|By Joyce Saenz Harris, The Dallas Morning
NewsMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 12, 2007 - The chef and owner gazes around Fearing's, and his face looks like a small boy's on Christmas morning.
After 21 years at the legendary Mansion on Turtle Creek, Dean Fearing, 52, is about to open the biggest prize package of his life: his own $6 million restaurant, designed exactly the way he wants it.
He doesn't bother to hide his excitement, bordering on giddiness.
He's in love with every one of five dining spaces and two bars at Fearing's, from the wine room that seats 16 and the open Dean's Kitchen dining room that seats 60, to the walled Ocaso garden and alfresco Live Oak Bar, where patrons can order dinner as well as drinks and bar food.
Even the walk-in refrigerator, with its labeled and lidded containers, has him exclaiming, "This is organized heaven!"
It's his moment to savor the pleasure and prestige of having a restaurant with his name on it, adjacent to the elegant lobby of the new Ritz-Carlton, Dallas.
Wednesday's opening represents a life's ambition fulfilled, and his friends and business associates believe Fearing's is a triumph in the making. But opening this restaurant is also a huge responsibility, one that has occupied most of Mr. Fearing's waking hours for about 18 months now.
Fearing's will join a galaxy of new, high-end restaurants that have recently opened in the Uptown and Victory Park areas.
"Dining in Dallas has just exploded in the last three to five years," says Ron Ruggless, Southwest editor for Nation's Restaurant News. "And that group of chefs who pioneered Southwest cuisine 25 years ago -- like Dean Fearing, Robert Del Grande and Stephan Pyles -- they're all taking it global now."
Mr. Ruggless believes that "the Food Network and food magazines have made personalities extra-important in the industry. Chef-driven concepts, always very important, have been heightened in the consumer's eye. When you put your name on a restaurant, as Dean Fearing's doing, that takes it to another level."
If the job becomes too much pressure, though, Mr. Fearing has his escape hatches. He might take his wife, Lynae, and their boys, 7-year-old Campbell and 9-year-old Jackson, up to Possum Kingdom Lake and do a daredevil jump into the water from a 30-foot cliff.
Or he might just dig out his Fender Stratocaster and rock the night away.
At the Mansion, Mr. Fearing built his reputation as a "founding father of Southwestern cuisine."
Some friends, such as Los Angeles celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck -- who hired Mr. Fearing as sous chef at the Mansion when it opened in 1980 -- thought Mr. Fearing might never leave that gig. "I thought with him it would never happen," Mr. Puck says. "He had such a good life there."
But now, change is on its way. "No rules," Mr. Fearing declares. That means no dress code, for one thing. Moreover, "I don't want to be just 'a Southwestern chef' any more." His menus are more adventurous now, as he experiments with Asian cuisine and healthier ways of cooking.
"We're going to do elevated American cuisine," Mr. Fearing says. "Bold flavors, no borders, celebrating farm-to-market foods."
Surprise: This is a man who's renowned for his barbecue and doesn't mind serving foie gras, yet, he says, "I could be a good vegetarian."
Just don't take away his collection of Lucchese boots or his guitars.
In addition to his family, Mr. Fearing has two great loves: food and music. Which of those two is the bigger passion?
"You could flip that coin, and it would land on edge, I think," says Houston chef Robert Del Grande, who has played with Mr. Fearing in their rock band, the Barb Wires, for 20 years. They frequently perform at charity events and Mr. Fearing's annual barbecue fests.
The band has finally cut a CD, Bliss and Blisters, which will be released in September. Mr. Fearing plays lead guitar and Mr. Del Grande plays rhythm guitar; they co-wrote the album's songs.
Mr. Fearing has now fulfilled what Mr. Del Grande says was a lifelong fantasy: "Playing the master of his own CD in the car, on the way to his own restaurant."
Decaf coffee and demitasse cups: MIA.
The gazebo-like Sendero Room: a work in progress.
Huge resin artworks: somewhere between here and Atlanta.
With 12 days to go until Wednesday's official opening, Dean Fearing's new culinary digs were still in finish-out. On that day, even the front door was temporary.
But the most important parts were done. The new kitchen -- 2,000 square feet of gleaming stainless steel, ceramic tile and art glass with a massive antiqued-copper hood looming over the front grill line -- had been operational for a week.
"It's everything I've wanted in a kitchen all my life," Mr. Fearing said.
