Old Dog, New Tricks

A new regime brings changes to the Mansion, some good, some not.

Jacket required. Tie recommended. No jeans. No shorts. No tennis shoes. The Mansion is not casual, not even the smart kind.

But what's this? "Y'all look at these at y'all's convenience. Is this y'all's first debut with our new chef?" The waiter is passing out menus.

There's been lots of ink spilled over the Mansion's recent tectonic trembles: the departure of über chef Dean Fearing; the arrival of new chef John Tesar; the jettisoning of Southwestern cuisine; the arrival of a Tesar species called "stylish, contemporary American cuisine prepared with European techniques."

New chef John Tesar of the Mansion eschews bells and whistles in his dishes.
New chef John Tesar of the Mansion eschews bells and whistles in his dishes.

And so on.

Yet Southwestern residue remains, maybe stubbornly, like old shoes too comfortable for the trash heap. Tortilla soup and lobster tacos are designated classics and tucked between "salads" and "mains." They haven't changed a bit. Just as before, the tortilla soup looks like a bowl of molten rust. Just as before, it's like hot, sweaty satin in the mouth. Just as before, there's the cheddar and the avocado and the shots of lime. Lurking below is a swarm of chicken clods so succulent you wonder how so much chicken can exist in a soup so hot without mutating into knots of sackcloth (the chicken is quickly boiled, skin-on, and steeped before each bowl is prepped to order).

So what to make of Tesar? Fearing was a known entity, a larger-than-life cowboy-booted kitchen hawk whose drawling exuberance and ingenious sauciér flourishes of fruit, spice and vegetable formed the core of the Mansion's sensory theater.

A native New Yorker and a onetime personal chef for Giorgio Armani and Mariah Carey, Tesar is none of this. He's an inspired surgical technician devoted to unraveling a piece of fish or a baby carrot or a duck breast until he teases out its innate coherence. He then translates this for other mouths. "I'm really not a big student of the contrived chemistry," he says. "When you go past the fourth ingredient, I want to know why. It's got to have some purpose."

It's hard to impress with simplicity, Tesar says. The risks are huge. There are no bells and whistles to wow or technical flourishes to dazzle. In life, he prefers to focus on the sweetness and sourness. He approaches his food the same way.

"Some people don't get me right away," he says. Consider me one of those. I don't get why Tesar pan-roasts his prime bone-in rib eye. I don't understand why the sliced lamb loin is so brutalized with pepper, nor why it is served cold. I don't grasp why the duck "three ways" has two clumsy hunks of duck meat on the plate and four glazed carrots that are shriveled, desiccated and cold.

But that's not important now. What is important is the crab "scampi style." This is the dish that defines Tesar, the composition that best expresses what he is after. So let's use it as a benchmark. Six ounces of king crab leg meat is torn from the shell in ropes. Speckled with parsley, the ropes are placed in a small puddle of Riesling butter sauce with touches of garlic and shallot. The butter is restrained, allowing the Riesling to creep near the forefront. This sets up a fascinating interplay because Tesar uses a dry German Riesling, one with focused minerality and torrents of fruity acid. Instead of going toe to toe with the crab's sweet buttery richness, he instead seems to be targeting sea floor muck.

"That crab ate a lot of food and traveled a lot of miles, and there's really nothing more that I can do to that crab except warm it up and just put a little butter on it," he says. Hence, a slight bitterness kisses the front of the mouth before the butter slides the crab's rich sweetness across the palate. Then the acids clear away a little of that and the sensation becomes almost floral. All of this is framed in a steely mineral component that is strong in the wine but subtler in the crab. Hence the complex flavors of the crab instantly become understandable.

This is a laser beam of a dish, and it is among the closest brushes with perfection I can remember. It is visceral. It has gobs of charisma.

Tesar says the clearest sign of success for him is if his compositions unleash the mouth waters. This "scampi" does. So does the foie gras, composed as another duck three-way. There is a perfectly seared lobe in huckleberry gastric and apple sauce topped with macadamia debris and stabbed through the heart with a vanilla bean. There is supple foie gras ravioli with wilted Swiss chard. There is foie gras crème brûlée, so creamy and arousing that eating it is like suckling a spurt of nourishing, sordid breast milk.

But the waters slowly dry as we continue.

Here is the description for the baby turbot, a species fished out of the waters near Chile: pan-roasted and served on a bed of gnocchi, fava beans, leeks and mustard greens. Sounds compelling, doesn't it? The bed I mean. That's why I found myself eagerly feasting on the gnocchi and fava bean and leek undergarment and almost ignoring the fish. It's delicate and slightly dry with vague hints of sweet. There is nothing particularly wrong here, but the mouth doesn't flood either. It needed some mechanism to translate its elusive subtlety so it has some meaning on the tongue.

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