44 Bootlegger, 1411 W Magnolia Av, FW. 817-887-9089. Sun-Mon closed, 5pm-11pm Tue-Thu, 5pm-midnight. Fri-Sat.
If you’re the sort of rough beast who prefers your sea scallops flash-frozen and stored in a 5-pound Sysco bag for some indeterminate length of time before they’re plopped by the handful into a trough of cream sauce, you’re not likely to find anything compelling about 44 Bootlegger. You’ll think the portions are stingy, and the delicate flavors will confound what’s left of your palate — it would be best to stop reading this article now and slouch off to someplace where nuance and subtlety find no purchase.
If, on the other hand, you’re of an optimistic and adventurous bent, if you comb the otherwise bleak news cycle looking for glimmers of passion and competency, and if you hold with conviction the (lately unfashionable) belief that precision, expertise, and beauty are the values that make our short and brutish lives worthwhile, you may well find the tiny kitchen of 44 Bootlegger to be a repository of treasures and nourishments bright enough to lift even the most beleaguered spirits.
The wine bar-turned-bistro isn’t the flashiest of West Magnolia Avenue’s hip crop of eateries, but the modest location next to Jim’s Lock and Safe has nurtured a loyal following thanks to its casual charm and excellent selection of adult beverages. The opening of the kitchen under the adroit steerage of Chef Jaime Fernandez is sure to secure a reputation for character and quality.
The menu is small and quick to change, reflecting seasonal ingredients and the interests of the chef, whose classical training has been augmented by time spent working in Spain. Though not a regionally specific restaurant in any formal sense — French dishes are frequently infused with Iberian flourishes — the emphasis on the freshest ingredients and exacting technique results in offerings that feel at once exotic and perfectly at home.
The salad of heirloom tomatoes was deceptively simple. The jeweled halves of purple, yellow, and red orbs tasted of summer sunlight in the kind of backyard garden you always wanted to have. A faint drizzle of balsamic vinegar, swirled through a tarragon crème fraiche, only accentuated the beauty of the vine-ripe fruits.
The endive salad wasn’t, exactly — crisp bib lettuce and blanched asparagus spears stood in for the advertised lead and its supporting watercress. If you find yourself in such a situation, take heart, because you’re in good hands. It didn’t take more than a bite each for my guest and me to completely forget about whatever had happened to be printed on the menu and lose ourselves in the dance of splayed greenery dressed with roasted walnuts, bleu cheese, and apricot vinaigrette.
My guest enjoyed one of the kitchen’s “small plates” — more perfectly blanched asparagus spears punctuated with golden julienne of carrots, dressed with an elegant sauce gribiche. I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw gribiche on a stateside menu. The sauce of hard-boiled eggs, mayonnaise, and capers doesn’t lend itself to the mass preparation of larger kitchens, and the traditional variants are too heavy and eggy for contemporary tastes. But 44’s kitchen served its gribiche as the lightest and most delicate of condiments — slivered egg whites, tender to the touch, dressed only with red wine vinegar, a few capers, and a chiffonade of herbs.
And what of the scallops? It’s no exaggeration to tell you that the three perfectly sweet, tender mollusks that arrived, crusted golden brown in a render of lardon, perched on a puree of butternut squash bejeweled with smoky dollops of roasted red pepper, made for one of the most sublime dining experiences I’ve had the pleasure to review.
Chef Fernandez’ menu is portioned, paced, and priced to make the ordering of dessert seem like an absolutely reasonable idea, particularly when the day’s offerings are a simple pear poached in red wine and served on a slice of buttery soft cheese, and an apricot and cherry galette — a small golden pasty adorned with a splash of whipped cream. The chef doesn’t short-change the final course of his expertise.
From the standpoint of a critic, 44 Bootlegger is the sort of eatery that makes one feel fortunate to be covering Cowtown (as opposed to our larger neighbor to the east), as the place is indicative of the opportunities skilled young chefs have here to pursue their passion and delight their clientele without a lot of big-dollar backing. It’s hard to imagine anything as unpretentious, or as interesting, opening in Dallas with any hope of surviving. In an era of good news for Fort Worth’s culinary scene, 44 Bootlegger deserves a spot on the front page.
Heirloom tomato salad $10
Endive salad $15
Poached pears $8
Apricot galette $8