Art on the plate

Posted on 23 Nov 2012 at 8:15am

Chef Matt McCallister brings an artistic flair to the kitchen of his new Design District restaurant, FT33

dining

MASTER STROKES | McCallister’s attention to detail gives each dish the look of an abstract painting. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

The-Art-issue-2012-logoMost fine dining veterans will tell you a great restaurant experience is not merely about the food, but about the Gestalt of eating out. Sure, we’ve all talked into a clown’s nose while ordering a burger on the way home from work, but if you’re gonna go out and drop a few bills for a night on the town, you want something beyond tasty dishes. You want creativity. You want a show.

The menu at the newly opened FT33, courtesy of chef/owner Matt McCallister, exudes creativity like sweat from the pores of the marathoner. A celebration of the art of dining, merely looking at the dishes is as much a part of enjoying the meal as the flavors on the tongue. And while that kind of approach necessitates some hits and misses, there’s no denying the consummate hand behind them, wringing beauty from sauces and soups, meats and meringues.

For McCallister, composed plates are de rigueur at FT33: You don’t just look at the food, you behold it — and not just with your eyes, but with all your senses. Flavors here make stranger bedfellows than politics.

Take, for instance, the uni and chive short stack ($19) — something you will almost never imagine somewhere else. Who puts sea urchin on a pancake and passes it off as an appetizer? But the flavors were phenomenal and unique, and begged for repetition elsewhere on the menu.

dining2The cauliflower soup ($11), redolent of earthiness (almost like mushrooms, though no mushrooms are in it), is a perfect autumnal starter, though, with a single grape floating in it, perhaps too precious. The 70-day aged ribeye, about 8 oz., was a stellar piece of meat. Cooked perfectly in and of itself, with striations of fat adding in depth, it was completed by a terrific bone marrow purée on top and a roasted hollandaise with celery root purée. The components came together exquisitely, although at $44, we expected the best.

The trout ($28) kept our salivary glands in overtime: two planks of skin-on fish, moist and completed with a sprinkling of tarragon, was marred only by a slightly over-salted rice accompaniment.

The short ribs plate ($33) ideally encapsulated the aesthetic here: With a smattering of root vegetables, a dollop of beef fat and herb salmoriglio, plus finely whipped potatoes, the effect is a deconstructed shepherd’s pie — tender and soulful. The problem, of course, with deconstructed dishes is you often need to reconstitute them to get the full impact, as with the chicken, chanterelle, quince and peanut plate ($27), a peachy riff on a chicken casserole that only comes together when you mix it all up.

Presentation is part of the joy of dining at FT33 (a bad name that sounds like an ATM PIN, but refers to “fire table 33,” code for the chef’s table). One dessert, arriving on an elaborate palate of twisted burl driftwood, looked like Gandolf’s dinner plate. Beauty aside, the panna cotta was the culinary equivalent of Hansel and Gretel’s trail of breadcrumbs through a forest of well balanced flavors. The citrusy hints in the custard were exaggerated by bits of pulp atop, while the meringue, seemingly arrested by exposure to liquid nitrogen, took on the characteristics of divinity. The entire log was dotted with lemon curd and lime purée with wafers of mint.

Going all-out on some but not all items does have its downside. Simultaneously, my companion ordered a dessert that looked Lilliputian in comparison, taking up merely a sad corner on its oversized plate. It was as if I was taking Cindy Crawford to the prom and he was stuck with Kathy Bates. It didn’t help his creation was barely adequate. He declared the entire thing tasted like table salt; actually, it wasn’t all that salty, though the elements were extremely earthy. Blackened sesame seeds coated the nodule of goat cheese while crumbles of pistachio imparted just a slight nuttiness.

(The dessert menu could also be larger; one night featured only four selections while the list of dessert wines and scotches reads like an alcoholic’s last night on the town.)

There are other misses or near-misses. The bourbon-glazed pork belly ($16), as beautifully composed as a Shakespearean sonnet, was a disappointment: Essentially a slightly elevated version of bacon, while lovely it does not stand out as a signature item. Belly has been a specialty of fine-dining chefs for a time, and this doesn’t compare to the best in town: Salty, rich, but unremarkable.

Remarkable is exactly what FT33 needs to be. Located in the Design District, it is on the distaff side of Hi Line Drive, nestled among the showrooms and ateliers of Dallas’ purveyors of fine fashions. The fit should be a good one, and it may be, if FT33 can become the destination restaurant it needs to be. The décor (browns, antiqued mirrors, rusted metals) is simple and winning, but not edgy — something that would’ve been cutting in perhaps 2002 but which now seems slightly predictable. The raw wooden chairs are sleek and the banquette is comfortable, but what is the reason for a shotgun layout when Dallas is awash in space?

The homemade breads, while good, included baguette, lavash, sourdough and multigrain; where’s the raisin bread, something a New York restaurant will simply insist upon if it wanted to be considered five stars? How about a nutbread? And beyond San Francisco, sourdough feels out-of-step.

Still, service was practically flawless. At one meal, our server leapt at the chance to explain the obtusely written dessert menu in accessible terms (really? “lemongrass” means “panna cotta?”) and the food came out deftly. As I contemplated ordering an aperitif, on her own initiative the waitress brought me a taste of that wine.

Like its neighbors, FT33 is design-centric: Put together textures and colors for an eclectic creation to call your own. That’s what great chefs do, and what McCallister certainly has in him.

FT33, 1617 Hi Line Drive. Open Tuesday–Sunday for dinner, 4:30– 11 p.m. FT33Dallas.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 23, 2012.

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