A FEW YEARS back, fancy restaurants were more or less French. Properly stuffy waiters presided over meals that were mostly saut?ed, soufl?ed or gratin?ed. Foreign frogs or snails were de rigueur. But that was before Dallas became the center of something called the New Southwestern Cuisine. Now, French critters have given way to barbecued buffalo and wild Texas sheep. Staple cream sauces have been upstaged by sauces spiced with chiles, tomatillos, cilantro and other Mexican-derived ingredients.
Is there an impertant new cuisine flourishing in this part of the world? There is enough hype to convince anyone but the most skeptical that there is. Every month, another new restaurant announces its intention to grill everything over mesquite, serve sauces made from indigenous ingredients and take us all back to our roots-wherever they are. Food articles in the newspapers solemnly assure us that we are in the midst of a great revolution-or is it a revival? Surely there must be something to all this. Or is there?
Something is indeed going on here, but it may not be all good. I became skeptical about the New Southwestern Cuisine somewhere between my first “peppered fruit” (pineapple and papaya marinated with hot peppers and served over ice cream) and my last candied jalapeno (served with duck). I became downright weary of the idea after sampling every conceivable meat (fish, seafood, quail, turkey, beef, lamb, pork, venison, wild boar-you name it) permeated with the taste of burnt wood. These days (since even Californians are grilling over mesquite), Texans seem to be moving on to pecan and other woods, but the idea remains the same… and the same and the same.
It would be easy to dismiss Southwestern Cuisine as self-serving hype and puerile experimentation. Not every trendy fashion in cooking deserves the honor of being designated a “new cuisine.” But it would be a mistake to write off the notion of a new cooking style simply because of its failures and some inflated claims. There are, under its umbrella, some excellent and genuinely innovative foods.
A lot of them are cooked by Dean Fearing, the former chef at the lamented Agnew’s, who’s now at The Verandah Club, the new sports-and-spa mansion attached to the Loews Anatole. Fearing was probably the first local cook to experiment with this new style, although he did not append a name to it. “I was just trying to do what chefs all over the country were doing: make use of regional ingredients in new ways,” Fearing says. “I saw all these peppers in the markets, and only the Mexican restaurants were using them. I said to myself, ’Shoot, we can find some ways to use these to fit our own tastes.’ And soon I found I was incorporating a lot of peppers into sauces, at first mostly for fish.”
Anne Lindsay Greer, who has published a cookbook called Cuisine of the American Southwest (publisher, Harper & Row), ate at Agnew’s, and immediately struck up a friendship with Fearing. Her book is perhaps the definitive compendium to date of Mexican-American cooking-not just Tex-Mex, but the very different styles found in California, Arizona and New Mexico. Although she has extrapelated from traditional recipes, there are a few dishes that smack of the newer style. Greer has become the theoretician among Dallas practitioners of the New Southwestern Cuisine. (These New Wave cooks are not to be confused with those here who follow the New American Cuisine or-Lord forbid-those barbarians to the west who created the New California Cuisine.)
The movement has mushroomed-and yellow-peppered and red-peppered and jicamaed vegetable garnishes are big in the New Southwestern Cuisine. Probably the first restaurant to capture the public imagination as the avatar of the new style was Routh Street Café, which opened at the end of 1983. Its chef, Stephan Pyles, systemized what Fearing had tried, and announced loudly and clearly his commitment to use regional ingredients in inventive ways. Pyles’ cooking wasn’t better than Fearing’s, nor even always as good, but it tasted and (perhaps more importantly) sounded more American, more Southwestern. Then Avner Samuels, the new chef at the Mansion (where Fearing was sous chef before opening Agnew’s in 1982), teamed up with consultant Wolfgang Puck (the celebrity chef of the New California Cuisine) to establish a menu ripe with such twists as salads made with smoked fresh tuna. Author Greer became a consultant at the Loews Anatole, where the Nana Grill began to serve what were perhaps the most radically new and determinedly Southwestern dishes. One of the early chefs at Nana Grill opened her own restaurant, Ray’s Blue Note, which serves similar dishes. Still another cook, David Pisegna, Fearing’s first sous chef at Agnew’s, opened a grill at Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club north of Dallas, then became the first chef at D. Michael. Even the caterers and their lunch rooms got in the act; both Pacific Express downtown and Chow to Go in Oak Lawn offer salads and sandwiches that fit right into the scene.
