By Jason Gatsby, TSB's Chow Hound
For those who are unfamiliar with “kitchen syntax,” the expeditor is the orchestrator of the restaurant. Controlling the flow of food from the kitchen to the dining room and issuing the final inspection before the plate leaves the kitchen, the “expo” works the “pass” and is the liaison between the front of the house and the back of the house.
In order to synchronize the completion of finished plates, the expo will call out to the cooks, “Fire Table….” followed by the specific table number that coincides with the order. In a flash, line cooks commence cooking expeditiously in a team effort to formulate plates as beautifully and as quickly as possible.
The critically acclaimed restaurant, “FT33”, which opened in October of 2012, is nestled between two furniture stores, off the beaten path in the chic Design District in Dallas. Oddly enough, FT33 may sound similar to that of a European highway; A16, M4 or E7, but FT33 is an abbreviation of the aforementioned “Fire Table …. 33.”
Chef Matt McCallister is the mastermind behind FT33, and after he was declared, “The People’s Best New Chef in the Southwest” by Food and Wine Magazine, his name is quickly spreading throughout the culinary world. McCallister and his team are reinventing the culinary wheel in Dallas as they compose picturesque dishes with avant-garde cooking techniques that will leave you in awe. Plates garnished with foams, powders, and gels may seem pretentious, but McCalllister is a master of his craft and these intricacies only augment the dining experience.
The casual, yet industrial, dining room is full of life as the determined staff walks swiftly throughout the restaurant, trying to keep up with the tempo of the crowd. Brimming with boisterous diners indulging in seasonal cocktails, FT33’s elegant cuisine seems paradoxical relative to the casual environment, but that’s what separates FT33 from the “norm.”
FT33’s open kitchen truly brings the restaurant to life as patrons can oversee their food being prepared in front of their own eyes. McCallister oversees his kitchen as he expedites from the pass. Ensuring perfection, McCallister wipes plates clean with spray bottle full of vodka before putting the final touches on composed dishes.
McCallister was once the executive chef of Stephen Phyles, and after his tenure in Dallas he explored and studied in world famous kitchens, including the likes of Alinea in Chicago and the French Laundry in Napa Valley.
FT33 embraces the concept of “localvore” as McCallister equips his restaurant with local produce while using the freshest seasonal ingredients on all facets of the menu. FT33’s menu is comprised of three sections, “beginning, middle and an end.” Depending on the day, each portion of the menu usually has no more then six options. Keeping selections to a minimum enables McCallister and his staff the opportunity to perfect every dish.
As the menu evolves, McCallister continues to push the boundaries of the culinary realm. Wander off to the restroom and you can get a first-hand glimpse of the madness behind McCallister’s mindset. Organized chaos covers the wall, graffiti style, supplemented with personalized notes pertaining to dishes.
Combinations of flavor profiles and textures are addressed on all plates. “Beets, strawberries, puffed quinoa, sorrel, and whipped buttermilk” ($13 in above photos) is a perfect example. Creamy acidic buttermilk accentuated the sweet beets that were creatively placed on the plate. Add the bright green herb, sorrel, and the dish resembled a colorful spring garden. Puffed quinoa, an extravagant take on rice crispies, added a hint of crunch to the dish – a perfect combination of flavors and textures.
The “tagliardi with pork sugo, beech mushrooms and ramp tops” ($15), and the “house made charcuterie board of cured meats, pickles, mustard, and jam” ($21 for two or $40 for three) were the highlights of the appetizers.
The tagliardi pasta was not as al dente as I prefer, but the luscious sugo accompanied with mushrooms and green ramp tops were reminiscent of a succulent pasta dish that I experienced (and haven’t forgotten) while visiting Venice, Italy.
