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Southwest Oases and Deserts
The Mansion at Turtle Creek, Clark's Bar-B-Q in Dallas, Texas
by Fred Ferretti

Once the gastronomic limits of Dallas were, by all accounts, defined by beef and barbecue and the fire of Tex-Mex. Its restaurants were often inconsistent and without focus and, except for those in hotels, largely short-lived. The herbs employed were bay leaf and thyme, and, if a cook wanted anything more exotic, requests were simply sent off to New York or California. Chefs would await the arrival of freight cars so that lettuce and bell peppers could appear on their menus and veal suppliers would give away sweetbreads as incentives for restaurants to buy their meat. Fresh fish was a rarity.

But that was then.

These days Dallas, as big and pugnacious as any city in the sunbelt — as well as richer, more acquisitive, and perhaps more eager than most to convey to outsiders that it is truly a city of the moment — is in the middle of a food revolution. It is a city of more than four thousand restaurants, where five hundred-plus open and another five hundred-plus close each year.

Nowhere rattles your head, your eyes, your stomach so much as Dallas, a freewheeling anomaly of a city, simultaneously stylish and glaring, quiet and blaring, a place filled with thrusting, imaginative architecture, yet nouveau cow town.

Its food is as big. It claims its own niche in the New American cuisine, boasts of and uses its homegrown foods and wines, and understands the enormous impact the tastes of Asia have on our food today. It loves its beef, to be sure. Just ask its folk if Del Frisco's Double Eagle serves the best steaks in America, or if there is a better bone-in ribeye than that served in Stephen Pyles Star Canyon. But Dallas is home as well to chefs whose only aim is to out-Spago Spago, if that is possible, chefs for whom food is an idea, surrounded by theory and experiment.

Not so Dean Fearing, unquestionably the best cook in America's southwest, a chef of intelligence and grace whose home is the kitchen of The Mansion at Turtle Creek, the sumptuous Italianate stucco hotel that is Dallas's beckoning gastronomic beacon.

"We are using products that have been used for years, but we have changed the perception of them, given them new identities," Fearing told me once. And so he has. The culinary accent at The Mansion at Turtle Creek is surely that of America's Southwest, with its reliance on green tomato-like tomatillos; jalapeño, serrano, and pequin chilies; turnip-like jicamas; cilantro, sage and a wild mint called marigold mint (which actually tastes more like tarragon); and rare lettuces, bell peppers, and herbs gown on nearby farms solely for the restaurant. Yet, tradition aside, the foods that proceed from Fearing's kitchen, particularly the sauces, are as new and as fresh as the moment.

"Sauces have always been my first love," Fearing says. Let it be added, however, that this chef is unquestioningly as innovative, daring, and expert a cook as many other chef working today. And somewhat of a rarity as well, for his flights of taste and his experimentation are based on knowledge, and training, not on slapdash hits and misses, as is the case with too many present-day Wunderkind.

Yellow tomato salsa, smoked chilies, pastas hot with jalapeño peppers, roasted garlic, serrano vinaigrettes, and salads of jicama emerge fro his kitchen with their essential characters intact but elevated to elements of truly fine cuisine. More traditional foods, whether from Europe or Asia or various regions of the United States, are redefined by Fearing with imagination and with taste. Crab cakes, a quintessential American dish, are made in the usual manner with eggs, mayonnaise, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, and bread crumbs, but the Gulf of Mexico crab meat is kept lumped, and the cakes are presented in a sauce of lobster stock blended with a purée of blood oranges, fresh gingerroot, smoked chilies and bell peppers, and what has become a Fearing trademark: threads of fried pasta, in this instance, black-bean pasta. The dish soars.

Occasionally Fearing will cook up a "Southwest Bouillabaisse," more a bourride, of mussels, shrimp, redfish, and red snapper cooked in a broth with locally grown vegetables — all smoked — to which Fearing adds his special "sachet bag" of peppercorns, sage, and other mixed herbs.

The imaginative corn consommé, an intense soup containing corn kernels, diced red bell peppers, black beans, and cilantro, is wonderful and at one meal provided a nice contrast to the country-fried corn (pulp scraped from the cob and then sautéed in bacon fat with onion and yellow bell peppers) that is served with rabbit rolled in a dry barbecue-spice mixture.

The food at The Mansion at Turtle Creek, at once elegant and of the earth, is the equal of its setting. The Italianate house of salmon-colored stucco, with a spired cupola and antique blue-and-white tiles, was once the Shepard King Mansion, the eclectic residence of a wealthy cotton broker and son of a Confederate general. Sitting on a gently rising bluff just outside downtown Dallas, it looks out onto Turtle Creek and the city's changing urban profile. The interior is quite ornate and luxurious, its rooms reflecting the initial King extravagance as well as the tastes and some of the excesses of the oil people who were its subsequent owners.

