but seven – that’s what Fearing calls them, “atmospheres.” Some inside, some outside. Some more for food, some more for drink. Some more refined and quiet, others like my favorite – called Dean’s Kitchen, strewn about the open, active space of that name – loud and spirited. In the course of a seven-course dinner last night, the soundtrack included Beatles (“I Want to Hold Your Hand,” no less!), Cream, Kinks, Tommy James and the Shondells, and Jimi Hendrix. Since I’m a child of ‘60s music, that’s really excellent for my digestion.
Fearing’s hyper-talented chef de cuisine Eric Dryer (a Dallas native who spent many years working in California) and wine director Paul Botamer teamed up to produce a menu that just wouldn’t stop – not merely in one thing following another but in one surprise or delight following the one right before. Some of the wine pairings, in particular, were things I’d never tasted or even heard of. Many serious wine guys in Houston could do the same, I’m sure. It’s just they so seldom do.
Here’s the squeal-filled roller coaster of a menu, along with the wines chosen to showcase each dish perfectly. And let me add that because I sat right by the open kitchen, there was always enough sound and motion to serve as my own personal dinner theater.
Grade A Big-Eye Tuna Duo: a tartare with sesame sushi rice and shiso/mint puree, plus a sashimi with crushed mango, crystallized ginger and spicy ponzu. Like sushi except with more intriguing flavors. Nicolas Joly Savennieres, Les Trois Sacres 2006 – an intense, golden, almost apple cider-like chenin blanc from France’s Loire Valley.
Dean’s Tortilla Soup with South of the Border Flavors, described by Fearing as “more like we made back in the kitchen, more Mexican.” Anytime you hear such words, the result will be good, though I doubt they really used to cut the chicken in those tiny, too-perfect white cubes. Becker viognier, Texas, 2008. Still, on a good year, the best viognier I’ve ever tasted.
Barbecued Shrimp Taco With Mango-Pickled Red Onion Salad and Smoky Citrus Vinaigrette. Already a Fearing’s classic, with some mysterious yarn about supplying the restaurant’s organic ketchup to Sonny Bryan’s BBQ joint in Dallas so they can make the sauce. Domaine Ott Rose from Provence, 2008. Almost wonderful enough to make me ever think of ordering a rose.
Elephant Trunk Sea Scallops (from near Gloucester, Mass.) With Shredded Short Ribs and Foie Gras/Sweet Potato Puree, Royal Trumpet Mushroom Ragout and Fennel Chips. With several versions of seafood and meat in this dish, the wine was Writer’s Block Counoise 2007 (a lesser known of the 13 grapes in my beloved Chateauneuf-du-Pape), made in California’s Lake Country.
Smoked Pheasant on Barbecued Cauliflower/Pheasant Chorizo Ragout with Charred Corn Tortilla Wrap and Green Chili Mojo. A sleeper of a dish, not one I would have thought to order. Puts cauliflower in a whole new light – geez, now I have my life’s first cauliflower craving. Robert Foley Charbono, Napa Valley, 2007. Always reminds me of Cher Bono, unfortunately. An Italian grape wiped out of Italy by phylloxera in the 1800s, now grown only in small patches in California.
Maple/Black Peppercorn Soaked Buffalo Tenderloin on Anson Mills Jalapeno Grits and Crispy Butternut Squash Taquito. Any dish that comes with a taquito is okay with me, especially if it’s this Fearing’s signature. I just wish they’d call it Bison, because the animal is no more a buffalo than the “Indians” Columbus met were from India. Quinta do Crasto Red, from the Duero in Portugal, 2007. A little-known, meat-friendly wine from an area more famous for its ports. Any port in a storm, I always say.
Warm Chocolate Caramel Cake with Chocolate Fried Pies and Mike’s “PayDay” Ice Cream. How often in adulthood does anyone give us not one, not two, but three childhood favorites on a single dessert plate? I especially like it when fancy, expensively trained chefs fry me up a pie! Rotta Black Monnuka from Templeton, Calif., 2006. A fortified dessert wine made from a weird Spanish grape now being grown in the Golden State.