Dining in Big D

Dallas restaurant scene bubbling with growth and potential.


Matt McCallister had just received 400 pounds of artichokes. There went his scheduled day off. Welcome to the world of a chef.

But the owner of the excellent FT33 in Dallas sounded pumped about the impromptu plans spurred by the delivery from Johnson’s Backyard Garden in Austin. Maybe it was the invigorating run he had just finished.

The artichokes were “blinging,” the young chef said in a vernacular that echoed the hip-hop music that plays in his industrial but refined restaurant’s graffitied bathrooms. The 33-year-old and his team would “turn” the artichokes and marinate them in a mixture of thinly shaved garlic, chili flakes, poaching liquid, homemade vinegar and herbs. He hoped they’d last the restaurant six months.

It’s the kind of project that energizes and inspires the enthusiastic and athletic Arizona native. His mind wanders as he thinks aloud about the possibility of self-sustainability: Can they grow and dehydrate enough oregano from FT33’s raised beds that he would never need to buy the dried herb again?

“Pretty soon I’m gonna go off and live in the woods and survive off of tree bark,” he jokes with the cooks at his Design District restaurant. “It’s fun. We have projects and get more and more into things and see how far we can take it.”

Welcome to the culture of modern dining in Dallas.

McCallister’s exploration, along with precise execution, elegant plating and FT33’s handsome and convivial dining environment, has made the chef one of the hottest names in the Dallas dining scene and labeled him as part of the vanguard of Dallas’ new wave of young chefs. His success has landed him on national best-of lists from Bon Appétit and Food & Wine magazines and a semifinalist nod from the James Beard Foundation last year.

McCallister admits he wasn’t entirely clear on his vision when he opened FT33 — shorthand for “fire table 33,” an industry command to prepare the food for a table, in this case, table 33 — but he traces his locavore and seasonal ethos back to his youth. Citrus, strawberries and asparagus filled the backyard garden of his childhood home. He and his mother would pickle, preserve and can the produce.

“I grew up around simple ingredients. We would make preserved lemons when I was a little kid, or make strawberry jam,” McCallister said. “It’s funny how my life has come completely full circle and now that is what I geek out on.”

He worked his first restaurant job in a classic red-sauce Italian-American joint in Scottsdale, Ariz., surrounded by homemade charcuterie and sausages, but it was the move to Dallas that launched his culinary career.

With limited restaurant experience under his belt, McCallister took a job about a decade ago as a pantry cook for Stephan Pyles at the celebrated culinary trailblazer’s eponymous restaurant. McCallister worked his way up to the position of executive chef in just a few years before leaving to open FT33 in 2012.

FT33’s menu bears little resemblance to the Southwestern cuisine which put Pyles and his contemporary, Dean Fearing — and Dallas — on the map.

A recent meal started with two impeccable pasta dishes: ribbed tubes of homemade garganelli flecked with the acid tingle of preserved tomatoes and tang of cured sardines, and a sumptuous and hearty plate of puffy culurgiones — think corn-shaped ravioli — filled with smoked beef and ricotta.

A plate of thinly sliced slabs of cobia sprinkled with benne seeds and dotted with edible flowers and dainty cups of Brussels sprouts leaves was fit to be framed, as was a jigsaw puzzle appetizer of beef and beets showered with shaved egg. The meal’s highlight? An auburn lamb shank fit for a fur-cloaked king, the velvety meat served with a floral knob of sausage, turnip, mint, coriander and preserved lemon.

McCallister offered a vegetarian entrée when the restaurant first opened, but when he noticed a lack of demand, he opted for a meat-free alternative to a charcuterie board. He calls it a “vegetable composition,” and though the name may sound overwrought, it captures the artful nature of the startling beauty of several vegetables delivered in a various preparations.

Our wooden slab contained roasted, pickled and fermented beets; grilled kohlrabi; a trio of turnip and sunchoke treatments; mustard-braised cabbage; and fennel bulb with fennel pollen and fennel fronds. The treatment demonstrated the kitchen’s admiration for the raw ingredients and the diversity of flavors one can coax depending on preparation.

McCallister’s love of vegetables sometimes extends into dessert, where you might find beets alongside strawberries and an olive oil and poppy seed cake in a savory-and-sweet valentine of a dish hugged by voluptuous buttermilk and mint ice cream, or a sorbet made of rhubarb and green tea. Flourless chocolate cake served with decadent chocolate-banana fudge, caramelized pineapple and toasted coconut will appeal to even the most traditional Texas diner.

As for the Dallas dining public: “They’ve been really responsive,” McCallister said, even if every diner doesn’t know or care about his commitment to seasonality and from-scratch cooking.

“It’s not like we’re reinventing the wheel. Look at true regional Italian cooking: You don’t see them buying out-of-season tomatoes at the grocery store. I believe in what we do and I think we’re doing something great. And I think it’s helping the Dallas dining scene, and I’m excited about it.”

