November 6, 2013
Somewhere between the oysters mingled with nasturtium leaves, kale and sunchoke and the heartbreakingly beautiful walnut tart adorned with tiny pickled chanterelles and wild carrot flowers, I knew we had it: a new five-star restaurant in Dallas.
Well, the restaurant, FT33, isn’t exactly new. Chef-owner Matt McCallister, who was named The Dallas Morning News’ Chef of the Year last week, recently marked the Design District restaurant’s first anniversary by introducing a seven-course tasting menu. The oysters and walnut tart were among its courses.
I’ve loved FT33 from the start, but over the course of the year, the experience has become even more stupendous, whether you start the evening with a thoughtfully mixed cocktail (like a Sheep Skin, with Sheep Dip scotch, Suze, Cherry Heering and Braulio amaro) or a flute of Bruno Paillard Première Cuvèe, a wonderful Champagne that wine director (and general manager) Jeff Gregory offers by the glass.
McCallister’s aesthetic is more New Nordic-style naturalist than molecular- gastronomy modernist, favoring the old-fashioned arts of pickling, curing, smoking and fermenting over showy technique. Yet it feels very modern, and the chef’s plates — always visually striking — are meticulously composed. Impeccably sourced ingredients, often foraged or custom-grown, speak for themselves and of themselves.
If you’re in the mood for charcuterie, McCallister’s offerings — including paper-thin slices of lonzino (pork loin), faithfully French pork rillettes, spectacular pickled lamb tongue and more, all cured in-house — make a fine entry into dinner. They’re presented on a rustically beautiful burl board, garnished with crunchy, lightly pickled Jerusalem artichokes, peach jam and other condiments.
Otherwise, you might go for the gulf crab salad. It’s so gorgeous, the crab hidden under thin slices of Japanese turnip arranged to look like a flower or a seashell, you may be reluctant to eat it. You’d be a fool not to, though. Tucked under the turnip petals are tender braised pears; taken with a forkful of crab salad, a swipe of the deep, vibrant green tarragon emulsion and just the right touch of crunchy, peppery turnip, the dish is as delicious as it is beautiful. Don’t be surprised if it disappears soon, though; with the exception of McCallister’s signature smoked-potato appetizer, nothing stays on the menu long.
Even more startlingly good lately are thin slices of top-quality hamachi topped with shavings of spicy lardo (cured fatback). An unusual pairing to be sure, and McCallister pulls it together brilliantly with small pools of intensely flavored house-made XO sauce and dabs of fermented peach purée, plus tiny puddles of lime juice, paper-thin radish slices, crisp shards of sesame wafer and bits of parsley. It’s a crazy balancing act that first had me gasping at its audacity and then had me clapping my hands in delight.
At a recent dinner with friends, I sat smugly as everyone chose their main courses (I always let my guests choose first), guessing that no one would go for chicken. McCallister is an enthusiastic user of social media, and somewhere I’d seen him posting about a dish he was working on that involved salt-curing chicken legs for a day, braising them in olive oil with garlic and thyme, air-drying them for a day, then, just before serving, deep-frying them. Had to have it.
I held my breath as they ordered: sterling lamb duo; heritage pork duo; short rib with buckwheat polenta and smoked maitake mushrooms. I claimed the chicken, and it was absolutely superb — the crisped leg rich and flavorful as a great duck confit, and the thigh and breast meat fashioned into a roulade. McCallister set them, dressed up with a crème fraîche sauce given depth and dimension with garlic and fermented cucumber, in a deep bowl with sautéed spinach leaves and poufs of silky celery root purée shot through with celery leaves. The finishing touch, crunchy bits made from fried pork lard and chicken skin (like wicked gribenes, kosher chicken cracklings!) added soulful flavor and texture.
Another evening, a heritage pork dish was the standout. McCallister arranged columns of super-tender, succulent, gorgeously cooked tenderloin in and around a brown-buttery potato purée and let black trumpet mushrooms work their umami magic (deep notes with fermenty tang) on the balance of the dish. Toasted hazelnuts, spicy paper-thin turnip chips, sautéed Brussels sprouts petals and pretty nasturtium leaves completed the strikingly beautiful composition, musical in its textural and flavor variations.
If you’re looking for a special gastronomic treat, consider asking for FT33’s new seven-course tasting menu, available only Tuesday through Thursday. At $95 per person, it’s the way to experience McCallister’s cooking at its most daring and creative. Indulge in wine director Gregory’s thoughtful wine pairings with each course ($55 per person), and you’re in for the most exciting dining experience Dallas has to offer at the moment.
