If you ask a random Dallasite to name the best local restaurant, the answer might well be The Mansion on Turtle Creek at the Rosewood Hotel. Ask that same person when they last ate at the 30-year-old Dallas icon, however, and you just might elicit a long pause. This trend -- loving the pricey, famed restaurant but not visiting it -- has been changing recently thanks to a full renovation, the addition of a garden created by local green wizard Tom Spicer and the hiring of a Michelin-starred chef Bruno Davaillon in late 2009. Today, The Mansion is enjoying a resurgence of sorts even in this terrible economy, as a younger crowd is seen hobnobbing with long-time patrons -- and for good reasons: Diners seeking an evening of fine eating are treated to the freshest food that Davaillon can offer while the tasting menu boasts a variety and value that rivals any local fine-dining restaurant.
"We are seeing a younger crowd in the restaurant, and certainly the tasting menu has much to do with it. We also offer a weekly wine chat each Thursday with [beverage director] Michael Flynn," Davaillon says.
The weekly wine chat provides a relaxed, informative atmosphere free of pretension, guiding guests through various wines and educating the next generation of Mansion diners. The directors of the Mansion seem to have figured out how to draw customers, and Davaillon is blazing a trail quietly and with great distinction.
On first meeting him, Davaillon seems to be reserved and extremely proud Frenchman, but chat with a chef a few moments and he opens up, filling with animation as he discusses what he does best as master of the kitchen. At a time when many chefs are discovering the beauty and bounty of fresh, local ingredients, Davaillon simply reaches back to his childhood in the Loire Valley, where he was raised enjoying the freshest eggs and dairy, seasonal produce and natural meats from his family's farm.
"Our garden was very large, and we had access to most anything we needed," Davaillon recalls. "I started cooking alongside my aunt at a very early age, and all these things were just natural to us."
Davaillon was 14 when he realized his passion for cooking would lead to something greater. As a young man, he attended classes at Chateauroux Culinary School in France and was soon an apprentice at La Ligne in Tours, the beautiful capital of the Indre-et-Loire Department in central France.
"After I graduated from Chateauroux, I stayed on at La Ligne as first line cook but later moved to London, where I worked for Tante Clair as lead line, and devloped my pastry skills back in France at Domaine de Belmont and Chateau de Locguenole," Davaillon says. Tante Calir was a Michelin three-star French restaurant and at the time was considered the best restaurant in London.
Davaillon spent eight more years in France as sous chef before making his trek to the United States, where he was personal chef to the Central African Republics ambassador to the U.N., who just happened to be a Nigerian-born billionaire -- a real one, not an Internet fantasy. It wasn't a bad gig for a young chef who found himself traveling the globe to cook at his boss' whims.
"Sometimes I would be called to the south of France, where I would cook for the family sometimes for a month. It was a great experience, and I could write a book about those few years," Davaillon says.
He could write about those years, but we bet he doesn't. He was tight-lipped when pressed for details.
Eventually the chef moved on to an executive position in San Francisco at Beau Coup, the beautiful see-and-be-seen Nob Hill restaurant, which is now closed. At Beau Coup, Davaillon met famed chef Alain Ducasse, who was overseeing Mix, the restaurant on the 65th floor of swanky Las Vegas hotel Mandalay Bay. Davaillon took the position of executive chef at Mix, and there he seemed reach back to his past, unearthing simple layers of flavor in his cuisine.
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"The cuisine at Mix was clear and sharp with flavors from France and Monte Carlo. We were able to get incredible produce and most anything we desired in the desert. I was able to be more creative and create a great team," Davaillon says of his experience at Mix.
From his humble farm beginnings and across the world serving presidents and happy diners alike, Davaillon honed his skills. In 2009 he was recruited by Rosewood to fill the seat at the Mansion, left vacant for a year after the departure of John Tesar, whom we profiled earlier this month. Supported with a $20 million kitchen renovation and a positive outlook on tackling the Dallas dining market, which can be heavy with beefeaters, Davaillon brought his simple approach to high cusine. While the Mansion is celebrating its 30th anniversary, the new Dallas chef has endeared diners in Dallas with his simple, whimsical creations.
"What makes a 5-star restaurant is simply coming ready for work each day. Being consistent and thoughtful to the cuisine. You can never rest," the chef says.
Tomorrow we ask the chef a few questions about his musical taste and favorite dishes, and he suprises us with his favorite sport. Check back Friday for a dish currently served at the Mansion that you will find suprisingly simple and fresh to make at home.