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Restaurant first look: FT33 in Dallas

Posted 5:21pm on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012

In this year of ballyhooed Dallas restaurant openings, perhaps the most chatted-about has been that of FT33, launched not quite two weeks ago in the Design District. Owner/chef Matt McCallister calls the food at his first solo venture “season-inspired modern cuisine,'' offering a menu that he fiddles with every single day. What we can expect each night is an innovative presentation of interesting ingredients. He does this with integrity, which means he's buying from local producers and utilizing things you might not expect, such as by-catch fish, the unfamiliar fish that gets swept up with popular seafood catches, the stuff that's usually thrown away.

Why, you may ask, do people care about this guy and his food? He's made an interesting journey to this opening, for one, having gone to work for Stephan Pyles in 2006 with no formal training. He shot to the top like a rocket, becoming Pyles' executive chef in three years. Since then, he's gathered experience at vaunted kitchens like those captained by Jose Andres in Washington, D.C., Mark Vetri in Philadelphia; Grant Achatz in Chicago; and Daniel Baloud in New York. He then came back to Big D to craft his own place. And he's all of 31.

We made a trip over for dinner 10 days after the debut of FT33, eager to see if the place is living up to all the fuss. It was an entertaining evening, with lots of intriguing bites. Here's how it unfolded.

The scene: Opening amidst high-end showrooms in the Design District, FT33 sits between Uptown and the Market Center area very near downtown. As earlier openings by the Meddlesome Moth and Oak have proven, people will flock to this art-gallery, fancy-showroom neighborhood to eat and drink.

And they do so in style at FT33, where a contemporary interior created by architect and designer Craig Beneke of AI and designer, Hatsumi Kuzuu of Kuzuu Design, blends warmth and industrial notes through use of reclaimed barn wood, concrete, steel, marble, oil drum lids, birch tables and granite. What we particularly liked was the absence of a mob scene that usually exists at a newly opened, buzzy place. Credit a strict plan, at least for now, about numbers that will be seated and at which time, says manager Ryan Tedder.

"We just want to seat about 16 people every half-hour," says Tedder, who we miss seeing as the award-winning sommelier at Grace in Fort Worth. "We've been surprised at how many big parties want to book, like 9 or 10 people, each night. We have to say no to some of them."

McCallister insists that containing the madness in a rather intimate, 80-seat restaurant is only sensible.

"We're trying to ease into this. We have to walk before we run," he says.

We had to giggle when we glimpsed McCallister gazing out from the open kitchen, watching his eyes widen at the company arriving pretty much at the same time when we dined there: At my table of four, my dinner date, another good Dallas pal and I were joined by Texas Monthly food editor Pat Sharpe, who was making a visit to assess story possibilities. Two tables down, Dallas Morning News dining critic Leslie Brenner had a foursome. Across the room, fellow DFW.com/Star-Telegram critic and CultureMap Dallas senior editor Teresa Gubbins was eating, too.

After Tedder sussed out wine ideas for our table, server Michael Pennington -- another former Grace staffer we miss - reviewed the menu with us. And we were on our way.

The food: From a list of beginnings, we were wowed by the pork jowl plate, three ample slices of juicy bacon laced with black truffle and sprinkled lightly with caraway crumble, propped up next to a creamed parsnip fluff, with a slick of fermented mango crossing through ($15). My personal favorite, as a veggie junkie, was the half-moon arrangement of roasted turnip, radish and carrot over an onion sofrito and wheatberries with a sprinkling of baby nasturtium along its ridge ($12).

Fascinating in its conception, the short stack of mini-pancakes riddled with uni and chives was topped with a small nest of seaweed and accompanied by streaks of sauces that included bonito aioli, giving a seafood flavor to balance against the contrasting yuzu kosho, which was on the tart, spicy side ($18). For a soup starter, we had the lamb brodo, a rich lamb broth decorated with a frilly white Japanese mushroom, sliced Asian pear, a hint of Serrano chile and subtle liquorice pearls ($12), the latter a specialty of McCallister, who loves adding his spins of molecular-gastro work that made him a name at Stephan Pyles.

The main courses proved equally diverse: Our collective favorite was the 3rd Coast Catch, a Gulf bycatch that McCallister plans to consistently offer as it’s available. The fish on our visit was black fin snapper, a smooth, light filet settled into an earthy ham broth and decorated with red peas and a touch of fennel ($27). The meat we especially liked was the lamb dish, starring a cut of lamb breast and a thick, very pink rib from a rack, served over plump barley with a tart yogurt sauce and a sweetish carrot puree ($33).

A trio of thick, seared scallops sat atop cauliflower puree, pierced by crisp cauliflower chips, accented by piquillo chiles and capers ($28). A chicken dish played smooth chicken breast against decadent chicken confit, with preserved peaches, peanuts and chanterelles alongside ($26).

Sweet endings seemed complex at first, but ultimately very satisfying. We especially liked the lemongrass, white chocolate, citrus and mint flavors emanating from the artwork presented in a giant wooden bowl, featuring a silken gelato-like cream ball, crumbles and pearls ($9). The chocolate offering was a layered bar of gel, paste and cream, offering hazlenut, caramel, white chocolate and dark chocolate, with candied Serrano chile, blood orange and black sesame elements for a sweet-savory balance ($9).

The next phase: Now McCallister is launching a prix-fixe menu option that provides you with four courses for $60; you add $30 if you want wine pairings. In January, he plans to unveil a nine-course tasting menu that will offer all-vegetable options for those desiring such.

And starting October 29, FT33 will begin its wine dinner series, featuring vintages chosen by master sommeliers from Texas. These are $125 each for five courses with wine pairings, which is a bona fide steal. The others this fall will be November 19 and December 10. Expect good wine with unexpected food.

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