Last week, I stumbled into Dallas in the midst of seven flights in four days. After being in Bowling Green (OH) and Johnson City (TN), I was ready for finer dining. Remembering that Top Chef: Seattle (given the feeble coverage of our city, I call it Top Chef: Supposedly in Seattle) had three contestants from Dallas, I first decided to go to the restaurant where Josh Valentine, one of the three finalists, was cooking: FT33.
I got a seat at the four-person chef’s table, overlooking the open kitchen. On the other side of my table, head chef Matt McCallister was at the counter expediting. And on the other side of that counter, I could see Valentine and his tell-tale mustache working with the rest of the kitchen crew.
Valentine is officially the pastry chef at FT33, joining McCallister after recently leaving his Divine Swine restaurant in Oklahoma City. But, on this night at least, he was wiping down a lot of dishes pre-plating, then assisting with the starters and mains instead of the desserts. As I was eating during the time that Top Chef: Seattle was airing, I tried to get a read on his mood, but there was no “tell” to my eyes. I’d later learn that he was eliminated that night in both the regular competition and the “Last Chance Kitchen.”
When Valentine was working with food, he was mostly “accessorizing” plates with proteins already on them. Such accessorizing is indicative of the type of restaurant FT33 is: modern-American cuisine with interesting ingredient combinations and gorgeous design—often via use of tweezers. Some might say that the attention to detail is a little too fussy and that the food is more for the eyes than the taste buds, but I found it all interesting and thoughtful. And a bit expensive for the portion sizes. (I found myself partaking of the bread basket far more than usual; fortunately, everything in there was delicious.)
My buckwheat alla chitarra starter was my favorite course, appearing rather miraculously seconds within ordering it, and bursting with earthy flavors. My snowy grouper entrée was less successful. The fish was perfectly sautéed, but its accompanying “exotic fruits” didn’t quite work for me. I finished with an olive oil financier that was ginned up with celery and more. Check out the gallery above for photos and more details about the meal.
The next day, I ventured to Tei-An for lunch. Chef Teiichi Sakurai has been a James Beard nominee (in fact, he just became a 2013 semifinalist for Best Chef: Southwest), and while Tei-An is really a soba house, many diners seem to see it as a sushi restaurant—and a gorgeous one at that.
Wanting to see what Sakurai would serve an experienced Japanese food eater, I went omakase. There would be seven courses: an oyster, snapper, a fish eyeball in seaweed dashi, fresh bamboo and bamboo tempura, langoustine pieces in uni cream sauce with shaved black truffle (I was so excited to eat this that I failed to take a photo!), soba, and daifuku dessert. Again, photos and more details are in the gallery above.
Service was attentive without being intrusive, though I was surprised that the servers mumbled the descriptions of the dishes, making it hard for me to hear and remember all of the elements. The food was very refined, prepared perfectly (the tempura, for example, had batter that was delicately lacy and delicious, especially dipped in the choice of salts) and with good flavor. And, yeah, I got to eat an eyeball.
Having just sampled Mutsuko Soma’s soba and more at Miyabi 45th (a similar omakase meal), I’m inevitably comparing the experiences. Tei-An is more elegant, but there’s something soulful that makes me prefer my meal at Miyabi just a little bit more. Maybe part of it was feeling hungry two hours after leaving Tei-An, which shouldn’t be the case with a $65 lunch. As at FT33, I saw Texas-sized prices but got far from Texas-sized portions. (True, much of Tei-An’s fish is flown in from Tokyo, and many are happy pay a premium to have good Japanese food in Texas.) Granted, the quality was good at both restaurants, but as I drove to the car rental facility at DFW airport, I found myself saying “What?” as I made an uncharacteristic stop at Whataburger for fast food filler.