Maybe, just maybe, Dallas' long-bitched-about problem with flighty, temperamental diners is just an epicurean crutch. For years, chefs have blamed customers for safe, boring, innovation-free menus, swearing that North Texas diners don't understand or desire new and evocative cooking. They blame their empty dining rooms on a dearth of loyalty, a misplaced value on trendiness, the Dallas customer's constant desire to flock to whatever restaurant is shiny and new for their empty dining rooms and shuttered doors.
There's some truth to all that, sure. Dallas is the land of Tex-Mex and steakhouses, and for a city this size, it has more than its share of customers who want nothing more than a medium-well filet, a baked potato and stamp on their valet ticket. But for chefs, blaming his culture is still the culinary equivalent of dropping the ball in the outfield and blaming the misstep on the sun in your eyes. A pro always makes the catch, and good chefs keep diners coming back with a consistent execution, high-quality ingredients and attractive plates, whether here or Williamsburg or Williamsport.
Matt McCallister has proven as much with FT33, his restaurant in the Design District. His dining room has been humming since it opened in October, despite a kitchen that turns out powders, emulsions and other confusing preparations. In fact, as he closes in on his first year — a time when other restaurants in Dallas start to see their dining rooms idle — McCallister's restaurant gives the impression of one that is gaining momentum. Clearly, with enough creativity, chefs can keep Dallas diners coming back to the table.
1617 Hi Line Drive, Suite 250, 214-741-2629, ft33dallas.com. 4:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 4:30-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. $$$$
Rye tagliardi $15
Smoked potatoes $12
Flap steak $34
Crab salad $17
It helps that McCallister draws from a diverse base of customers. Come to FT33 at 6 p.m. on a Saturday and the bar may be empty but the dining room will be full of older diners who have, at least for one night, had enough of Nick and Sam's. Sit at the bar at 8 and you'll be elbow to elbow with a much younger crowd, whose energy carries the sparse dining room late into the evening.
The blonds, grays and wood tones of the space are tranquil and meditative, and the soft glow of Edison bulbs casts the room in a dusky monochrome. There's very little color, which makes the important things pop. Notice the pass, lit up like a stage, where McCallister gingerly tweezes ingredients into position like a hobbyist looming over an impossibly tiny model.
The plates he's working on burst with color and imagery. Like the cobia crudo, which pairs thin slices of the sweet and firm-fleshed fish with vibrant green slices of serrano and impossibly smooth carrot puree that's flavored with miso. Orange pearls of trout roe glisten like wet gems and pop in your mouth with vibrant salinity.
The fingerling potatoes and maitakes, on the other hand, are a study in forest browns. The woodsy mushrooms are draped in fragrant herb butter, while subtle smoke impregnates the potatoes. Only a few quenelles of spicy mayo lend color to the plate, like the last rusty embers of campfire about to go cold. The dish is one of the few to make repeat appearances on a menu that changes not only with the seasons but also with McCallister's mood.
You want steak? You won't have it here. The closest you'll find, provided the menu hasn't changed again by the time you arrive, is a small square of flap steak rubbed with coriander, cooked sous-vide (or under circulation, as it's called these days) and paired with a cashew puree. There are perfectly cooked okra on the plate, cut to stand on end like the hats of little gnomes, and tiny tomatoes that sit perfectly upright.
The cut end of the tomatoes is an entry point for vinegar, a clever trick that plays up the fruit's acidity. Suddenly they're not just tomatoes but super-tomatoes, the envy of gardeners everywhere. The flavor is intense at the first taste, but the effect withers a little with every bite. After a while, they're just tomatoes again, especially when they're encountered a second time alongside a crab salad. Tart, pickled green strawberries the size of marbles land on multiple plates too. Repeated ingredients are a letdown here. When a constant stream of new and exciting flavors surrounds you, they interrupt the show.
A squash agnolotti points out another of McCallister's weaknesses, though it may have been a temporary one. The pasta is too thick and the purses that should be delicate are big and clumsy. A hefty shaving of truffles adds no flavor, and the whole dish swims in a heavy, buttery sauce. It tasted like a practice dish, which may have been the case considering a subsequent plate of pasta ate like a dream.
A true Italian purist might scoff at noodles made with whole-wheat flour, but what McCallister has accomplished with rye is undeniably outstanding. The noodles are so thin you could read newsprint though them, and pork gives the sauce richness and body. The slipperiness of the pasta is juxtaposed with toasted breadcrumbs and caraway seeds, and there are just enough ribbons of kale to let you lie to yourself — yes, this is healthy — as you decimate the bowl.
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You won't be able use the same fib to excuse the charcuterie board, which is as fine as any served in Dallas. The kaleidoscope of meat includes salamis, prosciutto, pâté and even slices of pickled lamb's tongue, while mustards, pickled fruits and vegetables and other condiments provide a choose-your-own counterpoint to the fatty cuts. Health be damned, this plate alone is reason enough to come here. And there are still more.
Halibut served in a potato and cheese sauce sounds heavy but doesn't eat that way. Trout with smoked greens tastes like another fireside meal, provided you camp like a Kardashian. Each of these plates provides something new and unexpected without barrelling through the boundaries of what most would recognize as dinner. Despite being inventive, McCallister's cooking still resembles food. And Dallas is clearly very hungry for it, as evidenced by a consistently busy dining room.
But not everyone. One night, as I sat at the bar, I watched a slender brunette push salmon around on her plate with a fork. She didn't like the consistency, she told me, which a bartender confirmed was a common complaint. Salmon cooked sous-vide has the same consistency as salmon that's not cooked at all, and customers have apparently been unsettled. According to that same bartender, another diner left because there was no wedge salad on the menu, a friendly reminder that while some Dallasites are ready for change, decades of pandering to unsophisticated palates has left a persistent groove.
Houston and Austin have been forging ahead for years, and they've left Dallas spinning its wheels in refried beans and ranch dressing. But maybe Dallas doesn't need a new set of diners to realize its full potential as a culinary destination. Maybe it needs a new set of chefs.