Mention the name, “John Tesar” to anyone that has their finger on the “culinary pulse” in Dallas, and you will receive a wide variety of opinions ranging from endearing to downright unsuitable for print. Last week, I was invited to spend time with “The Eagle” himself (a presumably self-proclaimed sobriquet) at Food & Wine Magazine’s Chef’s Club in Manhattan’s trendy Soho neighborhood. Our discussion touched on several topics, including the significance of returning to his hometown of New York City, his numerous James Beard nominations (and Dallas’ continued plight regarding the same), and what life has been like since the Tweet read round the world.
The private room sat sixteen in a U-shaped format, all facing a live kitchen that also doubles as a stage for the artists themselves. The glow of soft yellow light accented dark hardwoods and the white marble table, while a series of polished crystal wine glasses were illuminated by a single white candle. A white envelope simply labeled “Chef’s Club” contained a menu and quick hand-written note from John, which read, “Thank you. Love Food. Love People. Love Life. Knife. 2015.”
Under a playlist complied by Tesar himself (which included Radiohead, Pearl Jam, R.E.M, Blind Melon, Nirvana and even Rage Against the Machine), the evening began with a double amuse bouche consisting of langoustine two ways. The first was a chilled tartare served on a metal spoon, followed by a fritter that was lightly breaded, flash fried and plated immediately. Tasting from left to right, it was truly extraordinary to experience how temperature and technique can produce different results from the exact same ingredient. The tartare was creamy, salty and lingered on the palate, while the fried langoustine was sweet and tender; however, its flavor dissipated quickly.
The nine-course tasting dinner subsequently began, in which Chef Tesar not only exhibited his range, but also his mastery of each. Many dishes stuck to tradition, while others were playful in nature – such as sturgeon chicharrón with Spanish yogurt and caviar. Paired with a dry Manzanilla sherry, the dish encapsulated the sea, and brought about imagery of sitting at a café on the coast, somewhere outside of Barcelona.
The influence of Eric Ripert fashioned a live Maine scallop, which was shucked just prior to dinner and served within its own shell with brown butter, dashi and shaved black truffle. Paired with a non-vintage Brut Reserve from Charles Heidsieck, the chilled, raw scallop complemented the earthiness of minced shallots and shaved truffle, while the contrast of temperatures made this dish quite enjoyable. Tesar poured warm brown butter for each individual guest.
Dishes three and four consisted of a butter-poached king crab leg with smoked potato puree, parsley emulsion and garlic, followed by a faux cuttlefish “pasta” with lemon, Monte Ibérico pork and smoked trout roe. The latter was paired with my favorite wine of the evening: a 2010 White Burgundy from Jean & Sébastian Dauvissat known as “Séchets” 1er Cru. All of these wonderful seafood dishes incented me to confess to John that I was still mourning the closing of “Spoon”. He assured me not to worry as he plans for Oak to be the venue that will showcase his latest oceanic creations.
Venturing away from the sea, Chef Tesar featured a spicy Morcilla Spanish blood sausage, topped with fresh San Diego uni, Ligurian olive oil, sea salt and sisho. This dish was paired with a Bell’s Amber Ale from Michigan, which I found to be a thoughtful decision, owing to the ale’s floral and citrus notes. Many locals commented on the heat stemming from the blood sausage – the Texans did not.
What began as a “Spoon” evening, quickly turned into a “Knife” finale. Mario Batali’s Babbo-inspired a decadent dish comprised of oxtail and chicken liver stuffed inside freshly made agnolotti (a rendition of which is available at Knife for $24). Topped with Parmesan Monte, aged balsamic vinegar and grated black truffle, the dish was paired with a 2012 Domaine du Vieux-Télégraphe “La Crau” Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc. Rich and full-bodied, with notes of honey, nuts and lavender, the white wine was a veteran selection, as most sommeliers would seemingly reach for a young pinot noir from Sonoma or a meritage rouge.
The climax of the event came during the final savory course that featured a Korean barbecue style rib eye from 44 Farms, situated in Cameron, Texas. The perfectly seared beef rested atop a kimchee pancake and was accompanied by kimchee butter. Without any formal announcement, we were then offered Tesar’s hallmark – 210-day aged beef ($80 per ounce at Knife for the 240-day iteration). The skill in aging meat for that length of time is maintaining its natural moisture, while allowing the temperature, humidity and resulting bacteria to concentrate its flavor and texture. Seared medium rare, the steak was rich and nutty, with a mild blue-cheese finish.
As we conversed with our neighbors as to our enjoyment thus far, Tesar then threw another well-received curveball: a 100-day aged lobe of foie gras, exquisitely seared. As a confessed admirer of foie gras obtained from humane purveyors, this was the best bite I’ve experienced thus far in 2015. The fatty liver was aged in the same box as the dry-aged beef, religiously kept at 36-degrees with 49% humidity. The white mold from the beef seems to transfer to the fattened liver, which produces a comparable result. The warm foie gras cut like butter and brought forth flavors including grass, dark chocolate and advanced amount of minerality commonly associated with sweetbreads.
The evening reconfirmed that Chef Tesar’s execution remains exquisite but what I enjoyed most was seeing his demeanor amongst trusted contemporaries, all dining in his hometown. Sitting around a table of friends, media and business associates (Chef Tesar literally handed his publisher the signed contract for his upcoming cookbook Knife to be released spring 2016), I experienced the feeling that his coming home allowed for a bit of humility, an acknowledgment of past transgressions, and the ability to cook flawlessly amongst those that find him most endearing.