The mansion was bought by Caroline Hunt and opened as a restaurant in 1980. The veranda is a sun-filled dining room with doors opening out toward the bluff and handsome floors of geometrically laid Spanish tiles. The library, now part of the complex of dining rooms, is dominated by a carved stone fireplace from Germany and embellished with elaborate Swiss wood carvings as well as intricate ceiling friezes, which sit above a series of leaded stained-glass windows bearing the seals of the barons of Runnymede, all of whom witnessed the signing of the Magna Carta. The original living room, now the main dining room, is an exact reproduction of the salon of Bromley Castle in England, with a magnificent carved and inlaid wood ceiling filled with cherubs and nymphs cavorting between the beams. The "garden room" dining area is entered through doors that once provided access to a Spanish cathedral; its floors are of antique Delft tiles; and from its ceiling hangs a chandelier of bronze acanthus leaves that formerly graced the Villa Madonna in Rome. All around the 145 seat restaurant are pieces of rose crystal and English silver from Caroline Hunt's personal collection, and mounted on the walls of the main dining room is an entire service of blue-and-white French porcelain, from saucers to chargers, made especially for her wedding. The many pieces of Chinese celadon and porcelain scattered about the rooms seem like gilding upon the lily.

The main dining room is an exhilarating place in which to spend a few hours, and the food seems never to falter. Fearing, a native of Ashland, Kentucky, and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, was saucier and then executive sous-chef of the Mansion on Turtle Creek when it opened. He then left to work in several other Dallas restaurants before returning as executive.

The menu contains a marvelous tortilla soup of chicken stock into which go puréed onions and tomatoes, cumin and chilies, garlic and tortillas and cayenne. When served it is garnished with shredded chicken breast, avocado cubes, grated Cheddar, and strips of fried corn tortillas. The soup is a delight, as is Fearing's "Texas Barbecued Onion Soup," a beef and chicken stock base with sautéed onions, croutons, and melted jalapeño-laced Monterey Jack. His "hashbrowns," which are in reality julienne strips of jicama mixed with egg, garlic, lime juice, and cilantro before hitting the griddle, are also awfully good.

Smoked quail and fresh sweetbreads, grilled crisp, are served in a fan of radicchio drizzled with a warm sauce of quail stock, Champagne vinegar, Dijon mustard, shallots, and honey. Fearing's sauces are masterpieces of compatibility. He recalls that early in his career he was asked if he wanted to be a great chef. Not right away, he answered. He wished first to be a great saucier. That he achieved. "It took me more than five years to become a chef," he says, knowing that he is indeed good, one of his country's best. If his cooking were to be judged by the palates of Michelin, I do not doubt that it would be characterized as "une des meilleures tables, vaut le voyage." In Dallas they say merely, "That Dean's good!"

And he knows barbecue as well. One afternoon Fearing led us north from Dallas about fifty miles to a patch of Texas horse country called Tioga. "We're going to meet Warren and Nancy Clark," he said. "Best barbecue there is." First, however, there were to be stops at two horse ranches, or farms, as they are referred to in the environs of Tioga. We drove initially to Valor Farms, the retirement home of Alysheba — Kentucky Derby winner and "Horse of the Year" in 1988 — a four hundred-acre sprawl of house, barn, meadow, and racing ovals. "It's testimony to what digging the deepest oil well in Texas will do for you," said Warren Clark, who met us at Valor and walked us through the luxurious barns where, he said, "There are five stallions in residence, thank you."

From there we drove a short distance to the McQuay Stables, home to perhaps the world's most famous quarter horse, Hollywood Dun It, an eleven-year-old who has sired more than ninety colts and won a quarter of a million dollars in the last two years. We watched his owner, Tim McQuay, run him through paces, studied gallops, stops, turns, and wheels demonstrating the precision that makes him the finest of all quarter horses.

"Seen enough?" asked Warren.

"I think so," responded his wife Nancy.

"Good. Let's eat," said Warren. "Maybe a little pop too. I'm thirsty."

We followed the Clarks a few miles along a blacktop prairie road, Highway 377, turned into Gene Autry Drive, and there was Warren and Nancy's restaurant, — Clark's Bar-B-Q" according to Warren — a structure of weathered boards supporting a shed roof. On its walls, between advertisements urging me to buy shares in Arabian stallions and notices advising that in Clark's "Shirt and Shoes Are Necessary," were beer signs for various regional brands such as Shiner and Pecan Street from Austin, Negra Modelo from San Antonio, and Rattlesnake Premium form across the border in Oklahoma, all of which Warren insisted we taste. "Hungry?" he asked.