McCallister’s former boss Pyles continues to make his distinctive voice part of the Dallas conversation. In the past two years he’s opened Latin-flavored San Salvaje and Stampede 66, a steer and hide-decorated temple of all things Texas, with refreshing shrimp taquitos, brisket tamales and honey-fried chicken. He plans to reboot his reinvigorated eponymous restaurant at a new location next year. If McCallister represents the New Guard of Dallas chefs and Pyles and Fearing represent the Old Guard, chef John Tesar could be seen as a bridge between the two.

The outspoken chef had never even visited Texas when he landed in what must have felt like a foreign country in 2007 to take the position of executive chef at one of the most august restaurants in the state. Chef Dean Fearing built his legend running the show at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, where he entertained dignitaries and oversaw the development of numerous great chefs, including David Bull of Austin’s Congress.

Tesar, who built a strong reputation while working in lauded kitchens in New York and Las Vegas, respected the history of the iconic establishment and understood the weighty task of replacing a legend. He also viewed the Dallas culinary world with skepticism, if not contempt: “It was extremely grandiose, and I thought overrated at the same time.”

Tesar thought Dallas was five to 10 years behind the national conversation and set about dismantling much of the Southwestern flare on which the Mansion’s reputation was built.

“I went at that job like I go at everything — a way to put my own thumbprint on it and try and make it unique and take ownership of it while being respectful of the opportunity I’d been given,” Tesar said “It was easy to bring European style and New York swagger to Dallas, because there wasn’t a lot of it. The key was getting the public not to turn on you while you did it.”

After redirecting the Mansion and establishing himself as one of Dallas’ most respected chefs, Tesar served as a consultant and opened several of his own restaurants, including Spoon Bar & Kitchen in 2012. The seafood restaurant landed on the Best New Restaurant lists of several national magazines, but closed at the end of 2013, leaving the two-time James Beard semifinalist to focus on his current project, Knife. Tesar opened the swanky but not stuffy steakhouse at the Highland Dallas Hotel in May 2014.

The chef, who prides himself on authenticity and originality, recognized the irony in opening a steak restaurant in Dallas.

“Dallas needs another steakhouse like New York needs another Japanese restaurant or like Austin needs a barbecue restaurant,” Tesar said.

But after touring the best steakhouses in the country, Tesar decided Dallas needed a modern steakhouse featuring dry-aged steaks and alternative cuts of local beef, and one that celebrated Texas beef. That is what makes up the heart of the menu.

The humidity-controlled case in the front of the restaurant displays the menu’s crown jewels, with cuts like Niman Ranch ribeyes, dry-aged up to 240 days and dusted with a frosting of white mold.

“Our meat gets very dense, very intense and sweet … not so much blue cheese as it is popcorn,” Tesar said of the intricate flavor profiles.

While the exotic dry-aged ribeyes from Niman and Heartbrand Ranch make for sexy showcase pieces, the “new school” cuts from 44 Farms — a 105-year-old family-owned ranch in Cameron — provide a tasty and affordable point of entry to the menu. Tri-tip and flatiron steaks not often found at high-end steakhouses cost only $25, while a 10-ounce filet mignon for $44 should satisfy the classicist.

The menu is full of chef-driven touches, like duck sausage with uni, transcendent oxtail ravioli with Parmesan monte and aged balsamic and a five-piece bacon tasting that sources from Vermont to Spain.

“We reinvented the steakhouse, and I called it a meat restaurant because it made me feel better,” Tesar said.

Tesar, who has drawn attention for his public spats with restaurant critics and his abrasive personality on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” scoffs at the trend-chasing younger chefs who have come in his wake, smirking at their “flat-brimmed hats, leather aprons and tattoo sleeves.”

“It’s awesome that they’ve interpreted the cool things of being a chef and the restaurant business,” Tesar said. “But the one fundamental problem with this new millennial generation of chefs is they’re trying to erase the past to create their own beginnings. They can’t do that, and I’m not going to let them.”

But for all of his finger-waving, Tesar acknowledges the generational shift has afforded him a position as an important figure in the culinary conversation. The chef, who plans to open Italian restaurant Contrade later this year, recognizes some of the talent in what he calls the “second and third wave” of Dallas chefs that have ascended since his arrival.

One of those “second wave” chefs is 41-year-old Northeast Texas native David Uygur, who opened Italian restaurant Lucia with his wife, Jennifer, in 2010. The tiny restaurant has helped anchor the dining scene in Bishop Arts, a quaint, walkable neighborhood stuffed with locally owned retail shops and dining and drinking destinations.

Lucia is one of the hardest reservations to acquire in the city. That comes as a result of the small space, but is also due to the exceptional, seasonal dishes delivered by Uygur and his team, as well as the personalized and attentive front-of-house service, guided by Jennifer Uygur.

Seasonality is on display in a dish of gnocchi, asparagus and Texas morels, the gentle pasta, firm green vegetables and honeycomb-textured mushrooms bathed in a creamy Taleggio fonduta. A wobbly mound of burrata, its ivory contours like rippled meringue sprinkled with shaved almonds, represents the simple beauty of Italian cuisine, and a scattering of Romano beans and green chilies leaves a vegetal bite to the cheese’s clean finish.

The delicacy in that dish is matched by the brawn of a veal chop with white polenta, and a red wattle porchetta balanced by the garden and earth of rosemary, fennel and morels. It is the perfect marriage of Texas and Italy.

