Review: Fearing's at the Ritz Carlton
Fearing's is a well-oiled machine. Service is prompt. Water is chilled and filled. Wine recommendations are astute. Skipping through the list, wanting a light-to-medium-bodied red to successfully straddle the orders of fish and red meat at our table, sommelier Paul Botamer talked up the Peltier Station Petite Syrah from Lodi, California. Petite Syrah? This glass of garish fisticuffs is better unleashed on a bowl of Texas red than a piece of salmon resting in a miso spa.
Yet Botamer nailed it. Sure, the wine unleashes a meaty load of black fruit and pepper, but the grip is subdued and the floral and tobacco notes are neatly bundled with surprising crispness. It's re-poured with rhythmic regularity, as if Botamer were a uniformed security guard clocking checkpoints.
Service is witty. Dining one Sunday in the Sendero room (Spanish for path), a glassed-in garden hexagonal-ish space drenched in creams and greens, a fly dove into my water glass. It buzzed in circles and figure eights before coasting to a sudden stop. I asked to have it changed. Our server lifted the glass and held it up to the sunlight. "Seems like everyone's dying to get into the Ritz," he says. "Good thing Dean's not here. He'd probably try and do something with it." No ingredient is safe.
Servers are funny in other ways. One tells us—this time on the heavily manicured Ocaso patio with water features spurting jet streams into rectangular pools—that Fearing's buffalo comes from a ranch in Lawton, Oklahoma. He says it's rich and buttery, almost like a prime steak. Is it corn-fed? Yes it is. Corn-fed buffalo?
"They ship us 100 pounds of buffalo per week," former Mansion chef and Southwestern cuisine founding father Dean Fearing says, sidling up next to our server. But are they corn-fed? "It's actually grass-fed. It's actually grazing out there in Lawton, Oklahoma." He looks at the server. "Well, they might use a little corn." (According to Greg Hughes of Ron Nance's Comanche Ranch, Fearing's buffalo supplier, the animals spend 120 days on a feedlot before slaughter, gnawing on a grain blend that does contain small amounts of corn).
Fearing's buffalo is marinated for two days in Vermont maple syrup blended with peppercorns, garlic, thyme, sage and shallots. It's served with jalapeño grits (delicious) and a butternut squash taquito. The meat is ruddy, loose and velvety. It can be cut with a fork without wrist strain. It's also cool—too cool—and a bit dull. Yes, it chews luxuriously. But there's no pop in that chew. And what's with that taquito?
Fearing's menu is busy. His "bold flavors, no borders" manifesto seems a green light to load up on elements—cute elements, like that taquito, that don't appear to serve a discernible purpose in context. Here are two short menu readings: orange ginger-dipped pheasant on curried shrimp fried rice with tempura white asparagus and organic shiitakes; and pan-roasted spiced fillet and chicken-fried Maine lobster on queso fresco potatoes and chico spinach enchilada. A little noisy perhaps?
Dishes look and taste as complex as they sound. Focal points blur in a smudge of constituents. The wholes too often don't transcend the parts. Foie gras is glazed with honey soy and rests on three hefty caramelized ginger peach wedges in a dish, unctuous syrup pooled below. Next to it is a slightly crisped scallop carefully nested on papaya watercress salad. The lobe is fine, but why all of this other stuff? How does it enhance the foie gras? The peaches have their relevance, but why not have delicate slices or shavings and skip the bulk?
Fearing urgently recommends his two autumn salads served on one plate: one a strip of cider-braised pork belly with salsisfy, leeks and golden beets; the other a maple-smoked salmon tartare with confit of fingerling potatoes, fennel and tangerine mustard vinaigrette. They're beautiful. They're inventive. But in the mouth nothing grips, nothing arrests the senses.
Fearing's sometimes feels like a perfect-on-paper arranged marriage. The assets are there: tortilla soup, and his tacos, this time with barbecued shrimp standing in for lobster. The flair is there, smoke and Southwestern strokes. The house is magnificent. The ambition is intact: Fearing wants to put Dallas back on the global dining map, the way it once was when Southwestern cuisine was in vogue. But the heart doesn't flutter; the breath doesn't quicken—at least not as much as you might expect.
Fearing's culinary reasoning is sound. He says he wants to put several elements on the plate to tease out different flavors and textures. Why the taquito with the buffalo? There's gotta be something crunchy on the plate. "It's what we love about Doritos," Fearing says. "It's what we love about potato chips. We love to hear a crunch when we're eating." Mission accomplished.
The restaurant itself mimics this disparateness. Crafted by Atlanta designer Bill Johnson, Fearing's is an architectural string of irregular pearls with casual-to-elegant intervals, a layout Fearing says will generate repeat visits. Joining the glassy Sendero and the trickling green-spaced patio is the posh gallery with an art collection in Western wear, a private cellar room, a voyeuristic dining space wrapping the kitchen, and the Rattlesnake Bar with elbow rests made of rattlesnake skin. Fearing says he no longer wants to be pinned in the Southwest corner. "I want to be free," he says.
This isn't to say Fearing's is not stunning. It most certainly is. His "mopped" rib eye is a welcome departure from Dallas steakhouse monotony. While researching Texas cooking, Fearing stumbled upon what might be a precursor to barbecue. In the 19th century, he says, West Texans would mount a half-steer over a barbecue pit and cook it for some 18 hours, basting it periodically with a mop from a bucket filled with a blend of German beer, molasses and vinegar to keep it from drying out. Fearing mops his rib eye with a similar mixture over a mesquite grill.
Fish gets good too. Soy-glazed wild salmon in miso clam broth is a lurid rush of flavors in glistening pink. The seared five-spice hamachi with avocado wasabi cream and spicy ponzu plus a salad of hearts of palm, Japanese pears and basil leaves, is so exquisitely meshed you focus on one singular vibration that rings from lip to throat and beyond.
For more feats of ardor, skip the regular menu and delve into Fearing's interpretation of Sunday supper. There's a slow-cooked slice of prime rib, brutish and red, flowing with juice, blasted with smoke. Though more gummy than crispy, Granny Fearing's bag-shook fried chicken drips with juices and ripples with flavor, more so when dipped into the side of smoky tomato gravy. Wood-grilled coriander lamb chops may be the best we've tasted. They tease with a raciness that never unravels into gamy chaos. They whet with clean juices and deep red flesh and luxurious chews that can be made right up to the bone. Seasonings and treatments serve only the meat.
Finishes reek with the same fervor: a soothing banana cream pie topped with a tuft of toasted meringue and a housemade coconut ice cream, and a raspberry crisp with chewy, slightly salty grit laced with a searing sweet-sour thread of fruit to keep the ennui at bay.
Consider Fearing's an evolving life form, one bubbling with plate-shifting potential. How will it unfold? Perhaps if Fearing shed his ambition of slapping Dallas back on the national culinary map and narrowed his focus to making Dean all that Dean can be, the food would be more uniformly sublime. The map placement would probably follow with such scaled-back aspirations anyway.
2121 McKinney Ave, 214-922-4848. Open 6:30 a.m.-11 a.m. daily, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday; 6 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 6 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday and 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. Open for Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. $$$-$$$$
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