We nodded. He yelled into the kitchen, and out came platters of deep-fried quail legs, whole trout that had been smoked over alder wood, and pork tamales together with bowls of Clark's sauces and spiced oils. We sat at the restaurant's copper-topped bar eating and drinking until Warren took us on a tour around his Bar-B-Q. "That's Gene Autry," he said, pointing to an oil portrait. "Next to him's Frank Merrill. He's a cowboy now. Used to be the face on the Gerber baby food jars. Isn't that something? True. Over there's our mural. Recognize anybody?" The wall painting depicted a group of cowboys around a chuck wagon, and the faces of three were Dean Fearing, his Dallas colleague Stephan Pyles, and, from Houston, chef Robert Del Grande. The tour concluded with a visit to "Kathy's Corner," where Kathy Leverett was baking apple crumb, chocolate meringue, and coconut cream pies. "About sixty a day," Warren said. "Tour's over. Time to eat."

"What have we been doing?" I asked.

"I mean really eat," he replied.

He led us to a plank table in front of the bar and set before us platters of smoked pork ribs, crusted deep brown from roasting and glistening with their rubbing of "Clark's Ole' #8." There was amber-colored breast of turkey smoked for twenty-four hours and briskets of beef roasted crisp on the outside after being smoked for fifty-two hours, "till they're like butter," said Clark. They were. "You Easterners would make pastrami from this. Ridiculous!" said Clark.

We ate slices of barbecued chicken, grilled links of spiced pork sausage, pots of stewed red beans, and black-eyed peas cooked with jalapeño peppers. We drank from bottles of Rattlesnake Premium until our interior limits were being taxed (mine at least).

"Enough?" asked Nancy.

Absolutely.

"Room for Kathy's pies?"

No.

"Yes," countered Nancy, and in came wedges and mugs of coffee.

"Good?"

"Incredible," I replied. "Especially the apple with the crumbs."

"All of you Eastern people say that," said Dean Fearing.

"Of course we're on the way to our picnic. Be patient," Greg Jackson said over his shoulder from the front seat of his Jeep as we bounced up a rutted mountain path. "We'll be there soon. I just want to make a stop or two." Greg braked and we climbed out. He bent over the dusty, dry, and cracked earth to pull some leaves from a small gray-green bush growing among some rocks.

"These will make nice tea," he said. "Always have. What it was called depended upon who you were. Some people knew it as 'Mormon tea.' The men who worked the rocks called it 'miners tea.' The Indians, they called it 'squaw tea.' This was Cahuilla Indian country, you know. It still is, much of it."

It was a bright and cloudless day, dry and hot, and we were a half mile up in that sky, over two thousand feet up, Greg said, in the Santa Rosa Mountains above the flat floor of the irrigated desert of Palm Springs. Greg Jackson is a guide for Desert Adventure Wilderness Trips, an expert on the foods and plants of the desert and its hills, and he had driven us up into the mountains along a rock-strewn road wide enough only for the Jeep into which we were buckled. We would arrive at our picnic soon enough, he said, but first he wanted to tell us about his mountains and the desert he knew so well.

"This we call 'teddy bear' cholla," he said, pointing to a small and bulbous spiny cactus plant. "You eat its buds and flowers. They taste like Brussel sprouts. True. And this is wild buckwheat. This is piñon, pine. Its nuts are piñones. You know piñones, of course."

We stood with Greg, looking down and out at the grids of the communities of the Coachella Valley — Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta, and others — then up from the desert at the Santa Rosa Mountains beyond. Back on the flats below, streets and boulevards named for Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, and Gene Autry were from this height mere white lines in the green of the watered desert. Palm Springs was breathtaking from this perspective, more so because of the context of the trail up the mountain, through terrain preserved and unbuilt upon, uninhabited except by the bobcats and mule deer, the coyotes and bighorn sheep that come out at night. During the day red-tailed hawks and golden eagles soar with the air currents among the hills.

It was a glorious place in the sun. Greg pointed out desert apricots, which the Cahuillas would mash and bake over wood fires into flatbreads; and desert mistletoe. "The berries are delicious," he said. "and what the Indians didn't eat they used to dye their baskets." The baskets? "They were kept together with this." Greg pointed to a large standing cactus. "That's Mojave yucca. Its pulp is a strong string."

He showed us bleached incienso plants, the sap of which was used by the Cahuillas for incense, and the creosote bushes that provided an internal medicine. "And this is jojoba," Greg said. "It is still used in cosmetics. This is the indigo bush. It's dull now, but when the rains come it sprouts iridescent blue flowers within a few minutes."

Back into the Jeep we went and farther up into the mountains we jounced until we came to a small wood cabin, built into an outcropping of rock, with a small veranda that juts out over more than a thousand feet of air, with rocks far below. We were up twenty-five hundred feet, and it was picnic time.

We sat on that tiny porch, its support beams partially shading us, and drank Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs '81, and just like that the sun seemed less severe. Chilled gazpacho studded with avocado, and plates of cold poached salmon, breast of duck, and prosciutto with slices of iced melon, all with a fine Far Niente Chardonnay, eased the heat still further up there in the mountains high over Palm Springs and its desert.

Ah, wilderness!

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