After a well-paced two-plus-hour meal that somehow felt luxurious and still homey, we passed the Uygurs as they sat at a sidewalk cafe table, relaxing in the exhausted post-service glow. In that quiet moment, on the inviting streets of a transporting Bishop Arts District, I recognized that Lucia’s scale, attention to detail, artisanal ingredients — like Lucia’s house-made preserves — and unique setting perfectly embody the antithesis to all of the stereotypes surrounding Dallas, and serve as a snapshot of the dining scene’s growth and potential.

“The last five years have progressed really well here,” ardent Lucia fan McCallister said. “But the next 10 I think are going to be really exciting to see where Dallas goes.”

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

More to Do in Dallas

Where to stay

The Joule Dallas blends neo-Gothic architecture with whispers of Art Deco futurism for a grand and elegant space. Housed in an impressive building from the 1920s, the Joule opened in the heart of downtown Dallas in 2008 and was updated with an additional wing last year.

The building’s long history belies luxurious rooms with modern lines and rich classic color combinations, with some rooms offering great views of downtown through windows shaded by remote-control blinds.

Original artwork from Richard Phillips, Adam Fuss and Ellsworth Kelly can be found throughout the stately hotel, with artist Tony Tasset’s 30-foot eyeball sculpture keeping watch on the hotel from a park across the street.

Expansive but inviting CBD Provisions is accessible from the hotel lobby, and the Texas bistro serves an excellent, juicy-coarse-grind burger on potato bun and lighter fare, like a salad studded with tender confit chicken and sprinkled with toasted pepitas and cheddar cheese. The basement bumps in the evening at Midnight Rambler, a cozy bar that serves well-executed craft cocktails.

The Joule offers a fitness facility and spa for relaxation, but the best place to unwind is probably the terrace that surrounds the hotel’s cantilevered glass-fronted rooftop pool that extends eight feet over Main Street, giving the surreal feeling you are swimming in the air.

Joule Hotel. 1530 Main St. 214-261-4575, TheJouleDallas.com.

When you go down to Deep Ellum …

Probably Dallas’ most legendary neighborhood to outsiders, Deep Ellum has morphed many times over the past 100-plus years. Home to business and industry and a popular hang for jazz and blues musicians in the early part of the last century, Deep Ellum transitioned to a hotbed of rock clubs, bars and galleries in the ’90s. After receding from relevance last decade, the neighborhood is surging again, based in part on its dining scene.

The neighborhood is home to Luscher’s Red Hots, a hot dog joint from the chef-owner of Dallas staple The Grape; the wildly popular Twisted Root Burger Co., pioneers in the latest wave of Deep Ellum restaurants; and Justin and Diane Fourton’s pilgrimage-inspiring Pecan Lodge barbecue restaurant, which relocated from the Dallas Farmers Market to Deep Ellum in 2014. And don’t miss Cane Rosso, makers of one of the best pizzas in the state.

Owner Jay Jerrier opened the large pizza place classic on Valentine’s Day 2011. The centerpiece wood-fired oven that looks like a big red apple cranks out Neapolitan pies with charred, bubbled crusts that mellow from a crunchy edge to a lightly chewy center. Make sure to try the Honey Badger, a sweet and spicy pie topped with pool of fresh, hot soppressata, basil and house-made habanero honey.

Cane Rosso, named for Jerrier’s first red-haired vizsla, has four Dallas locations. Jerrier also opened Zoli’s NY Pizza, named after that same dog, in the Bishop Arts District in 2013.

Cane Rosso, 2612 Commerce St. 214-741-1188, ilcanerosso.com; Luscher’s Red Hots, 2653 Commerce St. 214-434-1006, luschers.com; Pecan Lodge, 2702 Main St. 214-748-8900, pecanlodge.com; Twisted Root Burger Co., 2615 Commerce St. 214-741-7668, twistedrootburgerco.com.

Art and eats

Take an afternoon to explore the Dallas Arts District. Developed in pieces over the past 30 years, the small, walkable section of downtown is home to the Dallas Museum of Art, the I.M. Pei-designed Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, the Crow Collection of Asian Art, the Nasher Sculpture Center, the AT&T Performing Arts Center, the Dallas City Performance Hall and the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

You’ll want to sandwich all of that art with some meals. Start your day at Klyde Warren Park. A recent addition to downtown, the expansive green space stretches across a hidden section of freeway and offers a playground, regular children’s programming and multiple food trucks. After a day of discovering the arts, visit Tei-An, a Japanese soba and sushi restaurant located at the northeast end of the Arts District in One Arts Plaza.

Multiple James Beard award-nominee chef Teiichi Sakurai has created a lasting reputation with elegant, well-executed sushi and springy buckwheat soba noodles. Make sure to try his unique white seaweed salad and the umami blast delivered by uni and crab risotto served in a crab shell.

Dallas Arts District, TheDallasArtsDistrict.org; Klyde Warren Park, 2012 Woodall Rodgers Freeway. 214-716-4500, KlydeWarrenPark.org; Tei-An, 1722 Routh St. Suite 110. 214-220-2828, Tei-An.com.



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