After speaking with the chef, I understand his passion for cured meats. Charcuterie is a difficult process to perfect, but enables the restaurant to take advantage of cuts of meat that are uncommonly used on the menu. The charcuterie plate is a masterpiece of terrines, cured meats, liver mouse, tongue, and homemade pickles. The chicken liver mouse was silk on the palate, cut perfectly with sweet jam on a crisp cracker. The spicy coppa was lacking in spice, but the lambs tongue and lamb mortadella were bold and full of flavor.
Entrees hover around $30, except for the $58 “akaushi 13oz New York strip with puffed tendon.” Understandably expensive, the Japanese breed of beef meaning “Red Cow,” is a succulent variety of Wagyu beef, but the price was far too expensive for my wallet. An alternative is the “sterling lamb loin, cauliflower, kale, lemon, fried garlic, pasilla, and mint” ($33). The lamb loin will lack the rich marbling of wagyu beef, but the natural gamey taste of lamb is paired perfectly with mint and lemon.
Most often then not, I’m averse to chicken breast. The flavor profile is lackluster, and frequently too dry to consume without a heavy dose of butter. FT33’s “windy meadows chicken, morels, bacon jam, baby swiss chard, and snap peas” ($32) was anything of the sort. Tender chicken was moist and enriched with morels and a rich jus. Tinny pieces of crisp “cracklings” of chicken skin added a delicious salty crunch.
The “gnocchi, with beef heart Morcilla, sweet potato, tassione greens, and wild mushrooms” ($29) was the underdog favorite of the evening. … Beef Heart? Although heart may sound unappetizing to the conservative diner, the Moricilla is a blood sausage and an easy way to experience heart without realizing what you’re consuming. The gnocchi was the best I’ve had in the Dallas area. Oak’s gnocchi was delightful, but FT33’s soft pillows of potato gnocchi exploded with a creamy essence that has me salivating at this very moment.
With the recent departure of pastry chef and “Top Chef” star Joshua Valentine, there were initial concerns when it came time for desert, but new pastry chef Maggie Huff is well suited for her new role within FT33. All deserts are appropriately priced at $10 except for cheese board at $19. There were two deserts in particular that emphasized springtime with strawberries and rhubarb implemented within the dishes. While the “rhubarb, puff pastry, milk jam, lemon, and pistachio” ($10) seemed forced and composed haphazardly, the “ricotta, strawberries, cucumber, black pepper and balsamic ice cream” ($10) was balanced, light and refreshing.
Although I’m a peanut butter junky, the “peanut butter, chocolate, and caramel”($10) dish (pictured above) was incredibly rich and decadent. I found it difficult to eat more than a few bites, however, some in our party chose this as their favorite dessert and are still discussing it several days after our dinner.
Although the restaurant is fairly small by most restaurant standards, excessive noise in the loft styled restaurant can be disconcerting to some patrons so be prepared to talk loud enough to drown out the background noise.
While the food epitomizes precision, service does not. Front of the house staff is friendly, professional and well informed, but when the tempo picks up, they can fall behind. Plates take minutes to compose, and with every minute that food is not in front of the diner, each component on the dish loses heat. Be prepared if the protein on your plate isn’t piping hot.
Next time you are looking for a dining option, think outside the box of McKinney, Texas. Indulge in a fun and sophisticated dining experience reminiscent of a culinary experience in New York, San Francisco or Chicago.
Over All: 3 and a half stars
Food: 4 stars
Cocktails and Wine: two and a half stars
Service: 3 stars
Atmosphere: 3 stars
FOUR STARS = Extraordinary; THREE STARS = Excellent; TWO STARS = Good; ONE STAR = Fair; NO STARS = Poor
$ = Inexpensive: entrees $10 and under; $$ = Moderate: $11-$17; $$$ = Expensive: $18-$24; $$$$ = Very Expensive: more than $25
TSB’s Chow Hound attended culinary school in San Francisco, one of the most influential food cities in the U.S.., where food and wine are idolized and border on an obsession that comes close to a cult following. While there, he worked in a number of award winning kitchens which are nationally known among well-versed foodies.