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Making A Name

What is it that makes a chef great? If we allow that anyone (almost) can buy a fresh ahi tuna steak, sear it and toss on a few grains of sea salt, is it really a matter of a kitchen preparing good ingredients with requisite skill? Or is it something more?

The topic came to mind during a weekend dinner at The Mansion, where Bruno Davaillon's new menu is edging ever so slowly into place.

As you probably recall, Davaillon's appointment as executive chef at Dallas' fine dining icon made him either an instant celebrity or a threat to the restaurant's for-some-reason-famous tortilla soup.

No worries for now--the Michelin-starred chef from France via Las Vegas has yet to dismiss Dean Fearing's signature dish.

Aside from his almost whimsical yet brilliant take on the classic shrimp cocktail, Davaillon's kitchen as it stands now just turns out meat and sides prepared with considerable skill. Why should that cause me to raise the greatness question? Well, there are several chefs in Dallas who--if handed the same ingredients--would do likewise. And there's a difference between four individual items on one plate, each teased to a point as near to absolute perfection as is humanly possible and four items on a plate also cooked with superb skill that act in concert, so he whole becomes greater than the parts.

Not meaning to pick on Davaillon, as he's still saddled to some of the restaurant's tradition. Quite probably he has some surprises in store for us. It was just The Mansion's rack of lamb that brought the topic to mind. The meat was gorgeous. The kale intensely fresh and the grits gratin perhaps the best expression of cheese grits served anywhere. Yet they were stand alones on one plate--only the American point of origin (Colorado lamb, Texas greens and good ol' Southern grits) tying them together.

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This isn't bad, it just illustrates the question: do we pay Mansion prices for dishes we could also find at other top restaurants? Or should we expect more of an experience?

Once I dined at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant just after it opened (and before it earned him another Michelin star). The chef--it wasn't the F-word man himself--served pork belly on a celeraic puree, two plebeian items acting in concert. The puree was critical, for it acted like a fine wine, with enough acidity to cut through the fat, yet dressed so that it pulled out character held deep within the pork. A few years ago I was at a rather expensive restaurant that served a multi-course tasting menu with palate cleansing plates between each, amounting to a 12-course, three hour meal. This could have been dreadful, but for the way they orchestrated the experience: building to bold flavors, calming you down, drifting in a straight line for awhile then throwing you into an unexpected corner, stretching your palate then bringing it back down to earth...

You were paying for the thought, the creativity, the play of texture from one course to the next, as well as the skill.

Funny thing, though: I don't remember either chef's name.

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