In mid-January, I received an email from a female reader who occasionally sends me snippets from her dining experiences. She wrote: “The penne with black truffles at Spoon is better than any sex I have ever had.” I read the note out loud to my office mates, and one gal replied, “It’s true. It is better than sex. Take me with you when you review the restaurant.” I took my colleague to Spoon Bar & Kitchen and watched her swoon over soft semolina pasta tubes coated in a buttery black truffle sauce with slightly sharp slivers of Pecorino and generous flecks of black truffle. She squealed after every bite. It was embarrassing. Then I put a spoonful in my mouth and moaned. There is a reason the French have traditionally used female pigs to hunt truffles. The hard-to-find fungi produce a chemical found in a sex pheromone secreted by boars.
John Tesar has spent 42 years trying to please people with his cooking. He grew up in East Quogue, near Westhampton Beach in New York, where he spent his childhood on the beach and in the water, surfing. At 12, he rented rafts and surfboards to tourists. The next summer, he discovered he could increase his income by flipping burgers. His fisherman friends and customers called him The Fish, but during his turbulent career in the restaurant business, some co-workers have called him less endearing names. Wherever he has gone, trouble has followed.
By the mid-’80s, Tesar had become a high-profile chef in New York City. He hung with Bobby, Mario, and Bourdain, partying as hard as he worked. Bobby and Mario sold their souls to food television. Bourdain escaped the madness after writing Kitchen Confidential, a tell-all that included Tesar (with the invented name Jimmy Sears) as a player in Bourdain’s rowdy gang of misfits. As Tesar’s peers rose to stardom, he kicked around various kitchens, including one in his own restaurant, 13 Barrow Street, and studied the work of his idols and mentors: Eric Ripert, David Bouley, Rick Moonen, Michael White.
After Dean Fearing left the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, Tesar, who’d been working for Moonen in Las Vegas and New York, came to Dallas in 2006 to make a clean start. Under his direction, the restaurant earned five stars from the Dallas Morning News twice, but in just three years he was gone. Depending on whom you believe, he either quit or was fired. In any case, it was a scandalous mess, and for the next five years Tesar struggled to regain his footing. When Jason Sheeler profiled Tesar for D Magazine’s September 2011 cover story, “The Most Hated Chef in Dallas,” he reached out to Bourdain for a comment and got this: “John provided a lot of great drama, a lot of great food, a lot of great stories. He’s never going to be Person of the Year, but what chef is?”
With Spoon, Tesar has another opportunity to prove himself. If he fails, it could be his last chance kitchen in Dallas.
The first thing that impressed me about the restaurant was its chic, upscale Hamptons vibe. You feel like you’ve stepped onto a set for the ABC series Revenge. Gray and white honed Carrera marble tables glow blue under soft lighting. The corners of the ceilings are curved and create an intimate wine cave feel. The concrete floor is highlighted with swirls of deep blue paint. From tabletops, flickering tea lights set in elegant French porcelain candleholders make the walls shimmer like moonlit water. The china is delicate Bernardaud; the crystal is stemmed Riedel. The room is not strait-laced. Low background music includes Petty, Hendrix, and Mayer.
The almost exclusively seafood menu is a small but ambitious blend of classic, worldly, regional, and modern dishes. An amuse bouche of cold tuna tartare stuffed into a mini waffle cone scented with curry arrived with fanfare. Tesar salutes Rick Moonen with a thick, white clam chowder crowded with little neck clams. Stir it and scents of garlic, bacon, and bay leaf rise from the stylish bowl. A fresh, warm baguette was better than a spoon when it came time to sop up any remaining liquid.
Those with a sophisticated palate will be hard-pressed to choose one of the eight crudo offerings: Hawaiian big-eye tuna, uni, yellowtail, two scallop preparations, spiny lobster, cuttlefish, and geoduck. We opted for a sampling of three ($28). Geoduck, a large clam with a long, trunk-like siphon, was so fresh that the edges of the satiny clam curled like ribbons under a dab of chili oil and a touch of Himalayan sea salt.
My favorite starter was a stunning razor clam tartare. Tesar chops razor clams with soft, tender bits of geoduck muscle and tosses the mixture with olive oil, green onion, pepperoncinis, and a little salt and pepper. As your teeth crush the tiny morsels, the minerality of the sea floods your mouth.
Wild striped bass is served in a modern Japanese lobster-miso consommé with scallop ravioli. The dish is soothing and light. Although the bass is partially submerged in liquid, the fish maintains its firm texture and flakes at the touch of a fork.
