Dallas, are you ready for your close-up? You better be, because local chefs and restaurants are attracting the attention of the international press. Over the last 12 months, publications such as Bon Appétit, GQ, Esquire, and Condé Nast Traveler have proclaimed a Dallas restaurant or bar a “best” of some sort. And with good reason.
This year, we witnessed the return of reservations: diners are resuming their love affair with lavish dining. Luckily, many of the best new restaurants are offering fine food and fair prices. Seafood is starring on menus all over town. Casual diners are choosing lobster rolls over gourmet burgers. Ramen and Vietnamese cuisine are hot trends. Then there’s the booming cocktail scene. And you can’t throw a stone without hitting a locally brewed craft beer.
I spent the year scouting Dallas’ new restaurants, and I’m happy to report it was difficult to narrow this list to 10. It could have easily been 20. So get ready to smile. Dallas dining is taking center stage.
Matt McCallister fights for the rights of farmers as hard as he fights being typecast. His altruistic aim is often misinterpreted. He isn’t afraid to admit he’s not a classically trained chef—he boasts the fact. He refuses to wear chef whites and prefers to work in a t-shirt. If someone walks into FT33 and wants a wedge salad, he escorts them out. There are more than a handful of local chefs who would not mind watching McCallister fail.
His stylistic modern cuisine, however, is the talk of the town, and his restaurant, FT33, is attracting international attention.
McCallister doesn’t care what’s happening in other kitchens; he focuses on what he wants to do. The method is working. The iceberg-lettuce salad requests have been replaced by scads of enthusiastic diners who gasp at the glory of every menu change.
It has taken a year for FT33 to evolve into a cohesive restaurant. Early issues with service and management have been settled. On busy Saturday nights, the restaurant turns over two times, sometimes three, without a hiccup. “I have aged,” McCallister says. “At first I was bullheaded. I didn’t realize that a chef is only as good as his team.”
McCallister and his staff present the edgiest culinary show in town. The bar shakes, stirs, and pours mind-bending—in more ways than one—cocktails. Mixologist Lauren Fest makes a Truffled Pig with muddled mushrooms (raw maitakes, seared chanterelles), DeLeón Diamante tequila, lemon juice, and honey simple syrup scented with rosemary and cinnamon. The mixture is strained into a dainty coupe and garnished with a seared mushroom. “People hear it and think I’m crazy,” Fest says.
The same sentiment echoes across the dining room each night as eye-catching artistic plates are delivered. A salad of ruffled lettuces, McKinney apples, pickled pecans, and fresh chèvre runs down the center of a round white plate. The left side is painted with strokes of apple butter. At first glance, the salad seems to have slipped across the plate, and the dressing has spilled. At second, it appears as a perfectly composed salad and piece of art.
Interpreting McCallister’s masterpieces makes for great table conversation. Cubes of pork loin and pork belly could be viewed as an avalanche: cascading pink boulders land in a pool of sweet-potato purée and are surrounded by rocks of crushed pistachios and twisted twigs of dried pear skins, some topped with slices of grilled pear. The food is as delicious as it is artistic.
Skeptics who believe McCallister’s act is a fad wonder how he will survive in the long run. He recently added a seven-course tasting menu, but not to answer the critics. “My head thinks like a tasting menu,” McCallister says. “It doesn’t work in a full setting with entrée portions. Plus, it gives me more wiggle room for stuff I can’t get away with on a normal menu.”
Normal menu? If that’s what you’re looking for, you had best google “steak restaurant.”
Just when you think Stephan Pyles has done it all, he does it again. This time, tipping the menu to the comfort food in his home state of Texas. At Stampede 66, you’ll find gussied-up versions of pot roast made with wagyu beef, fried chicken injected with Texas honey, and chicken-fried buffalo steak, all next to down-home classics such as barbecue brisket, shrimp and grits, and pork barbacoa tacos.
Pyles smartly positioned the location of his homage to Texas between the Perot Museum of Nature and Science and Klyde Warren Park. The restaurant is convenient for downtown and uptown diners, but, more importantly, it is the perfect setting for out-of-towners looking for a trendy taste of Texana.
Like other restaurants by Stephan Pyles, the interior of Stampede 66 is dynamic. The props are familiar: longhorns hang over the bar, cowhides cover banquettes, and ranch brands line one wall. A lighted, coiled-wire rattlesnake separates the bar from the dining room, where TV screens play videos of cowboys riding the range. What could be a kitschy calamity is a sophisticated and playful dining experience.
Visitors and first-time diners will get a kick out of the wooden margarita cart. Just say please, and the server will add generous pours of Don Julio Blanco tequila and Patrón Citronge to cactus-fruit purée, fresh lime juice, and agave syrup, and stir the mixture with liquid nitrogen until it is the consistency of a Slurpee. It’s a showstopper and likely to be listed in guidebooks as a must-do in Dallas.
Behind the smoke and mirrors, you’ll also find some seriously scrumptious food. The aforementioned fried chicken is plump, juicy, and covered with a fine, crisp batter. A breast and drumstick are served in a tin bucket packed with a tiny mason jar filled with pickled okra and bread-and-butter pickles; two mashed-potato tater tots; buttermilk biscuits; and a mini pitcher of earthy ham-hock gravy. Thick roasted corn chowder, with chunks of firm potatoes, is flavored with huitlacoche and bacon relish.
Pyles makes choosing one dessert impossible. The inspired list includes a pecan buttermilk tart, butterscotch pudding, and sweet-corn ice-box pie. If you find a cobbler listed, order it. The hot, semisweet fruit filling is covered with a biscuit crust as light and fluffy as the clouds in the West Texas sky.