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Showroom turned restaurant; photography by Jill Broussard

Simply Complex

by Mark Stuertz | Modern Luxury Dallas magazine | November 21, 2012

The name is almost painfully simple; a couple of letters, a repeated number. FT33. It’s like something extracted from a license plate or a smartphone pass code or some mutation spawned from the tax code.

In the food service orbit, it stands for “fire table 33,” a variation on a chef’s bark cueing kitchen crews to lock and load the next course for a specific table. Simple. Straightforward.

FT33 is the new Design District restaurant by tattooed wunderkind Matt McCallister. The chef-owner, who earned his stripes and ribbons on the line at Stephan Pyles and the now defunct Campo Modern Country Bistro, describes himself as “a thoughtfully progressive culinarian in the Dallas dining scene”—not exactly a bio thread that struts understatement.

Yet more often than not, FT33 does exactly that. It’s reminiscent of the classic essay “I, Pencil,” Leonard Read’s 1958 ode to the lowly writing device: “Simple. Yet not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me. Pick me up and look me over. Not much meets the eye—there’s some wood, lacquer, the printed labeling, graphite lead, a bit of metal, and an eraser.”

Read proceeds to explore the enormously complex processes it takes to bring about a pencil, the logging and milling of cedar, the mining and processing of graphite, the smelting of zinc and copper to produce brass, and the numerous vulcanizing and accelerating agents that go into “the plug,” or eraser.

The FT33 menu has a certain mundane simplicity as well, which belies its boggling underlying complexities. Case: Lamb brodo, an excruciatingly streamlined composition with Japanese white fungus, pear wedges and thin slices of serrano pepper bathed in a lamb consommé. The hot lamb broth is ceremoniously poured over the ingredients tableside from a porcelain pitcher.

As in the restaurant itself, there are stories behind these ingredients. The quest to hunt down the fluffy, bright white fungus that dominates the bowl was long and agonizing, says McCallister. He first tasted it at Tei-An in what he calls the misnamed white seaweed salad. “For literally two years I was trying to find this white seaweed,” he says. “I talked to all of the purveyors I know, and I couldn’t find it anywhere.”

No surprise. Turns out the stuff isn’t seaweed at all. It’s kikurage, a Japanese mushroom characterized by its lacy, cluster-like appearance that fluffs into a billowing snowball. The fungus is dried and must be reconstituted.

Yet perhaps the craftiest component in this simple composition is what McCallister dubs licorice pearls. They’re perfect tawny spheres tucked into the fungus folds and pockets. Their manufacture is a Jackson Pollock riff with cheeked tongue. McCallister melts licorice candy in hot water, blends it with agar-agar—a gelatin derived by boiling a polysaccharide in red algae—and fills a squirt bottle with the mixture. Then from high above, he squeezes droplets of the licorice formula into a pan of liquid nitrogen. The drops freeze into perfect pearl-like spheres that retain their shape as they thaw.

The fungus is delicately crunchy, like jellyfish. The flavors are ghostly: a vague haze of licorice, lamb, pear and pepper. There’s little salt, so you have to focus intently on the dish to pull the flavors out. But they’re there, tickling instead of pouncing.

There’s a short stack of uni and chive pancakes mated to dark green seaweed. Yin/yang arcs of bonito aioli and yuzu kosho—a fermented paste made from chili peppers, yuzu peel and salt—encircle the stack. Progress through the menu and the flavors grow in intensity. Pork jowl is triangle points of crisped tender juicy meat parked next to custard-like parsnip purée. Fermented mango puree—a perfectly rendered sperm in orange—bisects the triangle.

Given McCallister’s reputation as a kitchen hotshot with a serious liquid nitrogen habit, you might expect show-off compositions flaunting dozens of techniques and scores of exotic ingredients: “a thoughtfully progressive culinarian” brandishing a howitzer that shoots everything with star fruit, truffle oil and Himalayan salt. But FT33 is nothing like this.

“I’m not just going to throw 20 ingredients on a plate and say, ‘Hey, look, we’ve got 20 ingredients on a plate,’” he says. “Dishes are fairly simple in essence but complex in the process to produce them.” What he mostly does is isolate intrinsic flavors and deploy whatever techniques he can to wring every last drop locked in the ingredient until it’s bled dry.

Case: the carrot puree in his lamb breast and rack with a side of barley. McCallister poaches carrots in carrot juice to double down on flavor before they’re puréed. “It’s like ‘how intense can we get this?’ I’d rather just focus on maximizing the flavors, ingredient-wise.” This singular intensity carries over into plate presentation: He dribbles the purée into the shape of a carrot terminating in a sprig of parsley to denote botanical correctness. The lamb is perfectly grilled, appropriately seasoned, juicy and rich.

He sources lamb from Hodges Ranch in Sterling City in West Texas. It’s also where he harvested FT33’s interior, using wood from a rundown livery stable to clad support posts and portions of the bar. McCallister dubs the look—with metal, glass and neutral grays and beiges—industrial barnyard. Or maybe reclamation modern. Tables are wood. Coasters are clippings from discarded menus and wine lists. Even the menu/wine list typeface exhibits a modernist-industrial lilt with rustic simplicity—a design developed by Tunnel Bravo, FT33’s branding team.

You could say that the industrial barnyard motif bleeds into the kitchen, where liquid nitrogen and sous-vide cookery lock horns with crisped chicken, pancakes and burl wood serving dishes. But the theme reaches its apex with dessert.

Lemongrass panna cotta, a perfect orb tucked on one end of a pocked burl wood dish, is surrounded by bits of grapefruit. A debris field of Meyer lemon foam, frozen in liquid nitrogen and broken into feta-like crumbles, streaks out from that orb like a comet tail across the wood surface. Dots of mint meringue and white chocolate add interest.

In essence, a citrus fruit cocktail. And a pencil is just a pencil.

FT33
1617 Hi Line Drive, Ste. 250

214.741.2629
ft33dallas.com

Tue.-Thu. 6-10pm
Fri.-Sat. 6-11pm
Appetizers: $10-$18
Entrées: $26-$33
Desserts: $9

Pucker Scrunch
Great sip: Seasonal Smash, a compelling blend of lemon, honey and rye—a signature cocktail that tingles and lingers.

Shabby Shtick
When McCallister discovered a rundown livery stable at Hodges Ranch in Silver City, he and his two chefs rented a U-Haul, tore down the stable, and dragged the scrap to Dallas for FT33’s interior—dining room decor via demolition.

Hey Hay?
Industrial barnyard or not, FT33 is LOUD. Some strategically placed hay bales might make conversation easier.

Wine Slouch
Not. This is a smart, eclectic list: lots of rieslings, sauvignon blancs (a Grüner Veltliner?), Italian varietals and corvina blends, etc. These bottlings from all over the world scream food instead of label snobbery. Food pairing suggestions—Robert Foley’s Griffin Petite Syrah blend and peanut butter—make it about as intimidating as a pair of Bermuda shorts.