FT33 Transformed Dallas Fine Dining. With a Creative Resurgence, It's Trying Again.

FT33's cherry tomato salad
FT33's cherry tomato salad
Kathy Tran
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How local should locavore food be? Can a North Texas restaurant survive and profit on ingredients sourced almost exclusively from within a few hours’ drive? Is that kind of challenge beneficial to chefs and diners? Is Dallas ready for this much pickling?

The stakes are high at FT33 these days. The restaurant — which many already considered the city’s best, and which has rewritten the rules of Dallas fine dining in its nearly five years of existence — decided that it wasn’t pushing itself hard enough. So, after four years of acclaim and influence, chef-owner Matt McCallister decided to take his local-seasonal menu stylings to a new level of strictness.

“We’ve already got all the accolades,” he told The Dallas Morning News in January. “What else can we do?”

McCallister and his crew started changing course. Aside from alcohol, every ingredient must come from Texas, its Gulf waters or just over a state line. Produce must be in season or preserved. The menu format became more user-friendly: Diners can still order plates a la carte but are best off paying a flat $65 for four courses, which over a full dinner can save up to $20. Given the price tags at other top Dallas restaurants, and given that no menu item is off-limits, that $65 flat fee is surprisingly good value.

FT33’s insistence on using every bit of produce — those tomato skins will come in handy for a garnish; those leftover shiitakes can get fermented and, down the line, used to whip up umami-heavy butter — are a stand against food waste. Its local mania comes from McCallister’s love of gardening and foraging, responsible for his use of ingredients like the cilantro plant’s delicate white flowers, and from his belief in the importance of supporting local farmers.

But, one suspects, the real reason FT33 doubled down on its philosophy is to give itself a creative push. With great discipline comes great inspiration, and the restraints of extreme localism are now pushing the whole culinary team, led by McCallister, sous chef Joel Orsini and pastry chef Maggie Huff, to new heights of resourcefulness. The result is a dining experience as satisfying as the restaurant has ever produced.

Some menu items are all about celebrating ingredients and making them seem even bolder and more flavorful than they might at any other restaurant. At FT33, a tomato is not just a tomato. But it’s not transformed into a modern statement, as at Flora Street Café; it’s not fitted into the elegant, old-world firmament, as at Gemma; it’s not placed in the service of glorious meat, as at Knife. FT33 takes fruits, vegetables and herbs and hyperpowers them, letting them command attention for themselves.

In the first week of June, for instance, the menu showcased peeled cherry tomatoes a far cry from those sold in supermarket tubs ($15, but, again, just fork over $65 for a full meal). The cherry tomatoes practically screamed with flavor, helped along by a dressing made from brined green tomatoes and, to add a smoky, savory undertone, seasoning flakes of dried tomato skin and smoked kale.

Intriguingly, a month later, the same dish had a totally different feel — the cherry tomatoes were there for texture as the flavors of kale and acidic brine jumped into the foreground.

There’s now, momentarily, a salad that ranks among the simplest and best in the city. It involves thinly sliced summer squash and coppa, arranged across the plate in a wide, thin circle, dotted with cherry tomatoes, herb dressing and benne seeds (an heirloom variety of sesame seed that has been grown in the South for two centuries).

Heirloom summer squash with coppa
Heirloom summer squash with coppa
Kathy Tran

Two pasta dishes illustrate the same boldness in simplicity. In the first, maitake mushrooms get blended with carrots to a savory vegetarian intensity. That mixture is folded into pasta dough, which gets twisted shut in the shape of — as FT33’s waiters happily point out — Tootsie Roll wrappers. So that the mushrooms’ richness can be felt right down to one's bones, the pasta is topped with a butter sauce made with shiitakes.

A few weeks later, those exquisite rolls were replaced by a new housemade pasta, cooked perfectly al dente and topped with liver sausage. Again the extra oomph comes from the butter. It’s infused with hot peppers, rich yet divine.

Some dishes sound austere and academic but aren’t. For instance, Texas redfish served with “summer squash and a sauce of its seeds.” Squash seed sauce? Where will the flavor come from? We needn’t have worried; the seeds are joined by cooking liquid from the fish, much reduced, plus a whole lot of pepper.

Gulf fish with summer squash
Gulf fish with summer squash
Kathy Tran

Occasionally, though, the meats do come across a little stiff. One main course is a mighty fine ragu of green and white beans mixed with fried okra and peppers, under a feather-light blanket of garlic foam. Alongside some grilled lettuce, it’s a satisfying dish — and would be better without a couple of thick slices of faintly chewy roasted pork. On the appetizer list, a sumptuous salad of farro, finely diced cucumber and crunchy half-crushed sumac, all in a delicate bed of aerated potatoes, similarly felt like its protein, Gulf crabmeat, was a mere sidekick.

Given the restaurant’s constant experimentation and its creative constraints, though, FT33’s batting average is remarkably high. If ricotta gnocchi is available as a main, order it, no matter the topping, which might one week be Sungold tomatoes and the next a ratatouille surrounded with eggplant foam. Those gnocchi pillows are cooked through yet as delicate as eating a cloud, with not a hint of doughiness. In a word: perfect.

And the restaurant’s quiet MVP, Maggie Huff, is still turning out ingenious desserts. A particular favorite: Eat Your Vegetables, a trio of delightful sorbets — sweet corn, carrot, beet — topped with cornmeal streusel and served on a bed of matchstick beets that have been simmered down until candylike. As ever, the weirder a Huff dessert sounds, the better it’s likelier to be. In early July, the star is, believe it or not, “rice porridge.” (It’s a heaven-sent rice pudding with roasted peaches and a brown-butter drizzle.)

FT33 has long been one of Dallas’ best places to drink wine, but it’s now also stealthily a top cocktail destination, thanks to bartender Dylan Huddle. For one dinner, we skipped wine altogether and worked our way down the cocktail list, highlighted by an $11 creation with Mezcal Unión, sweet corn and a habanero pepper tincture. (It’s topped with a flower to lull drinkers into not expecting the habanero kick.) The great cocktails help mitigate the restaurant’s one hospitality lapse: withholding the dinner menu until the table has ordered, or asked to skip, an opening round of drinks.

Huff, Huddle, Orsini, McCallister, general manager Jeff Gregory and the entire FT33 team — including past employees like Misti Norris, Nilton Borges, Joshua Harmon and Josh Sutcliff — have had an incalculable influence on Dallas’ fine-dining identity. Many of the city’s best restaurant habits stem from FT33, like the laid-back, approachable environment in which diners get to try exceptional fare; strong pride in local produce; incorporation of modernist techniques as subtle additions rather than central conceits; the belief that red meat doesn't need to anchor a great Texas dinner; and heavy reliance on fermentation and funk.

It all adds up to an unwritten agenda to redefine Dallas’ culinary identity, an agenda now thriving at other restaurants led by former FT33 chefs and friends who consider McCallister a mentor. After cultivating a generation of young talent and racking up accolades in the process, FT33 didn’t really need to up its game. Its legacy was assured.

But the best restaurant in Dallas is undergoing a creative growth spurt anyway, and for the new wave of restaurateurs that FT33 has helped shape, its ambition to improve is the most valuable lesson of all.

FT33, 1617 Hi Line Drive, Suite 250. 214-741-2629, ft33dallas.com. Bar open 4:30-11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 4:30 p.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday; kitchen open 6-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

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