Because the chef likes to keep his options open, the menu itself is a baffling list of ingredients run together incomprehensibly. Don’t worry about it; just go for it. One of the able waiters, all passionately enthusiastic and knowledgeable about what they’re serving without being the slightest bit pretentious or cloying about it, will explain as you go along.
The inaugural tasting menu glorified the season’s vegetables. A skinny roasted carrot with intense flavor came with a brown-butter potato purée for dipping; the whole thing was blanketed in fluffy shaved hazelnut, so original. Earth and sea and forest came together gorgeously in the oyster dish, with its sauce of oyster liquor boosted with butter, lemon and chives. McCallister appeared at the table to pour a test tube of carrot distillation over a tasting of root vegetables draped in tender sheets of turnip — and again to pour a sauce of Burgundy truffle stock finished with chicken drippings over salt-baked celery root with dots of black trumpet mushroom purée.
Pickled salted grouper on a buttery cauliflower purée came covered in tiny bits of cauliflower floret that acted like a dill-flecked crumble; it was spot-on with its wine pairing, a 2010 Scholium Project Midan Al-Tahrir, an “orange” wine (a white that has had some skin contact, adding an orangy tinge) from California. On its heels came the showstopper: cubes of rich English-style black pudding (blood pudding), pliant on the outside and soft on the inside. They played magnificently with glossy dollops of chanterelle purée, crisp slices of local McKinney apples and grains of puffed wild rice, farro and quinoa. Gregory’s smart pairing was a tangy, nutty Rodenbach Grand Cru Flemish red ale from Belgium.
A couple of meat courses — pork belly with butternut squash and rye berries cooked risotto-style in spinach, and slices of grass-fed rib-eye drizzled with roasted-bone-marrow vinaigrette — were less compelling, though still delicious.
But with the desserts, dinner took a dramatic turn. If there had been one thing standing between FT33 and a five-star review up to that point, it was its sweets. Its first pastry chef’s self-consciously modernist creations, more fussy and formal than delicious, seemed to have come from a different playbook than McCallister’s savories. The appointment in April of Maggie Huff, whose desserts I’d admired when she worked at the Pyramid Restaurant, was encouraging, but it has taken some time for her to find her footing aesthetically. She’d taken a sharp turn away from the straight- ahead fruit-topped panna cottas and classic marquises of her Pyramid days, and her crumbs and gels just weren’t coming together.
Now I think she and McCallister, with whom she collaborates on the desserts, have found their sweet voice.
I heard it first with the tasting menu’s lemon sorbet on a streusel delicately flavored with almond and coriander; celery leaves provocatively, yet deliciously, brought it in line with the restaurant’s nature-forward aesthetic. And then even more melodically when the real dessert landed: the walnut tart that seemed to have been imagined by a woodland sprite. Huff sent it to the table with a marvelous candy-cap mushroom ice cream infused with bourbon and oak.
But it’s not just on the tasting menu that Huff’s desserts are now thrilling. Recently her almond-brown-butter cake with apple and quince, topped with an unexpectedly wonderful roasted-parsnip ice cream, was a harmonious hymn to the season.
Matt McCallister is one of the most talented young chefs working in the country today. What a joy that he has now pulled all the threads together so beautifully at FT33.
Follow Leslie Brenner on Twitter at @lesbren.
FT33 (5 stars)
Price: $$$$ (appetizers $12 to $17; charcuterie board $21 or $40; main courses $25 to $35; cheese board $19; desserts $10; seven-course tasting menu, available only Tuesday- Thursday, $95 per person, or with wines $150 per person)
Service: Impeccably professional. Most of the servers are so serious, I sometimes feel like tickling them. But behind that seriousness is a passion for — and knowledge about — what they’re serving.
Ambience: A stylishly casual, rustic-industrial dining room with an inviting bar. Table 33, for which the restaurant is named, offers bird’s-eye views of the open kitchen.
Noise level: Usually acceptable, though not quiet, by any stretch, and if you get stuck near noisy diners, conversation can be very challenging (when I was seated next to such a table, my decibel meter maxed out at 95). Acoustics could use improving.
Location: 1617 Hi Line Drive, Dallas; 214-741-2629; ft33dallas.com
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 6 to 11 p.m.
Credit cards: AE, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar. Head bartender Lauren Festa’s cocktails are appealing and original. Wine director Jeff Gregory’s four-page list features an appealing selection of wines from around the world, with plenty to intrigue and tempt the wine adventurer; 20 are offered by the glass.
by LESLIE BRENNER
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