It doesn't seem possible, as I ponder its ingredients, that this dish could be so insanely good: Texas crab, heirloom grain salad, cucumber, sumac, Yukon Gold potato. But something marvelous happens, some kind of magical alchemy, when I send the spoon to the bottom of the cobalt-blue-glazed earthenware bowl, pull the layers all the way up through its pillowy, airy, buttery potato purée, and savor. I don't want to understand or analyze it; I just want to commune with it. It may be the most memorable dish I've tasted all year.
How cool that FT33, Matt McCallister's Design District restaurant, can still deliver something so thrilling.
The place, which will turn 5 in October, earned a rare five-star review in 2013 for McCallister's audacious, virtuosic modern American cooking, a fresh style of service and a dynamic, adventuresome wine list the likes of which Dallas had never seen. As impressive and deliciously original as anyplace in New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles, FT33 has stood at the top of the city's dining pantheon for the better part of the last half-decade. In that time, McCallister has arguably done more than any other chef or restaurateur to raise Dallas' profile on the national stage.
No doubt it is supremely difficult to maintain the level of inspired cooking night after night, year after year, required to hold a restaurant aloft in the city's five-star firmament. Artists in every medium hit rough patches or experience creative lulls, and last year, the restaurant impressed less consistently.
Then, in January, McCallister made some big changes. He banished his renowned charcuterie board, along with the gorgeous array of vegan treats he called "vegetable composition." He changed the format of his menu, which now encourages fixed-price, four-course ordering (with four choices, including a vegan one, in each). And most significantly, he made a commitment to 100 percent local sourcing of ingredients.
That extends to the bar, where you will not find a squeeze of lime for your drink when citrus is out of season in Texas. To lend brightness to a pisco and peach cocktail, McCallister and bartender Dylan Huddle made verjus from unripe wild North Texas grapes. Huddle, whose drinks are among the most thoughtful in town, preserves citrus in the form of sours for use year-round and garnishes tall drinks with translucent slices of dried grapefruit.
In fact, things that are pickled, dried, fermented, cured or otherwise preserved show up all through the menu, beginning with the array of snacks that can be ordered (with cocktails or without) at the bar or table – brined turnips and carrots lately; a kale chip dabbed with pickly fermented mushroom paste; a grissino wrapped with a thin slice of the fabulous cured ham known as culatello; a trio of saucissons.
On the four-course menu, the most exciting dishes have been starters and second courses. A salad of petite mustard greens with shaved watermelon radishes, white sugar beets and bread-and-butter celery root was pulled into unexpectedly brilliant balance by a pool of lightly sweet goat kefir. Bits of dried persimmon heightened the vibrant flavors of a shaved beet and beet relish composition with crumbled chorizo.
Thanks to the vicissitudes of time, seasons and supplies, the lineup changes frequently. A pasta dish that was a knockout in late April – big, luscious, floppy hand-rolled garganelli lolling about in a bowl with intensely rich lamb marmalade, turnip and gently brined onion flowers – is gone (but certainly not forgotten). Sumptuous slices of rabbit terrine ("rabbit pressé") set on grilled-rabbit broth and punctuated with butter-sautéed radishes and charred spring onion is but a happy memory.
Unfortunately, most ofthe plates at FT33 have not impressed quite as much as those. A salad of wax beans, herbs and spicy peanuts showered with grated dried egg yolk was visually stunning but vinegar-heavy, with no sign or taste of the salted fish mentioned in its menu description and that it wanted for depth and balance. Spicy coppa got lost in collard greens battered and fried kakiage-style then squiggled all over with "hot sauce aioli." Crisp and tasty, to be sure, but hardly more interesting than something you'd get in a better-than-average fusion spot.
Six months into the reboot, it still feels as though McCallister and his team are finding their way, particularly with the main courses. A chicken dish starring chunks of roasted-then-butter-basted breast, confit thigh, grilled heart, sausage of leg and liver plus crispy purple Japanese potatoes, all dressed with a fermented mushroom sauce, gets a bright visual pop from the vibrantly orange-yellow yolks of a carefully poached egg; alas, the gorgeous plate is less interesting than it looks or sounds.
Often the mains are simpler and more relaxed than they used to be, more naturalistic, less focused and precise; they seem to have a different sensibility than those superb starters. A fillet of red snapper spooned over with a cured fish and charred squash seed fumet is accompanied by nothing more than batons of summer squash flecked with toasted garlic. An onion-crusted bavette of beef and creamed cabbages is delicious, but not memorable.
Pastry chef Maggie Huff has emphasized the savory in her desserts since she came on board in 2013, so it's a little ironic that (according to McCallister), the only non-local remaining ingredient is white chocolate; once the supply is exhausted, local purity will be achieved. Recently I haven't been as blown away by her desserts as I was when her provocatively inventive, meticulously crafted creations helped the restaurant earn its fifth star. "Eat your vegetables," starring beet, carrot and corn sorbets, was clever, but not something I'd order again. That said, they're usually more quietly wonderful, such as the blackberry and Meyer-lemon-marmalade ice cream that came with a lush zucchini bread pudding.
General manager Jeff Gregory's adventuresome wine list continues to thrill; it is one of the few in town to feature the natural (largely unsulfured, often organic) wines that have taken Paris, New York and San Francisco by storm. And his waitstaff is absolutely tops.
I admire McCallister for taking the opportunity to regroup and evolve in such a thoughtful and spirited way. Even if the new aesthetic isn't yet fully realized, FT33 certainly continues to be one of Dallas' very best restaurants. I'm excited to continue eating along, eager to see where this new direction will take McCallister – and us, his fans.
FT33 (4 stars)
Price: $$$$ (Four-course fixed-price menu $65 per person, plus optional $55 per person for wine pairings; selection of "snacks" $15 per person; starters $15; second courses $19; main courses $38; desserts $12)
Service: As good as it gets: warm, engaged, accommodating, super-professonial. These folks understand the spirit of hospitality.
Ambience: Buzzy and high-energy
Noise level: Very noisy when busy; conversation can be challenging.
Location: FT33, 1617 Hi Line Drive, Dallas; 214-741-2629
Hours: Dinner Tuesday-Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. Bar Tuesday-Thursday 4:30 to 11 p.m., Friday-Saturday 4:30 p.m. to midnight
Credit cards: AE, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Most recent health department inspection score: 88 (April 12, 2017)
Alcohol: Full bar, with some of the most thoughtful cocktails in town. Jeff Gregory's thrilling, midsize global wine list is one of the few in Dallas to feature natural wines.
5 stars: Extraordinary (Defines fine dining in the region)
4 stars: Excellent (One of the finest restaurants in Dallas-Fort Worth)
3 stars: Very good (A destination restaurant for this type of dining)
2 stars: Good (Commendable effort, but experience can be uneven)
1 star: Fair (Experience is generally disappointing)
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ – $14 and under
$$ – $15 to $30
$$$ – $31 to $50
$$$$ – More than $50