You'd have to be in an awfully churlish mood not to feel a little thrill when you set foot in Fearing's. The lofty-ceilinged main dining rooms -- the somewhat casual Dean's Kitchen, and the more formal Gallery -- are as handsome as ever. Their earth tones of wood and stone and leather glow under the creamy light that seems to show all the well-heeled diners to advantage. There's a crackle of celebration to the place; it feels ... special.
That crackle extends to what's on the plates. It's more than just wordplay to call Dean Fearing the dean of Southwestern cooking. He was an early pioneer of this style, in which Mexican street food, Southern home cooking, and Texan barbecue and chuck-wagon chow are elevated to a style that's both refined and relaxed. Today at his 8-year-old fixture in the Ritz-Carlton, Fearing continues to turn out some of the signature dishes that epitomize what has come to be known as modern Texas cuisine: the ruddy chicken- and-chile-infused tortilla soup; the smoky shrimp wrapped in a tender taco with a vivid green citrus vinaigrette; the bone-in mesquite-grilled rib-eye. But he also regularly launches new offerings with the changing seasons.
The full-rigged Fearing's experience starts with an amuse-bouche, typically a shot glass filled with some interesting concoction. One recent evening, that was a shooter of Moroccan-spiced sweet potato purée with yogurt and preserved lemon. The layering of flavors -- vegetal sweetness, smoldering spice, mild astringency -- is typical of the food here. It's also a good setup for the winter menu, with its emphasis on warm tastes and cold-weather vegetables.
The new appetizers include a terrific slab of just-seared foie gras nestled on griddled potato blini. The blini are a delight all by themselves, crisp and brown on the outside, light and creamy inside. And there's more on the plate: a scattering of roasted holiday grapes and a slice of house-cured prosciutto wrapped around some finely julienned vegetables and herbs with lemon vinaigrette. Another new starter is the eye-popping fan of Akaushi beef carpaccio: sparkling red thin-sliced meat dressed with Texas olive oil, Grana Padano cheese and lightly pickled golden beets, plus --why not? -- some big butter-poached gulf shrimp in the middle.
I found one of the fixture appetizers less successful. A sort of riff on oysters Rockefeller, the crispy barbecued Bluepoints come fried, perched on spinach with a dollop of Jonah crab. But they were more soggy than crispy, and the barbecue part came in the form of adjacent and disjointed shmears of sauce.
The Texas influence really shows in Fearing's affinity for exotic meats.
There's the lush, juicy buffalo tenderloin, marinated for 36 hours in maple syrup and black pepper for a slightly sweet kick, served on zippy jalapeño grits with a smoky chile aioli. And there was a crazy-good special of antelope one evening: beautifully tender, rosy meat drizzled with a rich mustard jus, accompanied by green beans topped with crispy tobacco onions and a little cast-iron pot of horseradish scalloped potatoes. In another winter newcomer, Wisconsin pheasant is served two ways: The breast is cold-smoked and then roasted and sliced, served on lush Parmesan polenta and topped with sautéed royal trumpet mushrooms; the thigh is boned and rolled around a mousse made from the leg meat and black truffles and sits on sautéed Swiss chard. The thigh is delightfully truffley, and I'd have said the dish was hands-down terrific if a couple of slices of breast meat hadn't been unpleasantly rare.
Conventional critters also get handled well here. There's a reason Fearing's fans won't let him drop his version of surf and turf, the beef filet and chicken-fried lobster. Beef filet isn't usually the tastiest cut, but Fearing amps up this fine hunk of Texas Wagyu with a rub of his barbecue spice blend, pan-sears it, sits it on whipped potatoes loaded with cream, butter, sour cream, cheddar and chives, and dresses it with a smoked-tomato gravy. The fried lobster tails are crisp and juicy (though some lobster fans may object to this heavy-handed treatment of a delicate seafood). A lovely pair of grilled double lamb chops comes with a colorful salad of heirloom beets with caramelized little onions and dollops of house-made ricotta. It's also joined by a seared pumpkin pierogi that's meant to be a nod to the season but seems as if it wandered over from another plate. If there's any consistent flaw to this food, in fact, it's the inability to refrain from adding just one more thing to the dish. The lamb chops get a pierogi, the carpaccio gets shrimp, the foie gras gets a prosciutto bundle.
Still, exuberance and generosity are hardly a major sin. And they're an advantage when it comes to desserts. Pastry chef Jill Bates is turning out some fun, vivid treats. The chocolate stack is a Mondrianesque composition including frames and squares of chocolate and cookies, wonderful sweet-and-sour cherries and ice cream. The carrot cake comes as a sandwich enclosing cream-cheese ice cream, along with caramelized pineapple and macadamia brittle. And the banana pudding, which involves crème brûlée, homemade vanilla wafers, beignets and bananas Foster sauce, is what this barbecue-joint staple dreams of becoming.
None of this comes cheap, naturally. A somewhat gentler-on-the-wallet way to experience Fearing's elevated take on Southwestern cuisine is the Sunday brunch. You can sample his twist on eggs Benedict, for example -- punchy buffalo chili on jalapeño cheddar biscuits with a lightly poached egg and poblano hollandaise. And that's just a starter.
The brunch mains include Fearing's grandmother's outstanding fried chicken, and luscious braised short ribs tenderized with Dr Pepper. Easier on the wallet, perhaps, but not on the waistline.
The servers here are generally attentive, efficient, and friendly without being obtrusive. But the service at a Big Whoop place like this should be virtually flawless, and it sometimes isn't. One night, we were served the wrong appetizer (and billed for the right one). We also never got the bread service, and were told the sommelier was too busy to come help us. As it turned out, he wasn't -- and a good thing. The wine list here is mighty pricey for the most part, but challenge wine director Paul Botamer to give you a good bottle for a hundred bucks or so and he may come up with something like the excellent 2006 Château La Grave à Pomerol he found for us. Still not cheap, exactly, but Fearing's is a special-occasion kind of place -- and it almost always lives up to the expectations that come with that.
Mark Vamos is a journalism professor at Southern Methodist University.
Fearing's (4 stars)
Price: $$$$ (lunch starters $10 to $22, main courses $18 to $30; dinner starters $12 to $28, main courses $42 to $58; Sunday brunch starters $12, main courses $26; desserts $10)
Service: Servers are mostly efficient, professional and friendly, though there are more slip-ups than there should be at this level.
Ambience: The two main dining rooms are high-ceilinged and handsome. The big, somewhat casual Dean's Kitchen is focused on the large open kitchen; the more intimate -- and decidedly more formal -- Gallery has linen tablecloths and floral arrangements. There's also a gazebo-ish garden room called the Sendero.
Noise level: Generally muted, especially in the Gallery. It can get a bit clattery in Dean's Kitchen, especially when that open kitchen gets busy.
Location: The Ritz-Carlton, 2121 McKinney Ave., Dallas; 214-922-4848; fearingsrestaurant.com
Hours: Breakfast daily 6:30 to 11 a.m.; lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Monday-Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 6 to 11 p.m., Sunday 6 to 10 p.m.; Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar, and an extensive -- and expensive -- wine list that leans toward California cabernets and French Bordeaux and Burgundies. There's a good list of half-bottles, too, which is especially welcome since the selection of wines by the glass is surprisingly brief.
5 stars: Extraordinary
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ $14 and under
$$ $15 to $30
$$$ $31 to $50
$$$$ More than $50