Such a rapid explosion of novel restaurants could not have occurred without publicity. And if there is one thing that the New Southwestern Cuisine has not lacked, it is media coverage. If Anne Greer is the guru of the new cuisine, Dallas Times Herald food critic Michael Bauer has become its prophet. Bauer praised the merits of the new restaurants (sometimes somewhat indiscriminately) and preached about the righteousness of their innovations. He even found a precursor to the new style: Turtle Cove, the seafood restaurant, was apparently the first to grill seafood over mesquite here and so was established as a forerunner.
Fearing and Greer founded a chefs’ club that meets occasionally to cook and compare notes; the other members are Pyles, Samuels and Kevin Hopkins of the Nana Grill. The group has tried to establish a wider regional base by inviting two important, young Houston chefs who are taking a similar approach for occasional visits. The joint dinners are regularly written up in the Times Herald.
The self-consciousness among this group of chefs and the publicity that surrounds their efforts tends to obscure the basic question with which we started: Is what they are doing distinctive enough to merit the fuss? Certainly there is a healthy ferment in this country’s cooking; the New American Cuisine is essentially our answer to nouvelle cuisine in France. The rules of the game are to use the processes and techniques of the classic cuisine but to borrow additional ideas from other traditions and to apply them all to new ingredients. In France, Japanese ideas have been the prevailing outside force, with emphasis on seasonal foodstuffs, shocking use of ingredients such as raw fish and meat or fresh ginger, and an insistence above all else on visual beauty and a striking presentation. The New American Cuisine took in all of that and added more special attention on native American ingredients such as corn, wild rice and game; exploration of the new American counterparts to famous European products such as fine wines and cheeses; and occasional use of classic American recipes, often so highly refined and glorified that the connection is little more than intellectualized homage.
The New Southwestern Cuisine is largely a local specialization of this pattern. A lot of hype centers around the Texas origins of foodstuffs, but how much does it really matter that a wild boar was raised on a game farm in the Hill Country? When you ask a practitioner what makes a dish New Southwestern, the answer usually revolves around ingredients and a few Mexican techniques. Peppers, peppers and more peppers often seem the sole hallmark of the style. Hot chiles, of course, as well as sweet peppers of every variety and color, are chopped up for garnish and ground into sauces. But a few adaptations of Mexican dishes are basically cute puns. Fearing, for instance, serves grilled chicken breasts (stuffed with cilan-tro pesto and served with a delectable toma-tillo sauce) with a fried-tortilla shell housing his own version of pico de gallo, with tiny bits of melon and sweet pepper in place of the usual tomatoes. Pyles is experimenting with chocolate tortillas, served like dessert crêpes, and says that eventually some form of tamale might turn up on the menu at Routh Street Café.
But you can bet that if it does, it will be a refined and sophisticated tamale. The least convincing of the claims of Greer and other proponents of the New Southwestern Cuisine is an assertion that what’s best about the movement is its return to our roots. It is doubtful that any of our ancestors ate anything resembling what is being served up now. My forebears fried and boiled. Occasionally they roasted or barbecued. They made mean sausages and dumplings and heavy corn bread dressing.
Fearing’s techniques derive unashamedly from his sterling classical training. He is a chef in the French mold with an extraordinary gift for balancing flavors in sauces. His success in creating new dishes out of at-odds ingredients stems directly from this talent. Pyles, although less formally trained, seems more theoretical and more genuinely interested in invoking some sort of heritage. His luscious desserts, for instance, do occasionally conjure up grand old American recipes. But Pyles, too, is at heart a classicist of the nouvelle school.
The lesser lights among the New Southwestern Cuisine chefs seem less European but not necessarily more American. Some of Hopkins’ dishes at Nana Grill, for example, use ingredients that evoke Texan memories-like fowl served in a cream sauce with pecans. But the taste of the dish is for all the world like that of an East Indian kirma. Similarly, his accompanying dish of vegetables is plenty original, but the rajas of peppers sautéed with abundant spices smacks more of Bombay than Mexico. And grilled honeydew doesn’t hark back to anyone’s roots-it’s just plain weird.
In Louisiana, chef Paul Prudhomme and his followers have managed to spark a new tradition, the roots of which are essentially non-classical (that is, non-French). But Prudhomme had two wonderfully strong native traditions to bounce off of-New Orleans Creole and rural Cajun. His additions of wild seasonings from Mexico and other sources simply added spice to an already heady, eclectic mix.
Dallas’ innovators may have the final advantage, although their recipes are somethat more orthodox. They are a part of the worldwide ferment of experimentation, which, however wide it goes in search of new ideas, sticks closely to the proven principles of classic French cooking. Anchoring near those roots may prove wiser than plumbing the roots of any local cuisine-including our own. If the New Southwestern Cuisine is more nouvelle than new, and less than completely Southwestern, it still provides the most exciting restaurant cooking around.