20 Feet's Midas Touch
I was about halfway through a basket of fish and chips at 20 Feet, the new casual seafood joint in East Dallas, when I started looking for my fork. I haven't eaten fish and chips with my fingers since I learned how to properly command utensils. Yet the second the paper-lined plastic basket hit my table, I tore into it with my hands, dipping the crisp, golden, irregular protrusions of beer batter into a plastic ramekin of tartar sauce. I hadn't changed my mind when I'd started looking for the fork; I just needed the napkin it was wrapped in. I may occasionally eat like a kid, but I'm not a barbarian.
Marc Cassel is responsible for the basket of golden sunshine that was so beautiful I had to reach out and touch it. He opened 20 Feet this January, culminating an effort that was sparked more than a decade ago by an afternoon lunch at the Pearl Oyster House in the Village in New York. Back then it was just a lofty, "man we should totally open up a place like this" type of thinking, but years later when Cassel and his partner and wife, Suzan Fries, were both out of work, the dream grew fins.
When their daughter wrapped up her degree from Wellesley College, they made the trip to Massachusetts, not just to congratulate the young graduate but also to hit up some clam shacks. They gorged on fried belly clams and fried scallops, fish and chips and lobster rolls packed with freshly cooked shellfish. The places were all tiny (read: low-rent) and the dining rooms were packed, not to mention the food wasn't exactly cheap. Cassel and Fries were sold. Soon they hoisted a badass pirate flag over their newly opened restaurant, and now they're serving some of the best casual and straightforward seafood in Dallas.
Where else can you get massive, meaty Blue Point oysters from the East Coast for $9 a half dozen — prices usually reserved for Gulf oysters that can be sourced at a fraction of the cost? "I like the brininess of them," Cassel told me, when I asked him why he chose bivalves from Long Island's Great South Bay. "I don't want to get any hate mail from the Gulf people," he hedged, admitting great oysters are available in Texas. "But my preferred oyster has always been an East Coast oyster."
Much of Cassel's seafood comes from the northern shores that helped inspire 20 Feet — like the live lobsters that he processes for his lobster roll served in a house-baked bun. In a town that has fetishized this obscure New England delicacy, Cassel takes the classic sandwich back to basics, where it belongs.
Cassel was quick to give credit to his wife for the recipe. "As a chef your inclination is to fuck with things, to put a bunch of stuff in it," he said. But Fries demanded simplicity, allowing only the lightest dressing of mayo faintly flavored with lemon zest. There are no green onions, no paprika, just a simple, no-bullshit lobster salad served in a perfectly toasted and lightly buttered bun.
Not everything is so minimalist. French fries that start life in a hazy, frozen bag are rejuvenated with herbs Cassel tosses right in the fryer just before the spuds finish cooking. The tangle of shoestrings, flecked with the brittle and aromatic leaves of thyme and rosemary, are delicious. If the chef were to make them with freshly cut spuds, they'd likely be transcendent.
Space in this small kitchen is at a premium, though, and seafood gets priority. While many restaurants use a generic kitchen layout, the kitchen at 20 Feet was designed and built with handling oysters and fresh fish in mind. Cassel bought a machine to carefully vacuum-seal seafood as it comes in the door and a large section of his walk-in is devoted to keeping the packages buried under ice. "I've never handled fish better in my life than I have here," Cassel said.
A team of deep-frying savants turns those packages into crispy beer-battered parcels of fish and shellfish that get tucked into sandwiches, tossed into baskets and then quickly shuttled out to the dining room, often by Cassel himself.
While the golden coating can be a little overwhelming for the shrimp and oysters, it's married magically to large chunks of cod. Forget heavy, oily, fried foods that eat like an Ambien. Here, what emerges from the depths of bubbling oil is light, crisp and delicious.
Still, if the grease has got you down, there are lighter options. Salads, soups and other dishes recall Cassel's former days at the Green Room, Hotel Zaza and Park. Just try to find a clam chowder like this one in the Styrofoam cups in New England. Crunchy bacon is added to the soup at the end as a garnish, avoiding the flaccid pork-rubber that plagues more casual bowls.
Large, meaty mussels tinged with ginger and chiles seem out of place in a restaurant with so much tartar and cocktail sauce, but there are other Asian flavors on the menu too. A bowl of ramen boasting thick, fatty medallions of pork, and a banh mi sandwich with plenty of pickled carrots and daikon may borrow from different cultures, but they still somehow work. And they round out a menu that's loaded with good food.
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