First Look: Daring plates and industrial chic at Matt McCallister’s FT33
Stony walls, dangling filament bulbs, open kitchen (natch), graffiti-splattered rest rooms: This is Matt McCallister’s long-awaited, highly anticipated, much-discussed new Design District restaurant, FT33. It’s easy to miss it tooling by on Hi Line Drive; from streetside, it looks like it could be one of the neighborhood’s chic furniture studios. Swing around to the parking lot in back to gain entry.
Then sidle up to the long, marble-topped bar for a cocktail: a smoky El Diablo, maybe, with mezcal, St. Germaine and Fresca, or this season’s Smash: rye, Suze, honey, lemon and thyme.
Photo gallery: A look at some of the dishes and decor at FT33
McCallister is a former Stephan Pyles executive chef who dazzled diners when he opened Campo Modern Country Bistro last year as consulting chef, and in many ways it seems he was using Campo’s kitchen as a lab for what he’d one day be realizing at FT33. (McCallister left after several months, and Campo has since closed.) His cooking at Campo was more relaxed and less formal, to be sure, but you could definitely see hints of where he’d be going with a couple dishes, particularly his spectacular milk-poached pork with milk pudding sauce, pillowy-tender braised prunes, blood pudding and pumpkin seed butter.
For the last couple of years, the general trend has been toward that relaxed style of cooking, which translates to looser, more casual plating. McCallister’s plates at FT33 take a sharp turn in the other direction: They’re meticulously orchestrated and highly designed, even as they exude a certain studied rusticity. It’s an aesthetic, by the way, that’s right at home in the Design District, one that’s practiced by Jason Maddy, just around the corner at Oak. And McCallister’s plates are daring. If you’re looking for comfort food, for plates you can dig into, you’d better look elsewhere.
The menu is concise (six starters, six mains, four desserts) and somewhat cryptic (“lamb brodo, white fungus, licorice, serrano, cilantro, asian pear”), with recherché ingredients aplenty (sea urchin, fermented mango, nasturtium). But after just a week or so on the job, our server did a splendid job of elaborating — explaining enough to give us a sense of each dish without boring us with endless details or announcing her favorites.
McCallister tucks sea urchin lobes into a stack of tender chive pancakes, topping it with chewy threads of hijiki seaweed and finishing the plate with stripes of bonito-flavored aioli and bright-hot yuzu kosho paste. He uses rings of raw leek as visual counterpoint to cylinders of silky Gruyère-and-leek custard tumbled onto piles of granola and chopped pecans; they’re topped with earthy grains of barley. He sets a fillet of blackfin snapper from the Gulf atop Sea Island red peas, strewing a farm-fresh radish or a fennel blossom here and there, and spooning a broth made from Benton’s ham around. His spin on salmoriglio (sort of a Southern Italian chimmichurri), which involves scallions and beef fat, takes center stage in the depression of a large white plate, while chunks of tender short rib on potato purée sit on plate’s edge like garnish. Each is grouped with tiny halved turnips and heirloom carrots, festooned with jagged mizuna leaves.
If you think pastry chef Josh Valentine’s desserts might lead you at last to the comfort zone, think again: They’re even more elaborate than the savories and just as formal, with all manner of modernist powders and pebbles, crisps and deconstructed citrus juice sacs. You know, dessert.
General manager Ryan Tedder, who also serves as sommelier, is eager to help with wine pairings all the way through — even to the end, with a glass of 20-year-old Niepoort tawny port or even eight- (count, ‘em, eight!) puttonyo Royal Tokaji Aszu Essencia from Hungary. It’s a thoughtful list, with suggested pairing (geoduck, fried foods), flavor (butter), or idea (debt relief, glamour) for each wine. Debt relief? Yes, that would be the idea behind vintages from, you know, financially troubled Spain. Very sweet.