Chef de cuisine Joel Harrington and a tribe of white-jacketed assistants had gone through training, as had the servers and hosts working the front of the house. The lighting fixtures -- custom-made pieces shaped in glass and metal and whip-stitched rawhide -- were in place. The sofas, tables and almost all of the seating had arrived.
"You've never seen anything like this restaurant," Mr. Fearing tells everyone who visits. Everything about the place says luxury. The Jerusalem limestone floors, Italian glass chandeliers, leather walls and ceilings, African mahogany paneling and foot-wide, lighted, honey-onyx frames around walls and doorways are the vision of renowned Atlanta designer Bill Johnson.
Mr. Fearing knows all about presenting pretty plates. He found his tableware in Germany: Riedel crystal, white Rosenthal bone china, and Hepp silverware.
"They are the best," he said, admiring a small Rosenthal sauce dish with a curvy, yin-yang divider.
He was most intent, however, on making his food look and taste beautiful. In the two weeks before its official opening, Fearing's served complimentary preview meals to hundreds of Dean devotees to get feedback on what worked. It cost a small fortune to do such extensive previewing. But Mr. Fearing felt it was necessary to make the food and service flawless. Though the restaurant has been taking lunch and dinner reservations since Aug. 1, prospective diners who call this week should expect a wait. Fearing's will seat at half-capacity -- 120 -- for a few weeks after Wednesday's opening, until the boss is satisfied that everything's working. "I don't want us not to be able to handle it," he says.
He expects the average ticket to run $30 at lunch and $60 at dinner. A typical three-course preview dinner included starters such as sweet corn vichyssoise with smoked Texas tomatoes and Maine lobster; bigeye tuna ceviche; a barbecued shrimp taco; a salad of lobster, mango and basil; a slice of honey soy-glazed foie gras on caramelized ginger Parker County peaches, served with a pan-browned scallop; and jalapeno-glazed quail. And, of course, an amped-up version of tortilla soup, smokier and spicier than what Mr. Fearing served at the Mansion.
Main dishes included buffalo tenderloin on jalapeno grits; orange ginger-dipped pheasant on curried shrimp fried rice; a prime-cut rib-eye, mopped over mesquite logs on a wood-fired grill; and a surf 'n' turf platter of beef filet and chicken-fried Maine lobster, accompanied by mashed potatoes with queso fresco.
Mr. Fearing tries to get as many ingredients as he can close to home. Sure, the lobster has to come from Maine. The organic, heirloom-grain grits were grown and stone-milled at South Carolina's Anson Mills.
But the buffalo tenderloin comes from Ron Nance's Comanche Buffalo in Lawton, Okla. "It's the best product I've ever dealt with," Mr. Fearing says. "That buffalo is fork-tender." The restaurant gets free-range wild game from the Broken Arrow Ranch in Ingram, Texas, and fruit and vegetables from Tom Spicer, whose F-M 1410 produce store, purveyor to Dallas' top restaurateurs, recently opened on Fitzhugh Avenue.
Mr. Fearing's father was a general manager with Holiday Inn, which meant that the Fearing kids and their mother, Ollie, moved all over the Midwest.
It was not exactly Eloise at The Plaza. Yet somehow, Mr. Fearing developed a fascination with food and the hospitality industry. "It's quite amazing that I did," he admits.
Upon graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Mr. Fearing worked in Cincinnati at Maisonette, then in Dallas at the Fairmont's Pyramid Room.
After working as sous chef at the Mansion in the early 1980s, he left to open Agnew's before returning to the Mansion in 1985 as executive chef. It was a happy place for Mr. Fearing, a good fit. So good, he says, that only a partnership deal like the one offered by Ritz-Carlton could have lured him away from the Mansion, the flagship property of Rosewood Hotels. "I told him, 'Get the best deal you can,' " says Mr. Puck, who has a similar project opening this fall with Ritz-Carlton in Vail, Colo. "It's like a marriage. You want it to last a long time."
"Dean is an engaging, talented personality," says Mr. Ruggless of Nation's Restaurant News. "Ritz-Carlton was very smart in bringing in Dean and giving the new hotel a sense of place and instant recognition."
Mr. Fearing's contract says he will spend the next 15 years at Fearing's, and that's just fine with him. "This isn't a short-term restaurant for me," he recently told Restaurants & Institutions magazine.
"This is me and Dallas for a long time."
Fearing's restaurant is at 2121 McKinney Ave. in Uptown, at the new Ritz-Carlton, Dallas. Call 214-922-4848 for reservations.
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