Some people call it sibling rivalry. Others say that Houstonians are jealous that Dallas is thought of as wealthy and sophisticated, while we have more of a gritty, urban reputation. Maybe it's because Dallas always seems to get national attention for good things, while we end up on lists for crime and such. Whatever the reason, we Houstonians love to hate Dallas.
So when I told my local friends I was taking a weekend trip to Dallas to see what the city had to offer, food-wise, they scoffed. Why would anyone leave the dining mecca that is the Bayou City for the cultural wasteland of the Big D? I wondered this too on the drive up there, Iggy Azalea playing too loud on the radio and the sun tanning only my right arm as I sat in the passenger seat. What could Dallas have to offer that's better than Oxheart or Chinatown or Killen's BBQ?
Along with Fluff Bake Bar chef Rebecca Masson, I'd been invited to dine at FT33, the restaurant helmed by recent James Beard Award semifinalist Matt McCallister, known for his foraging tendencies and modern, seasonal dishes. He was also recently named a Food & Wine best new chef, and FT33--an abbreviation of "fire table 33," the chef's table--is consistently at the top of lists of best restaurants in Dallas.
But enough about the restaurant's and McCallister's local and national accolades. I'm a Houstonian. I ate at a restaurant in Dallas. And in spite of any nebulous urban rivalries, I loved it more than I've loved any food in quite some time. Here's why.
It was a birthday dinner of sorts for Masson, and as such, we were presented with a 10-course tasting menu featuring some of FT33's current greatest hits, as well as a few new inventions. In fact, our favorite dish of the evening was something McCallister "whipped up this morning." That's freaking talent.
The amuse bouche featured chilled potato noodles marinated in vinegar and thyme. The one-bite dish tasted like a salt and vinegar chip, only much, much classier.
The charcuterie came next, and featured most notably chicken liver mousse (left), pickled lamb tongue (lower center) and blood sausage (upper center). The pickled lamb tongue was tender and not at all gamey as lamb usually is. McCallister said he doesn't actually care for lamb, but the pickled lamb tongue is something he really enjoys. The morcilla, made with goat's blood, was also mystifyingly good, with earthy notes that played off the strawberry jam garnish.
Even fresh oregano leaves atop the thin ribbons of squash couldn't overwhelm the flavor of the black bass, which was slightly briny but rich with the flavor of roasted onions. Earlier in the day, I'd witness line cooks prepping the roasted onions by delicately removing each layer with tweezers.
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Apparently, McCallister knew that Masson, my dining companion, liked parsnips and gnocchi, so he whipped up a dish especially for us containing ricotta gnocchi in a creamy ramp and parsnip foam and topped with fresh green sprigs of wild watercress. The gnocchi was unbelievably tender, and the parsnip foam simultaneously sweet and rife with umami. When the server returned to clear our table, he found me licking the bowl.
McCallister's take on the classic ham and peas is, of course, not classic at all. It featured three different types of peas, none of them cooked until mushy, so they all maintained a crisp crunch, as well as paper thin cuts of prosciutto. The meat and vegetables were coated in a light dressing of lavender whey that added just a touch of creaminess to the light dish.
Yes, FT33 is an upscale dining experience, but that doesn't mean chicken wings are out of the question. This sweet jidori chicken wings were glazed with strawberry jam and topped with aromatic herbs that added just a touch of heat. They were finger licking good, in all senses of the phrase.
This small pasta dish was deceptively spicy. Sepia, or cuttlefish, was mixed with fresh spaghettini (small spaghetti) and nduja, an Italian pork sausage that packs some heat.
Morel mushrooms are some of my favorite fungus, and as they are now in season, I was delighted to find them so well represented in this dish. Morels were stuffed with a morel purée then served with a morel sauce in a plating that we took to calling "morels on morels on morels." We named it because we wanted to ask for more of it. I hear it made an appearance on the following evening's menu, and I'm sorry I missed the chance to have it yet again. As for the terroir reference? I'm not sure, but McCallister forages for much of what he uses in the restaurant, so I assume there's some element that he gathered locally.
The last course before dessert was also the most involved. It was an assemblage of skate wings, pork belly, maitake mushrooms and potatoes with thin slivers of celery and pennywort leaves. I've always been a fan of pairing pork belly with seafood, and this was no exception. The flavors mingled perfectly, and enhanced the already meaty flavor of the mushrooms.
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The two dessert courses were almost unnecessary because we were so full by the time we finally got to them. On the left, a poppyseed cake with sweetened goat cheese and strawberries. On the right, a sorrel cake with tarragon ice cream and sweet and savory vegetal gels.
Of course, I ate more than just this meal in Dallas. I also ate at Smoke, a barbecue restaurant by pitmaster Tim Byers, and Tei-An, an upscale Japanese restaurant with some of the best crab dishes I've ever had.
After all this gushing over Dallas cuisine, you're liable to call me a traitor, but know this: I still much prefer Houston's dining scene in general to the less cosmopolitan offerings in Dallas. But don't be surprised if I start making monthly trips up there. Gotta get more of that divine gnocchi.