With sturgeon, Tesar returns to the French cooking techniques he perfected in the ’80s. The mild white fi sh is served with a faultless sauce gribiche filled with chopped cornishons, capers, tarragon, chervil, and parsley. I’ve got a soft spot for classic French cooking, a method not currently in vogue, and eating this dish was like visiting an old friend. The sauce balances the tartness of the pickles, the faint licorice of chervil, and the lightness of butter without overpowering the sturgeon.
Lobster fans can thank Tesar’s mother for his deconstructed lobster casserole, a fancy name for the butter-poached lobster she mixed with vegetables from her garden. Tesar’s version features locally grown baby vegetables and lobster from Maine.
He refuses to get fully onboard the seasonality bandwagon that has rolled through so many kitchens across the nation. In this day and age, only a heretic would refuse to go from farm to fork. But there is Tesar’s arctic char, served with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and frozen peas. The fish was surrounded by a chorus of nicely sautéed vegetables, but the peas were bitter. A few weeks later, I asked Tesar to explain his view on seasonality. “I am conscious of it, and I want to be responsible, but you can’t be too strict,” he said. “If it tastes good, I’m going to serve it. Screw it. It’s tough to afford total seasonality in North Texas. I can’t save the world one vegetable at a time. It is not who I am.”
Along with the peas, Tesar needs to work on his swordfish. I tried the dish three times, and each time I found the thick slab mealy. My first thought was that the fish had been cooked sous vide and the flesh had turned to mush. One waiter confirmed this, but when I asked Tesar about it later, he denied it. “I hand-cut that fish thick and bake it,” he said. “Most people don’t like to eat medium-rare fish. They like it cooked through.” The servers could ask how diners like their swordfish cooked. If I’d been given a choice, the dish might have been more to my liking.
On two of my three visits, the service was impeccable. All of the orders were presented at the same time. There were no interruptions, and the meals were well-paced. When we showed up for our final dinner, though, our party of three was seated at an odd L-shaped table to the right of the front door, which technically put us in the bar. Our server was the swamped bartender. We asked for a sommelier twice before giving up and ordering a glass of Cave des Vins de Sancerre. Previously we’d received an iPad with the wine list and a visit from sommelier Sabrina Snodderley. Overall the smallish list is a mix of lesser-known and off-the-beatenpath varieties, styles, and places. There is a nice selection of well-priced White Burgundy ranging from $46 for a Lupe-Cholet Comtesse de Lupe 2009 to a bottle of Patrick Piuze Chablis Butteaux Premier Cru 2010 for $135. Like most local lists, this one has too many Cabernet Sauvignons, especially for a seafood restaurant (even one that offers pork belly and foie gras in fish dishes). Some lighter red Burgundy choices would be appreciated. Tesar is watching how the food comes back from the tables, and he’s listening to diners, many of whom are loyal followers. I spread my visits out over a three-month period and noticed improvement each time, especially in the quality of the desserts.
The first time I asked a server for a recommendation, he looked over both of his shoulders before he answered: “Don’t order dessert. They are all horrible.” I insisted on trying one, and he brought us a chunky 4-inch doughnut submerged in crème anglaise. He was right. It was terrible. By the time I returned, Tesar had hired David Collier, the award-winning pastry chef at the Mansion during Tesar’s reign. Collier’s creations will delight the modernist diner who craves high concept. If you order dessert, sit back and relax. The service is formal and includes three courses. Pre-dessert is a demitasse of warm milk chocolate mousse covered with caramel foam and flecks of sea salt. This is followed by one of Collier’s clever concoctions, such as a plate of buttermilk panna cotta spheres, avocado ice cream, and slices of Texas grapefruit. Once that plate is whisked away and the table reset, the server slides a long rectangular plate lined with tiny bites. On one occasion, we were served a berry macaroon, a dark chocolate truffle, a raspberry marshmallow with lemon lime pop rocks, a Champagne gelee, and a white peppermint strip with the Spoon logo.
Like John Tesar, Spoon isn’t for everyone. It’s a hard-core seafood restaurant for diners who desire a little, or a lot, more glamour than they might find elsewhere. So far, the wellheeled Preston Center set is flocking to the 58-seat dining room or dropping in to sit at the U-shaped bar and share an appetizer or a dozen oysters and a glass of wine. And, guys, if you have a date with a woman who doesn’t really like seafood, might I recommend the house-made penne?
For more information about Spoon Bar & Kitchen, visit our online restaurant guide.