Spoon, the new seafood restaurant from mercurial chef John Tesar, might be a surprise if you only know Tesar as the volatile charmer you've seen on TV.
Tesar, 53, just ended his stint as a contestant on this season's Top Chef Seattle, where his always-watchable antics ranged from unflinchingly candid to mildly combative. No matter what, he delivered the drama. His escapades as a chef in Dallas, at restaurants such as the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek and The Commissary, became the subject of a September 2011 D Magazine cover story titled "The Most Hated Chef in Dallas"; it tells you something about Tesar's bravado that he treats the profile as a point of pride, not shame.
Spoon, on the other hand, is restrained and supremely tasteful. Nestled into the old Tramontana spot in Preston Center, it has a pristine sensibility both in its decor, with soothing white marble and cooling splashes of ocean blue, and on the plate, where neatly trimmed rectangles of fish rest on precisely arranged vegetables and grains.
The simplicity of the dishes combined with their very high price brings to mind Le Bernardin, the renowned seafood temple in New York. This kind of understated dining experience is relatively rare in Dallas-Fort Worth, and represents a windfall for sophisticated diners seeking something other than red meat.
But those expecting to see Tesar's trademark fire on the plate may find Spoon to be rather cool. A native of the Northeast, he honed his fish skills while working for New York seafood restaurateur Rick Moonen. His ability to cook fish is exemplary, but he can seem disinterested in anything that doesn't swim.
Tesar does very good seafood soups. Oyster and black truffle stew ($12) was a breathtakingly smooth cream filled with layers of flavor: brine, cream, ocean and earth. Two paper-thin slices of black truffle floated at the center, transmitting the message of luxury.
Clam chowder ($10) was a terrific rendition unlike any other. The standard New England version is usually a thick cream with lots of clam and a few very soft chunks of potato, and outside of New England, it's generally inedible. Tesar's was creamy and laden with buttery clams, but it was his treatment of the potatoes that made the chowder so memorable. He cut them into a tiny, perfect dice and added them late so that they wavered right between firm and soft, giving the chowder a kicky, chunky texture.
If Spoon has a signature dish, it would be the Singapore-style chili lobster and Texas toast ($24). The New York Times called this dish an American spin-off of the Singapore classic, chili crab; it was first popularized at New York's Restaurant Marc Forgione. At Spoon, it was basically another soup, and that's a good thing. Its creamy saffron-colored base was just like lobster bisque, but spiked with a lively dose of chile heat. It came with gratifyingly large chunks of lobster -- basically, the lobster-est lobster bisque you could imagine.
Entrees sampled weren't as thrilling as the starters. Skate ($32) had two large filets in a sophisticated jus, topped with a thin sheet of Iberico ham and two chile-dusted shrimp. It was just too much protein on a plate. We would have gladly traded one of the skate fillets for more veggies or grains.
Pasta is house-made, and that's appreciated, but the execution was uneven. Octopus pasta ($29) had hand-rolled pasta twirls with coins of octopus that had been poached in red wine in a bright red marinara sauce. The pasta was soft, and the octopus was tender. But the marinara sauce seemed one-dimensional, like a glorified tomato paste, and the whole dish felt flat.
Desserts will likely change soon, since Spoon has hired esteemed pastry chef David Collier, with whom Tesar worked at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek. But we liked the two we tried: a puffy, yeasty house-made doughnut ($12), coated with cinnamon sugar and topped with a scoop of rather odd sweet-potato sorbet, and "Black Magic" chocolate cake ($12), laced with cardamom, sprinkled with cocoa nibs and accompanied by a scoop of white-chocolate ice cream.
Complimentary house breads were a real treat, too, with a variety of options that included miniature baguettes. Even if you don't order a dessert, you'll get a complimentary sweet such as a basket of madeleines or an assortment of chocolates.
We also liked the wine list, with inspired options such as the Domaine des Caves du Prieure Sancerre ($13 for a glass), a refreshing white that paired well with seafood, and the Bouvet brut ($12), an affordable French sparkling wine.
Seafood is one of the hottest local trends right now, with Dallas Fish Market in downtown Dallas and Driftwood in Oak Cliff already open, and Jon Bonnell's Waters coming soon to Fort Worth. If anyone seems equipped to join the swim, it's Tesar.