Of Feedlots and Fisheries
Richard Chamberlain is the type of food pro who has a history studded with jewels. Starting with proletariat food training at El Centro College, Chamberlain went on to apprentice at the Mansion on Turtle Creek. He was credited with developing a cuisine christened American alpine cooking while in Aspen, was executive chef at the defunct San Simeon from 1986 to 1989, had a fling as executive chef at Ratcliff's and did rounds as executive sous chef at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles and at Dean Fearing's Agnew's. To top off his résumé, Chamberlain has a reputation in Dallas as a consummate gentleman and a generous businessman who keeps himself beyond reproach.
Yet somehow it's odd that a guy versed in giving birth to new cuisine should position himself atop a heap of steak, a dish that requires more raw brawn than imaginative flair. While Chamberlain has earned a fortune from Chamberlain's Steak and Chop House, a spot he opened in 1993 in an Addison slot that used to be a Del Frisco's, there must be more to Chamberlain's life than dripping prime beef washed down with obnoxiously expensive red wine. There must be, because Chamberlain has taken the cash bled from his prime beef and plowed it into fish.
This may sound like an odd tinkering at first, but it really isn't. Chamberlain's Fish Market Grill, just down the street from his meat emporium, is fashioned out of a former Grady's. It's been redone in rich, masculine duds, so it feels a lot like a steakhouse, except there are more lights, so you can sit down at your table without baptizing your loafer tassels with gin fizz. From the ceiling hangs a wooden grid contraption, a decorative touch perhaps designed to camouflage the ventilation and conduit spaghetti every other restaurant likes to flaunt. There's brass ornamentation by the black-upholstered booths, hardwood flooring, brick arches and a raised dining area off the main dining space. In front of the bar is a ledge holding various fish and seafood boils and sprinkles and sauces and treatments. Just beneath that is a crushed ice floe with posing lobsters.
Chamberlain's poses them in lots of different ways. You can have plain steamed lobster; lobster Newberg with Madeira wine, shallots and cream; flame-broiled Australian lobster tails; and crispy lobster oriental, fried with ginger garlic and soy. Our waiter warned us that the oriental version might muff the rich succulence and flavor of the fresh meat, but it sounded too funky to pass up. It arrived in a strangely morbid pose. Spherical ingots of lobster meat, crusted in coating, soaked in the soy-ginger-garlic complex, were tucked into the underside of a lobster husk. It was slit from throat to tail flap. Long strands of antennae coiled around one edge of the plate. Meat culled from the claws were virtually the only oddly shaped pieces in the whole body casement. After biting into it, you could make out the red stains on the muscle pulled from the pincher.
The crispy coating wasn't as distracting as I had anticipated, but the sauce was--a viscous fluid that fogged the natural sweetness of the meat. If this sauce were toned down and pulled back a bit, it might make this a worthy lobster treatment. Otherwise, this is a fascinating twist on boiled lobster bodies plundered with crushers and forks and dipped in drawn, lemon-spiked butter.
Other seafood treatments worked respectably, too. Louisiana gumbo with smoked duck, crawfish and shrimp was a dark, forbidding pottage that had a good, dirty concentrated flavor with lots of meat fragments and punchy spice, though it was hard to pick up any duck smoke.
At least two varieties of oysters are offered on the menu. On our visit it was Louisiana Gulf and bluepoints, the latter being cool and clean and dressed with either a complement of lemon wedges or a ramekin of cocktail sauce.
The appetizer roster is ho-hum. Crab cakes with Tabasco aioli were a little soggy and oily and lacked rich crab flavor. Deep-fried calamari rings, also beaded with Tabasco aioli, were greasy and waxy. Chilled jumbo shrimp were fine, though there wasn't much there to inspire a round of funky prose. By far the best appetizer on the list was the house smoked salmon draped on grilled flat bread and topped with red onion threads, capers and chive crème fraiche. The smoke taste was assertive, but not so punchy that it knocked out the rich salmon flavor, and the onions and capers defogged the tongue so it wouldn't get clouded over by the smoke and salmon fat.
Fresh fish selections are scratched out on a chalkboard hung on a wall in the front of the restaurant. This is also where a list is posted of the fresh fish you can purchase and bring home. But as a fresh fish market, Chamberlain's isn't exactly a walk through the mall, or even a 7-Eleven. The fish is sold from a cart, a waiter told us, back in the kitchen. So there really isn't a chilled case you can browse through before you have the monger cut and wrap.
As in the original Chamberlain's with the red-meat fetish, service at the seafood version is extremely tight. The servers are well-versed on the menu, and they are gracious and attentive.
Though fat on chardonnays, which really don't work well with many, if not most, fish, the wine list embraces plenty of crisp whites such as the searing Bonny Doon Pacific Rim Riesling, a few pinot grigios, a chablis (a chardonnay that can mingle well with fish) and a couple of New Zealand sauvignon blancs. The reds, however, are much too heavy on the cabs and merlots, even if there is a handful of chophouse meats on the menu. This list might work better if it were fattened up with lighter Italian reds and more global pinot noir variations.
We sipped an Oregon pinot with the Chilean sea bass, and it worked fine. The meat was firm and rich with a languid buttery touch on the finish. The one problem with it was the grill marks across the fish and the pair of shrimp accompanying it. The stripes were ferociously bitter, perhaps indicating a gritty grill. Shrimp flavors were fine, though, once you nibbled around the black singe marks, and a side of saffron risotto was elegantly creamy.
An aromatic mango crisp came across more like bread pudding. But it was delicious. Maybe crisp just doesn't work that well with seafood.
The thing about Richard Chamberlain's meat market is that it isn't just about meat. You can get a grilled chicken breast, rice and more fish offerings than most steakhouses. This may have provided the culinary footing for his fish grotto and cart down the street. In addition to red meat, Chamberlain's serves trout, salmon, tuna and lobster derrière.
We tried the fish special of swordfish, a once politically incorrect menu staple that seems to have lost favor among boycott-happy activists. This particular piece of swordfish was grilled. It arrived as a pair of meat pads with a freshly firm texture and a clean hearty flavor. It was prepared the way you'd like to see your steak worked over: meaty, moist and manicured.
Yet Chamberlain's signature cut seemed to fall well shy of the mark. The bone-in rib eye, covered in a hazy ivory from an application of melted herb butter, was a big disappointment. The meat was mealy, fibrous and chewy, and it yielded no juicy richness or flavor. It was almost a steak-'n-egger grade of beef.
But this was most likely an anomaly because the surf 'n turf, a prosciutto-wrapped filet with sweet, plump shrimp, was tender, juicy and silky. A dab of smooth garlic mashed potatoes with flecks of bell pepper nestled next to the meat may have been the best of this spud species we have tasted.
Appetizer offerings were mostly top-notch, too. Two crispy, skewered shrimp in a soy wash were perfectly crisp on the outside and lushly moist on the inside. Shrimp dabbed in a rémoulade were plump and firm, while a sheet of grilled portobello mushrooms in Chamberlain's housemade Worcestershire sauce was perhaps the best heat-treated fungus we've tasted. The only slacker in this group of appetizers was Chamberlain's dreary crab cake. This one, touched with Creole mustard sauce, was mushy and short on crab presence.
Dessert was killer. A warm bananas Foster was exquisitely light and hearty with an unctuous caramel sauce and a dab of pineapple ice cream that remarkably stayed frozen for a long time on this piping hot banana treat.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Dallas dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.
2821 Turtle Creek Blvd
Dallas, TX 75219