Style By the Spoonful
If you ask chef John Tesar why he named his restaurant after the tool, he'll tell you "a spoon is the only kitchen utensil you can't live without." He has a point. It's hard to do anything with liquid in a kitchen without the dished characteristic that makes a spoon a spoon. Even if they're not completely necessary, they're very useful.
Stirring and mixing and dropping batter for biscuits into cobbler would be hard to accomplish without one. Spoons are used for testing the consistency of jams and the temperature of bubbling molten sugar, and they can measure other ingredients one teaspoon at a time. A spoon may not be often used for slicing, but it is a form of cutlery. And when Alice Waters cooked a simple breakfast in front of a wood-burning oven during an interview on 60 Minutes, she fried an egg perfectly over searing hot coals in a spoon.
The shape of a spoon is sensual. And sure enough the soft curves of a spoon's silhouette caress the words Spoon Bar and Kitchen on a sign above Tesar's restaurant.
His latest project opened in Preston Center in November, the same week the chef debuted as a contestant on the season premiere of Bravo's popular cooking show Top Chef. The seasoned vet, boasting decades of experience and glowing reviews for his cooking at The Mansion on Turtle Creek, stood amongst a younger, hipper field of camera-friendly chefs. Tesar was eventually booted from the show after making a shoddy risotto, but he says he was never there to win. Instead, the chef says, he spent countless weeks in Seattle under the nation's reality-television microscope to maintain relevancy. How else does a middle-aged chef stand out in a city that gushes over celebrity?
Until very recently, Private Social and Marquee Grill have drawn as much for their celebrity as they have for their cuisine. Both restaurants opened featuring previous contestants from Bravo's show, and both drew fans. Diners wanted photographs of themselves side-hugging Tiffany Derry's chef coat and swinging from Tre Wilcox's biceps as much as they wanted to order a caprese salad in the dead of winter, with a well-done pork chop. Both of the chefs have since moved on and star-struck diners are now forced to look elsewhere.
This is not the type of attention Tesar says he is looking for, and it doesn't appear to be the tone he's set so far. You won't see him that often in his chic dining room of cool blues, grays and whites that signal seafood restaurants in Dallas these days. Most nights he's back in the kitchen, letting his elegant cooking enjoy the spotlight more than his signature thick-rimmed reading glasses made faddish on television.
Oysters served on the half shell don't give a chef very much opportunity for creative liberty, but they do allow for showcasing immaculate technique. Tesar's beausoleils arrive so impeccably shucked the oysters inside may not even realize their lids have been removed. One may even wink at you just before you slurp it down and enjoy the briny clean wake of an outstanding northern East Coast oyster.
Comparatively bland strands of cuttlefish, creatively cut to mimic thin fettuccine, serve as the opposite: a stark white canvas to showcase a sea of cream dotted with black pearls of caviar. A customer should not have to ask for a spoon here of all places, but my dining companion did. She insisted on capturing every last briny sphere she could find — a rich and buttery harvest.
Oysters cooked gently to a point just a fraction beyond raw float in an opaque and simple broth accented with slices of mild, black truffle. A diver scallop is seared to an impossible golden brown while somehow maintaining its tender translucent interior. A sweet terrine of foie gras is placed on top of a baguette sliced so thin it disappears in your mouth, receding into subtle nutty flavors and pinpricks of salinity as a base for a quilt of ruby-red tuna carpaccio. Dishes like these silence entire tables. It's a shame when clunky food runners announce them simply as tuna tartare and oyster stew.
The front end is polite and attentive, but a few characters are not as polished as they could be — something Tesar could easily hone if he spends time working with the staff. Other issues, like the bread program, need to be completely reworked.
You will no doubt be seduced when a basket overflowing with loaves marked by the sharp points of an epi-cut baguette, the glossy exterior of a buttery brioche and other rounds hiding nuts and hams arrives at your table, but the bread is often tough and dry. The accompanying soft, salted butter can remedy the situation, but you may need to ask for more.
Other problems are already improving. Dessert spans more than four courses when you indulge the tasting menu, across salted caramel creams, tiny cookies and muffins and chocolates to take and enjoy at home. Previous versions droned on for an eternity, displacing the fresh memories of impeccable main courses, but a recently hired pastry chef has improved the program immensely. If the rest of the wrinkles are ironed with such finish, it's easy to envision Spoon settling in as one of Dallas' go-to fine dining restaurants, but it's up to Tesar to keep the momentum going.
The way he describes it, Spoon is the first Dallas project Tesar can really call his own. While his rise at The Mansion was marked by a celebrated five-star review, his fall was marred by disagreements with hotel managers and owners, and his time at The Commissary in the Arts District was hampered by a quirky concept that tried to straddle burgers (oh, the burgers) and fine dining.
At Spoon, the chef started with a blank slate, a mostly silent partner and an open shell of a restaurant. The victories and blunders are his alone to celebrate and correct. Tesar seems at home here, and beauty and the potential for greatness simmer in his kitchen.
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